Retooling the Motor City: Can Detroit save itself?

A retooling plan for Detroit – involving controversial razing, shrinking, and repurposing – is under way as the Motor City tries to save itself.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted July 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm EDT

Detroit – For Dewayne Hurling, the American dream can only happen in Detroit.

Three years ago, the tow-truck driver purchased a vacant six-bedroom, 1928 mansion in the city’s historical Boston-Edison neighborhood, where Henry Ford once lived. He bought it for less than $200,000, and for Mr. Hurling, life is good: Each of his six children has their own spacious bedroom, the grand staircase features custom-made woodwork illumined by a handcrafted chandelier, the third floor is an elaborate home theater, and the carriage house is now his immaculately detailed “man cave” that allows him to spend down time with his dog.

Raking leaves on his front lawn with his children, Hurling says his new neighborhood reminds him of the well-kept, close-knit Detroit neighborhood he grew up in, and which he says now has deteriorated so badly that “it looks like Beirut,” pocked with empty lots and damaged by crime. Like-minded young parents who are rediscovering stately manors that need families to bring them back to life are slowly gentrifying his new neighborhood, where he feels he finally has a safe home for his children.

“I’ll never move out of this city [because] there’s still neighborhoods like this,” he says.

To outsiders, Detroit remains the stereotype of urban America gone wrong. Over the past half century, an exodus of manufacturing jobs, racial unrest, institutionalized corruption, inadequate schools, and government teetering on bankruptcy have racked the city.

But today, the city is at a tipping point: The 2010 Census shows Detroit’s population at 713,777, about a 25 percent drop over the past decade, and half what it was in the 1950s. The shrinking tax base looks ominous: A $200 million municipal budget deficit is projected to balloon to $1.2 billion by 2015 unless the city council agrees to deep job and service cuts.

“This is our moment,” says Mayor Dave Bing, a onetime point guard for the Detroit Pistons who, before entering politics, built a successful steel company supplying the automotive industry. “We’re not going to be at 2 million population again,” he admits, noting that explosive growth in population is not so much his priority as is being “as good as what you can be with what you’ve got.”

And what Detroit has, in spades, is land – and a vibrant core of residents, new as well as die-hards, who see opportunity in the ruins.

Large swaths of this city look like a ghost town. Blight, resulting from abandoned homes and shuttered factories, is everywhere. Dead zones detach rather than connect neighborhoods from each other, creating a patchwork that the city says makes it too expensive to service. So the mayor has an idea: Draw residents out of marginally populated areas through direct and indirect incentives into a close-knit population core. By razing and repurposing what is left behind, the city might reduce its geographic size and save money by not having to service such far-flung neighborhoods.

Such a grand scheme is controversial. But those looking on the bright side see possibilities. For starters, Detroit’s population is not necessarily in a complete free fall. Downtown Detroit appears to be a growing magnet for the college-educated, under-35 set, which has grown noticeably in the past decade. And white flight seems to be on pause: While Detroit’s white population dropped 44 percent overall in the past decade, according to the US Census Bureau, recent year-to-year population data show upticks. Detroit’s white population increased 8 percent in 2008 and 13 percent in 2009, the first such increases in nearly six decades. And vibrant neighborhoods such as Hurling’s are experiencing double-digit population growth.

Much of the progress is homemade, by residents themselves who are actively taking part in improving their neighborhoods.

“You can see the chipping away at the negative mind-set that existed,” says Geoff Gowman, who, as a Detroit native, has the long view of the city’s trajectory. He has spent the past 30 years protecting – and renovating – a faded Art Deco movie theater as a focal point for his East Side neighborhood and credits the new mayor’s “class and integrity” for creating “a whole different ballgame” in Detroit.


But the political cost of reimagining Detroit is significant, especially with the city already on the brink of bankruptcy and no clear solution agreed upon.

What to cut and for how much has Mr. Bing at odds with the city council as well as Detroit’s entrenched labor unions – and there’s no end to the finger-pointing about who’s to blame for the city’s financial turmoil and who bears the most responsibility for making things right.

Some see Detroit’s failures as the nation’s burden, considering how much the city’s automotive past helped generate prosperity elsewhere. In April, City Councilwoman JoAnne Watson called for a $1 billion federal bailout, saying Detroit was “worth at least as much as General Motors or Chrysler or the Wall Street bankers.”

Bing wants the city’s 48 unions to concede to job and benefit cuts, threatening that if the city does not gain control of its finances it may lose the right to determine them. Michigan‘s governor has the power to dispatch an emergency financial manager who is enabled to hire and fire employees, void union contracts, and make changes without the approval of the mayor or city council. There are vivid precedents: former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) appointed a manager to take over the towns of Pontiac, Ecorse, and Benton Harbor. The current Republican governor, Rick Snyder, did the same for Detroit’s public school system this year. [Editor’s note: This paragraph was corrected to credit Governor Granholm with the town manager appointments.]

“It’s more than a threat,” Bing says of the state takeover. Last year the city paid $191 million in health care to union employees and retirees and $200 million in pension payouts, both of which Bing says are “unsustainable.”

Unions balk when Bing brings up the possibility of a state takeover, saying they’ve made concessions in the past and that the city’s budget shortfall is not their responsibility. “My attitude is, I’d rather have a fight with an outsider imposed on us from outside Detroit rather than being nickel-and-dimed” by the city, says Michael Mulholland, the secretary-treasurer of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 207.

No matter how the budget issues are resolved, the census figures are forcing city leaders to realize that something must be done to address the stark imbalance of its footprint versus its current density. Detroit was designed to accommodate 2.5 million people, three times its population today. As for sheer land size, Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston all could fit comfortably within the 139 square miles inside its borders.

Yet in those dense urban areas where extra land can be an asset, in Detroit it represents a liability.

Bing believes that the city’s rebirth is only possible if residents choose to live closer together in neighborhoods central to downtown.


The central controversy in an act of such social engineering is the sense of coercion or even racial prejudice, because many of the marginal neighborhoods that would be eliminated are black. But convincing residents that denser neighborhoods are better relies on this financial certainty: If you live in a thinly populated neighborhood, your trash will pile up for two weeks instead of one before being collected, your streets will be low on the list for repair, and emergency response calls will take longer than in more dense neighborhoods where police and fire stations are around the corner.

Bing created the Detroit Works Project to puzzle through a long-term plan that will eliminate blight, consolidate city services, and create incentives for residents to move closer to downtown. Similar urban renewal endeavors have helped turn around the ailing economies of Youngstown, Ohio, and Saginaw, Mich. But Detroit is the largest city in the United States to contemplate such a dramatic restructuring.

Through a series of public meetings that started last fall, Bing and other city officials have stressed that no final decisions have been made. But in interviews, Bing makes it clear that “I have to be brutally honest….” Whatever the outcome, he says, there are “a lot of hard decisions that need to be made. We’ve got limited resources yet we’ve got demands from our citizens for services like never before, and we can’t afford to do it.”

Besides committing to demolishing more than 10,000 blighted homes through 2013, the Detroit Works Project is tasked with prioritizing city services according to the population of the area, proposing new uses for dead zones, such as creating urban forests or farms, and completing a light rail project that will connect neighborhoods.

The final plan is not expected until 2012, after being pushed back several times this year. And the delay in direction has allowed public misperception and suspicion to incubate.

Some longtime residents like Carl Allison, a former corporate fundraiser who now operates his own handcrafted candle company, are nervous about the possibility that residents may be pressured to relocate to shore up city resources. “To me, it almost seems like we’re giving up. I would like to take creative minds and build the city back up rather than shrink it. It seems like it’s the wrong message,” Mr. Allison says.

Unions are especially upset, saying that the city should be seeking federal aid to invest in depressed areas of the city instead of encouraging a cutback in services, which would mean job and benefit losses.

Mr. Mulholland of AFSCME Local 207, which represents about 900 city workers in Detroit, calls the Detroit Works Project proposals “nonsensical” and “racist” because he says the majority of people who would be invited to move are black. “The problem is [the city doesn’t] fear us anymore and they can do anything they want,” he says.

Even with the backlash, starting the conversation on what to do with Detroit’s landmass is worth the risk, says Paul Fontaine, an instructor at the University of Michigan‘s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in nearby Ann Arbor. Because Detroit lost so many people during the past decade, it has no other choice but to experiment, he says: “I can’t think of any city in North America that lost more than 200,000 people in one decade. I think that statistic alone places Detroit in its own category of challenges [and] makes the scope of the Detroit Works Project so large and so important because so many eyes are on it.”


Detroit pride is palpable here and for good reason: Entrepreneurial innovation is Detroit’s true legacy. From these streets came the workers who were the underpinnings of the US as an economic and military superpower – turning out not just automobiles but World War II bombers. And they also brought entirely new trends to world culture: Think Berry Gordy, who invented the massive studio sound of Motown right in his living room, and rapper Eminem and guitarist Jack White.

“You really have the freedom to do what you want here. If you want to change something about the city, you can,” says Stephen Nawara, a musician and founder of Beehive Recording Co., an independent record label that specializes in developing local talent online.

A new influx of artists to Detroit has created “the most fertile art community in America,” says Mr. Nawara, who operates his studio out of a rented turn-of-the-century mansion in Woodbridge, near downtown. He says he wants to help reestablish Detroit’s identity as a world-class music incubator, just like it was during the heyday of Motown.

“I see such strength here. The automotive industry left everyone jobless. So the attitude now is ‘let’s do something we can do on our own.’ And I think music and art is a part of that,” he says.

Entrepreneurs can be found popping up in pockets throughout Detroit due to affordable rent, ample space, and a growing community of hungry young business and creative types who see the city’s downturn as an opportunity to take risks they couldn’t afford in other large metropolitan areas.

For it to succeed, Detroit needs to rebrand itself as a place that nurtures creativity, says Eric Ryan, a native who relocated to San Francisco several years ago to launch Method Products, a start-up company that specializes in boutique cleaning products. Speaking to a conference on entrepreneurship held in Detroit in March, Mr. Ryan said he believes Detroit is now at a point where it can feed off its unique energy as an underdog to spark invention.

“Weird changes the world, and Detroit could see a little more of weird in terms of creative ideas,” he said.

Entrepreneurship is generating growth in some neighborhoods close to downtown. In Nawara’s Woodbridge, the total population grew 13 percent in 2009 compared with that in 2000. Similarly, the population of Near East Riverfront, where Kelli Kavanaugh opened a bicycle shop in 2008, grew 13 percent during the same period.

Ms. Kavanaugh says she and her business partner chose to open Wheelhouse Detroit along the Detroit River because they saw more businesses thriving in the area where ample green space was attracting people interested in recreational activities. One sign she was right: In 2007, 600 people signed up for the first year of the Tour de Troit, the city’s largest annual bike ride. By 2010, participation tallied 3,200.

Still, she and her partner are holding onto their full-time jobs until they’re certain the business is here to stay.

“Owning a business in Detroit is something you have to really want to do,” she says. One advantage, she says, is “the strong sense of community” among the people who choose to sink roots in the city. “People here are willing to go the extra mile for someone with an initiative that they are supportive of. In some ways, there’s a little bit of a small-town feel, which is really nice,” she says.

Evidence of that small-town environment is the escalation of urban farms in Detroit that are repurposing empty lots.

There are 875 urban farms and community gardens operating throughout the city, a network of which is providing affordable, pesticide-free food at neighborhood farmers’ markets, restaurants and retail outlets, according to Detroit Works Project data. Green growth is everywhere – from small tomato plantings in a patch of a corner lot on a residential street to large orchard tracts planned by John Hantz, a local businessman who plans to build “the world’s largest urban farm” in Detroit.

His for-profit venture, Hantz Farms, is negotiating with the city to buy 120 acres of unused land. Mr. Hantz is pitching the farm to the city as a tourist destination, beautification project, and a local economic generator that would employ more than 200.

Detroit’s official 27 percent unemployment (some place it as high as 50 percent), miles of empty land, and nearby tech resources (Michigan State University‘s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources) make the city perfect for an unprecedented experiment in urban agriculture, says Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms: “Most cities don’t have that combination of resources,” he says.

Most of the existing local greening projects in Detroit look like Spirit Farm in the North Corktown neighborhood, run by Kate Devlin, a longtime community organizer who saw raising food and tending chickens as a response to the blighted homes in her neighborhood, located 10 minutes from downtown, that were attracting squatting crack users.

“I was tired of looking at places I loved looking unbelievably ugly. [The garden] is a response to that ugliness, of trying to create a little bit of beauty and a place that’s soft and peaceful,” Ms. Devlin says.

Three years ago, with the blessing of her congregation, Devlin broke ground on the lot behind her Episcopal church with nothing but some gardening tools and volunteers. Today, the farm consists of a chicken coop; solar-powered greenhouse; an orchard of plum, peach, and apple trees; and a turkey that was rescued on the city’s West Side and serves as the farm’s unofficial mascot.

Besides spoiling the neighborhood for drug dealers, the farm contributes 25 percent of its produce to 165 needy families. Another 25 percent goes to volunteers, and 50 percent is sold at farmers’ markets to help pay for maintenance costs.


Detroit can’t just be the Motor City anymore, says Mayor Bing. The automotive industry can no longer be the sole focus for growth, he says, noting that health care and technology sectors are already on the rise. An example: Wayne State University‘s medical school, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the Henry Ford Health System, all in Midtown, collectively employ tens of thousands of people and are credited with helping stabilize the surrounding neighborhoods. The city says growth among the three employers will attract an additional 15,000 people to the area by 2015.

“Detroit probably has more engineering and technology capability than almost anywhere in the world because of the auto industry and the research schools here … we can use both as a vehicle for growth,” Bing says.

The city’s weak financial situation means it can’t rely on more than just nominal tax incentives to attract companies considering a move to Detroit. But Bing says his trump card is something no other city can so generously provide: land. According to the Detroit Works Project, a little more than 12 percent of Detroit, or 10,950 acres, is vacant land. Twenty percent of the commercial and industrial land in the city is vacant. .

The city controls 50 percent of the unoccupied land and Bing considers this “a huge asset.” To businesses considering a move to Detroit, he says, “You come up with a great idea and some kind of plan, and there’s something to talk about. It’s a white sheet of paper right now.”

But Detroit’s past is some heavy baggage. Decades of political corruption have stalled progress, and everyone – from city residents to state lawmakers – looks at promises from city hall with a high degree of distrust.

“People have grown very cynical of government in Detroit and that will make [recovery plans] probably more difficult,” says Mr. Fontaine, with the University of Michigan.

The situation worsened in recent years with the many scandals taking place under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who faces trial in 2012 on federal charges alleging he used his authority to generate millions of dollars in kickbacks from contractors, nonprofit donors, and others. Mr. Kilpatrick is currently in prison for a parole violation related to two obstruction of justice felonies that put him in prison in 2008 in the middle of his term.

Bing says he realized upon taking office that a major part of his job would be convincing people he was a reformer. He started his term by announcing he’d donate his $176,176 annual salary to the Detroit Police Department to hire more officers.

“This administration came in on transparency, on openness, on telling the truth. So, based on what it was and what it is, it’s a 180-degree difference,” he says. “But still there’s fear.”

Besides cynicism over city government, Bing’s plan to possibly offer residents the choice to move to thriving neighborhoods faces a second challenge: It’s been tried before. In 1994, the city announced it would buy out 500 property owners living near the city airport in order to build a safety buffer. Less than half the owners never received offers and the project is in limbo, says the city, because of a shrinking Federal Aviation Administration budget. Neighborhood advocates complain that property owners were offered less than what their parcels were worth and that, by dragging its feet, the city has accelerated the area’s decline.

Mark Demorest, any attorney who represented a dozen property owners in the airport case, says the city has a spotty legacy for dealing with urban renewal.

“I don’t think the city should embark on [the Detroit Works Project] unless they know how to pay for it. If you start on a project and let it languish, or abandon it in the middle, it’s probably worse than starting it in the first place,” he says.

Despite Detroit’s troubled history, some residents insist that abandonment is not a solution. Many here remain entrenched because they believe that after hitting bottom with Kilpatrick and the auto industry failures, there simply is nowhere for the city to go but up.

“People always cry about Detroit, but some of the suburbs have the same problems. What’s the difference?” asks the happy homeowner Dewayne Hurling. “Change takes time. I’m patient.”

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