Robert Downes 10/19/09
These days, Detroit is the Incredible Shrinking City.
Back in the 1930s, when my grandmother lived there, Detroit was known as the City of Trees for its towering elms and forested boulevards. Although those trees were killed off in the 60s and 70s by Dutch elm disease, new fields and forests are taking root amid the ruin of the city.
Writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, Bill McGraw of the Detroit Free Press reported that Detroit has lost half its population since the 1950s. And, although its city limits encompass 138 square miles, experts estimate that about 40 square miles are empty.
That trend is increasing.
Thus, vegetable gardens are springing up, along with greenways and bikepaths, and theres even a proposal for a farm within the city limits.
The decline of Detroit is also changing the landscape of Michigan politics.
For decades, outstate politicians had an us versus them mentality regarding the City of Detroit.
Often, this was a barely-concealed racism that sought to deny or punish the mostly-black residents of Motown. In the early 80s, for instance, then-Governor Bill Milliken pushed hard for the Detroit People-Mover, which was originally conceived as an urban light-rail system running for three miles through the heart of the city. But outstate politicians shot the plan down and Detroit ended up with the rinky-dink equivalent of a toy train downtown, instead of a step forward in mass transit that could have revitalized the city.
On the other hand, there was justification for the rest of Michigan being reluctant to dig Detroit out of its perennial hole: Detroit became symbolic of a bottomless pit of social need, into which endless amounts of cash could be poured without any noticeable result. For instance, today, the Detroit Public School District has an annual budget of $1.2 billion, but the city leads the nation for high school drop-outs, with only 58 percent of students graduating.
For many outstate residents and even its own newspapers, Detroit was a huge problem that never seemed to have a solution or an end, no matter how many Renaissance Centers or stadiums or riverfront developments were built. Every few years, GM, Ford and the pizza titans would float new schemes for urban renewal downtown with the help of the State government, but it was always like trying to save a Stage 4 cancer patient who was more inclined towards a hospice bed than wellness.
Detroits own media has echoed this theme since the mid-60s with endless stories along the lines of Can This City Be Saved?
But we havent heard much talk of us versus them in Michigan politics during the 00s, quite possibly because Detroit is increasingly irrelevant to our states future. And the problem that no coalition of government and industry could ever seem to fix is solving itself by the citys evaporation.
During the early 2000s, for instance, white collar workers surpassed blue collar workers in Detroit as industry fled the city. And today (with the exception of Ann Arbor) the robust communities of Michigan are all along the west coast: Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Traverse City/Petoskey. Whats left of the commercial side of Detroit is north of town in Oakland County.
Today, you see sad scenes of Detroit and Flint in magazine photo spreads, or in films such as Capitalism: A Love Story. The underlying message is that the reason for these cities existence no longer exists. No jobs, no cities.
But another way of looking at the situation is the Eastern idea of death and regeneration: something ill has to die before it can be reborn.
Consider that Thompsonville used to be the biggest town in Northern Michigan in the lumber era of the mid-1800s -- a thriving city with a bright future, served by railroads and nearby steamships --it dwarfed Traverse City. But today, its a virtual ghost town: after Benzie Countys trees were all chopped down, it turned out that the land around Thompsonville was less than ideal for farming and people moved on.
Northern Michigan is dotted wth such towns: in the Pigeon River Forest you can cross-country ski the Shingle Mill Pathway to an old ghost town called Cornwall Flats. Once, it was a place of lumberjacks, bucksaws and dreams; but today, all that remains is the foundation of an old mill, dimly glimpsed in the gloom of the forest.
So, is it sad that Detroit and other relics of the industrial era of the 1940s-60s are wasting away? Or should we be happy that the residents of a failed city are moving on to brighter futures?
A more optimistic view would be that Detroit is simply re-inventing itself to the benefit of the entire state by downsizing and greening its neighborhoods. As writer McGraw notes: Surrounded by fresh water, and buffeted by nature reasserting itself on land where factories used to be, Detroit could someday be the greenest, most livable urban area in the country. A city can dream, cant it?
That new, green city would be an asset to our state, not a problem.