Detroit’s Decline as an Opportunity
I’m not going to lie. I find Detroit’s decline truly fascinating. Home of the mythical $1,000 house (Wait! Make that the mythical $100 house!!!), Detroit is attracting artists and people seeking community-based rather than job-based lifestyles.
At the same time, what Detroit has become is appalling. Time has some amazing photo essays that depict the state of once gorgeous historic buildings. The photo I found most shocking was the 1926-built Michigan Theater that had been converted into a parking lot. What could be a more apt analogy for Detroit? A city overcome by an obsession with cars.
Nevertheless, Detroit has so much potential. A 138 square mile city, Detroit’s former population of 1.85 million has drastically shrunk to just 912,000 people. Approximately one third of the city is empty or unused, and this is an area about the size of San Francisco. Detroit’s sparse population and vacant spaces means that the city is receiving much less revenue from taxes and other sources, but it has to support municipal services, like fire, police, sanitation, and schools, that are way too spread out. Realizing that the city’s population isn’t going to grow any time soon, Detroit either has to become denser, or it has to decentralize power, water, and waste services to the block level. Densifying Detroit is problematic, because it involves moving people in ways that could be forceful and unpopular, like condemning quality houses in half demolished areas and moving residents elsewhere.
On the other hand, decentralizing services offers a great opportunity. Vacant lots can be turned into small farms. Vacant streets can turn into greenways. People can learn how to build and run micro water, waste, and energy facilities. Low-cost lifestyles can ease the work burden on people who can then reinvest extra time back into their community.
A number of people, including authors of various Detroit-related articles in this month’s Time believe that Detroit needs a new, modern industry to get the city on its feet. I demur. Monocultures, even in economies, are ill-advised. Detroit’s auto-centric history can attest to that. Besides, with an unemployment rate of 28.9 percent, the city needs something more drastic than hydrogen fuel cell car factories or car factories converted into wind farm manufacturing facilities.
Detroit’s strength is in its weakness. By that I mean the city affords many opportunities to artists, entrepreneurs, urban homesteaders, and people who do not want typical 9-to-5 lifestyles. Large, vacant commercial space can be rented out to start-ups at basement sale prices. People can buy homes and land for almost nothing, grow their own food, and form communities of similarly-minded people. Imagine if residents were given financial or technical assistance to build farms, solar panels, micro turbines, grey water systems, vermiculture compost systems, and other household-level or block-level amenities that local government can no longer afford to provide. Not only is the government relieved to pursue more pressing problems, like education and crime, but people are empowered to run their own communities. In turn, people are relieved of having to join the 9-to-5 workforce – with no mortgage, no car payments and insurance, little -to-no utility payments, and a small food bill from farming, people can use their time to invest in their community or take risks, like starting new companies or producing works of art. Perhaps this is my youthful optimism, but I see great potential in Detroit.
If you’re interested, here are more links to some of Time’s articles: