Howie Khan via CQ
These days everyone in Detroit is talking like an urban planner. You can’t spend even a day driving through the city and not think in terms of land use, redevelopment, and urban identity. Entire neighborhoods, people gone and houses razed, are on their way to becoming prairies. The neo-Gothic shell of Cass Tech High School, fifteen emptied Art Deco floors of the Lee Plaza Hotel, the four remaining towers of the vacant Brewster Projects, hulked up identically off the interstate like broken soldiers locked in a standoff—they’re all coming down. The question becomes: What do we do with all this space?
The loudest answers thus far have come from artists and farmers who have moved to the city, those well-meaning ecocrats and conceptualists whose beliefs are rooted in the transformative power of installation art and organic kale. Buy a house for a hundred bucks, paint it outrageously (sherbet hues, polka dots) to make a statement, and repeat until a block becomes an MFA thesis, complete with its own sustainable food system. Which is all good in terms of psychic energy and creativity, but it doesn’t exactly qualify as a strategy for turning things around. Still, in Detroit, it’s worth looking for good ideas everywhere—starting with the most basic resource of the city’s 139 square miles. “Land itself has a value,” says Mayor Bing. “We’ve got to figure out how to maximize and get a return on the land.”
No other city of Detroit’s magnitude has the opportunity to begin again. Starting over now? It’s not exactly the kind of thing we do in America’s cities. We don’t go backward, we don’t clear-cut, we don’t shift toward empty to become full again. What happens next is really the great urban experiment of our time. How the city will be remade, and whether it really can be, will polarize. Planning wonks and architects, landscapers and CEOs, residents and visitors, even people who have never been to the city, all seem to be watching, harboring opinions and dream scenarios like kids playing with Legos.
At this point, only a few things are clear: The physical boundaries of the city will not shrink. Detroit will not become one big farm. Residents of certain neighborhoods will be incentivized to move. But precisely nothing can happen here unless the blight goes first. The city has $111 million in federal grant money to spend on cleaning things up. Thousands of Detroiters attended town-hall meetings in September and January with the mayor, his development executive, Karla Henderson, and his buildings and safety chief, Kimberly James, to discuss, with voices raised, what their city will become.
Master plans are being drawn up under a Rooseveltian rubric, the Detroit Works Project, which includes a $25 million light-rail system, an ambitious proposal for turning empty spaces into recreational greenways, and a focus on attracting sustainable industries. Completed plans are expected to be revealed in December. By then a dent should be made in Detroit’s inventory of at least 10,000 dangerous buildings that need to go down, and perhaps some of the 70,000 vacancies could be rehabilitated, revitalized, and sold. “There’s been a lot of administrations prior to this one that talked about demolitions,” says Bing. “Everybody set these high goals but never achieved them. I wanted to be realistic in my approach. My problem is that I’m not that patient.”
To the Shermans, to Lorenzo and Mike and Otis, the exact numbers don’t matter. Three thousand houses down now? Ten thousand houses by 2014? Seventy thousand empty homes? To them, that’s just political posturing. Building by building, it all needs to go. Whatever the count, they’re more than happy to help Bing meet his goals. After the mayor’s speech last year, Mike Farrow was determined to do his part to hit the 3,000-house target by December 31. “If they want me wrecking those last few houses at midnight on New Year’s Eve,” he told me last summer, “I’ll be out there dropping those motherfuckers like the ball.”
Can demolishing ten thousand empty buildings bring people and industry back to Detroit? Is it enough to clear? Don’t we need to build density, so servcies can be affordable, and the city can be a safe place?