Detroit
August 15, 2013 10:40 PM   Subscribe

"A man walked past our bench holding a single cucumber." A letter from Detroit by Mark Benelli walks you through today's Detroit.

Cultural Weekly also focused on Detroit this week, asserting that artists will be at the front of the revival of the community. But, these are late-comers to the party, Eminem believed in Detroit and its people back in 2009.
posted by HuronBob (41 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
"A man walked past our bench holding a single cucumber."

Derek Smalls on his way out of the airport metal detector?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:46 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


Letter from Detroit: "All there is now is crackhouses and churches"

Don't forget Detroit's three lovely casinos. CNNMoney:

Filings made by the city in the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy late Thursday show just how dependent the city has become on the monthly infusion of cash from its casino tax. The $11 million Detroit clears from the casino tax every month is "is roughly the equivalent of 30% of the city's total available cash on hand as of June 30, 2013." It also says the casino tax could pay for the city's entire fire department, or about half of the police department.

"With 4 of the top 10 most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation, the city needs access to [the casino] money immediately to ensure public safety and keep its police on the streets and its firefighters responding to fires," said the filing.

posted by phaedon at 12:55 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I kinda feel like the right answer is to just use eminent domain to seize most of the land and either turn it back into forest or build some new, denser development. A big part of the problem in detroit is that it's just too big geographically for the amount of people living there, which makes it harder to govern and provide services.
posted by empath at 1:09 AM on August 16, 2013


I also think the problem is too big for the city and probably the state to fix. The federal government needs to get involved.
posted by empath at 1:10 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Eminem believed in Detroit and its people back in 2009"

...Sufjan Stevens beat him to it.
posted by Wylla at 2:48 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


empath, similarly, I've suggested allowing the suburbs to "recolonize" from the outside in, using a mechanism similar to the TIF district. Increased tax base would still go to the city for a period, though, as if buying the taxing authority on contract.
posted by dhartung at 4:08 AM on August 16, 2013


A man walked past our bench holding a single cucumber.

Probably on his way home from one of Detroit's urban farms or community gardens. There are a lot.

Mark Benelli has clearly never done any gardening - sometimes one cucumber is all you get.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:52 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most proposals I hear about letting Detroit revert to nature seem ill-informed. I recall large swathes of Detroit are brownfield thanks to a almost a century of heavy industry predating the EPA. Plants might grow there but you might not be doing nature any favors by it.

This also makes me wonder about the locations of some of the urban farms.
posted by ardgedee at 5:05 AM on August 16, 2013


I'm about 100 pages into Benelli's book about Detroit, and really digging it so far. It's nice to move from the usual news caricature of the city to actual human reporting.
posted by COBRA! at 5:07 AM on August 16, 2013


If nature manages to thrive in Chernobyl, I'm sure it'll manage in Detroit.
posted by empath at 5:46 AM on August 16, 2013


I kinda feel like the right answer is to just use eminent domain to seize most of the land and ... build some new, denser development.
That sort of thing has had mixed results in the past.
posted by Orb2069 at 5:57 AM on August 16, 2013


I'm an armchair urban planner and I read about a solution for a city's problems on the internet and now I have the answer even though I don't live there.
posted by planetesimal at 6:02 AM on August 16, 2013 [12 favorites]


When that article came up for me there was an inline ad for Volvo.
posted by rocket88 at 6:32 AM on August 16, 2013


This also makes me wonder about the locations of some of the urban farms.

This. Absolutely this. Urban agriculture can be amazing, and should be encouraged, but there is the potential for very real risks if crops are grown in contaminated soil. Unfortunately, most people don't have the knowledge or resources to go out and test the land they have available. This is true of any city, not just Detroit. The conversation about these risks is one that is just now starting to really get off the ground.

Here's an EPA Document on some of the risks and benefits.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 6:38 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


ardgedee: This also makes me wonder about the locations of some of the urban farms.

I know in at least some cases this is dealt with by bringing in soil from elsewhere and putting it in raised beds. Not ideal, but it means you can eat the food.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:39 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I kinda feel like the right answer is to just use eminent domain to seize most of the land and either turn it back into forest or build some new, denser development. A big part of the problem in detroit is that it's just too big geographically for the amount of people living there, which makes it harder to govern and provide services.

This is what always happens when there are problems in a city -- somebody decides that the solution is to step on the immediate interests and rights of the people living there for the sake of some grandiose future plan. Kick people out of the homes they've struggled to hold onto through decades of economic collapse for the sake of somebody's abstract eco-city fantasy? Sure, what could go wrong? The people living in a city are the city, not clay to move around in pursuit of some Platonic version of that city.
posted by ostro at 6:51 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


> If nature manages to thrive in Chernobyl, I'm sure it'll manage in Detroit.

Few people seriously advocate commercial agriculture in Chernobyl. Most advocate getting the hell away from there.
posted by ardgedee at 7:04 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Andre Williams: Detroit, Michigan
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:04 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


It doesn't look like the United States needs Detroit, so maybe it doesn't need to do much about Detroit other than to help Detroiters get out of Detroit if they want to go: the federal government could offer relocation, housing, and training assistance for people who want to escape Detroit (and similarly awful places) and live somewhere better. If you've got family growing up or growing old in Detroit right now, you can't wait the decades it's going to take to fix the place. We'll all be dead before Detroit is a good place to live. Other cities might be hesitant to take Detroit's refugees, but maybe they would change their minds when the refugees showed up dressed as plump packages of housing and training money for their own downtowns. And gung ho Detroiters who stayed in town could fix the place up any way they see fit.
posted by pracowity at 7:19 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


No Banker Left Behind
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:33 AM on August 16, 2013


“Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.”

― Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

I read his book in like 3 hours and I recommend it to anyone with a brain concerning Detroit. Benelli is a great friend of Detroit and a great writer and wish to not detract from his work but Urban farming ain't gonna cut it. It is a start but not the answer.

the federal government could offer relocation, housing, and training assistance for people who want to escape Detroit (and similarly awful places) and live somewhere better.

I'm with praco but this is just not gonna happen. Obama thumbed his nose to Detroit with no bail-out and I can't really blame him. The city is controlled by the govenor not the mayor or those fucking clowns that pass for "council persons"

I strongly suggest anyone with a brain to read LeDuffs' Book ‘Detroit: An American Autopsy

The people living in a city are the city, not clay to move around in pursuit of some Platonic version of that city.
posted by ostro

Driven down Woodward latly. Sorry, but people want out but cannot.
posted by clavdivs at 7:55 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Detroit is America’s most prominent version of a failed metropolis. The dire statistics have become familiar: 40 square miles of vacant land, an estimated 70,000 abandoned buildings, a population of just over 700,000 in a city – at one point the fourth-largest in the United States – whose citizenry peaked at two million in the Fifties.

America is all about growth. But growth doesn't happen everywhere. Some areas grow, some areas shrink. We don't know how to handle shrinking, so we call it failure. This quote calls Detroit a "failed metropolis", not because of the bankrupt government, unemployment, or crime, but because of the vacant land and reduced population.

A metropolis can succeed or fail at both growth and at reduction.

We need to learn how to handle reduction--governments, companies, cities, so we can do it right wherever it inevitably happens. I wish Detroit had been able to plan its reduction in population and jobs.

I wish city planning involved expertese in both. We need experience with ideas like empath's and dhartung's above.

Resizing does not have to mean failure. But if you don't plan for it you end up like Detroit.
posted by eye of newt at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2013


After Katrina, a part of me thought that New Orleans should have been abandoned. Why rebuild a city that is already below sea level at a time when sea level is rising? But that didn't happen. I know the Feds reconstructed the levees but I don't know what other kinds of direct Federal assistance New Orleans has received to remake itself. I assume it still has a long way to go. But if New Orleans can do it, why can't Detroit?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:45 AM on August 16, 2013


But if New Orleans can do it, why can't Detroit?

New Orleans suffered a major natural disaster over the course of a few days -- an act of God in every sense of the term. Detroit has been crumbling since the 1970s (longer, if you want to talk about social devastation), and it's been almost entirely the fault of the city and its residents (actual and corporate), with plenty of "assistance" from the state of Michigan.

It's a lot easier to say, "Hey, this school got flooded, let's build another one so the people who evacuated can come back," than, "Hey, this neighborhood was reduced to a couple of remaining occupied houses after decades of neglect, let's build some more houses so the people who willingly moved out over the course of the last 40 years can come back."
posted by Etrigan at 9:58 AM on August 16, 2013


New Orleans has sentimental value to millions of people who've spent vacations and drunken benders there. Detroit's never had a reputation based on public appeal.

Somewhat analogous to why the same people who people will gladly spend millions of dollars on saving endangered pandas will laugh at rescuing tree snails.
posted by ardgedee at 10:06 AM on August 16, 2013


New Orleans also has real industries (port, oil, etc.).
posted by pracowity at 10:27 AM on August 16, 2013


New Orleans also has real industries (port, oil, etc.).

Detroit has some fairly major industries as well, to be fair. It's still synonymous with the automobile industry for a reason, and the Ambassador Bridge is a critical point of entry and departure with America's largest trading partner (to the point that Canada is begging Michigan to let it pay for an additional bridge).
posted by Etrigan at 10:37 AM on August 16, 2013


Few people seriously advocate commercial agriculture in Chernobyl.
"Turn it back into forest" is not the same as "grow crops for consumption".
posted by Flunkie at 10:52 AM on August 16, 2013


The federal and state governments have had many, many opportunities to help Detroit. All it takes is moving jobs there, either directly through government facilities or indirectly by "persuading" big gov't contractors to build and employ in Detroit. But it hasn't happened, because they wanted it not to happen. This is a governance failure at every level.
posted by rocket88 at 11:05 AM on August 16, 2013


All it takes is moving jobs there...

...from somewhere else.
posted by Etrigan at 11:13 AM on August 16, 2013


...from somewhere else.

Like back from Overseas?

Yeah I know funny joke.
posted by The Power Nap at 12:48 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


in a move designed to protect the city from creditors (which include its own public-sector workers and their pension funds), Detroit has filed for bankruptcy

Ironically, had those public pension funds been steadfastly accrued, escrowed, invested and protected by strong laws, their recipients would be a strong source of the revenues Detroit desperately needs. A fine example of karma at work.

Unfortunately, by the time people spot the termites in the foundations, it's often too late. And that's the story of the US in Detroit's heyday ... being repeated across the country.
posted by Twang at 9:44 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


But if New Orleans can do it, why can't Detroit?

New Orleans lost 60% of its population following Katrina; since then, with rebuilding, that has leveled out at more like 25% permanent loss.

But more to the point, a lot of that rebuilding was able to take place because there was funding: insurance, disaster assistance, and ultimately, economic activity which would support employment.

Meanwhile, I don't think NOLA has solved two pre-existing problems, one of them being its elevation (I agree it was foolish to not re-envision a smaller footprint with development constrained in the lowest areas), and the other being urban core/suburban sprawl issues not unique to New Orleans -- not to mention the lack of real problem-solving thus far about the loss of delta wetlands and overdevelopment of coastal and bayou areas outside the city. I would really like to see a summation of any success on those fronts, but I haven't read about much besides things like the usual political turmoil in the city and the Brad Pitt houses. Fie, journalism, as always.

It doesn't look like the United States needs Detroit

There are a lot of responses I could give here. I think that Americans, and Michiganders even, may think they don't need Detroit and should let it fail. But when you think about the costs to everyone of suburban development (where most of the city's population has actually gone), the greenness of preserving existing housing stock and urban infrastructure vs. allowing it to crumble and building it all again someplace else, the cultural losses (art, history, society) of an abandoned city, as well as the object lesson in who gets trauma surgeons when their ox is gored -- I think it can surely be argued that we all need Detroit, that we all would be better off having prevented its decline in the first place, and that its failure will cost us enormously even if we feel the costs of saving it aren't worth it.

The thing is, there's still a metro there. The wealth moved out of the city and out of the grasp of the city's ability to use it to save itself. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that wealth was, in effect, stolen. Much as suburbs often act as free riders on expansion-constrained large cities, the suburbs here acted as a safety valve for people who might otherwise have stuck it out, retained their homes, their jobs, and their personal investment. It became a prisoner's dilemma writ large, as more and more people decided to betray the rest. This isn't about blame, though -- it's about how we think about cities and communities in the first place.

Some areas grow, some areas shrink. We don't know how to handle shrinking, so we call it failure.

To some extent this is true. There are ghost towns all across the West that attest to that. There are cities that are becoming industrial ghost towns as the need for production and transportation infrastructure moves elsewhere and thereby erodes their foundations. I think it's sad, though, that in many ways we're catching up to these problems decades after we could have really done something about them. A lot of thinking about urban areas today seems like it's halfway there to your proposal, it's just that the life-saver is being thrown into the water after the victim has already slipped beneath the waves.

You know, I look at cities like Manchester and how they've been rethought and redeveloped to work as cities even though they are the quintessential analogues of our own rust belt. Some of that is because the UK government invested back in the city. But some of it came from the city's residents themselves. I think this underlines how this is an American failure, perhaps a result of divided classes, or divided politics, but certianly a result of divided priorities.
posted by dhartung at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


...from somewhere else.

Like back from Overseas?

Yeah I know funny joke.


If the government knew how to move jobs from overseas to anywhere in the U.S., it would be doing so; it's not just keeping that idea in its back pocket to keep Detroit down.
posted by Etrigan at 9:10 PM on August 17, 2013


we all would be better off having prevented its decline in the first place

Sure, but it's too late to talk about prevention. Prevention needed to start in the 1950s, when they had money to do something.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that wealth was, in effect, stolen.

Who stole it? Where is it? If you mean that people moved out of Detroit and took their stuff with them, that doesn't sound like theft unless they also threw someone else's stuff into the moving van. If you mean that companies moved out of Detroit and took their stuff with them, that also doesn't sound like theft unless they broke contracts. If laws were actually broken, sure, it was theft, but people moving to somewhere better is not theft. People moved to Detroit when Detroit looked better than where they were and they moved away from Detroit when other places (sometimes just the neighboring suburbs) looked better.

Much as suburbs often act as free riders on expansion-constrained large cities, the suburbs here acted as a safety valve for people who might otherwise have stuck it out, retained their homes, their jobs, and their personal investment.

People moved because they could.

The way to prevent sprawl is to legislate against it. Require businesses conducted in town to have a certain percentage of their employees live and pay taxes in town. Require every home or business in town to be no more than X minutes walk on good sidewalks from everything else, with a formula worked out to make it sane. No more housing developments in the middle of nowhere. No more big box stores in the middle of a different nowhere. No more schools you can't walk and ride bikes to. No more homes farther than walking distance from at least two competing grocery stores. Cut the average daily commute to a 30-minute walk. (Pretty much the opposite of the Detroit ethos. The companies that built Detroit love sprawl. Jump in your car for everything. Put two or three cars in every driveway and use them to do everything.)

No one legislates effectively against sprawl because there's always too much money and too many votes in letting sprawl continue there or somewhere else. Some government somewhere is always desperate and dumb enough to let people and companies do anything they want, no strings attached, if they will just move in.
posted by pracowity at 3:02 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, but it's too late to talk about prevention

Kinda my point.

If you mean that people moved out of Detroit and took their stuff with them,

More like took their education and accumulated wealth with them, which in aggregate left only minorities, many with problematic educational attainment, and historically limited family wealth.

If you mean that companies moved out of Detroit and took their stuff with them, that also doesn't sound like theft unless they broke contracts.

I would have hoped it was clearer that I was talking in a more abstract sense. This wasn't just Detroit, of course, it was urban areas all across the country who began offshoring and losing to cheap imports and ultimately their investment in the community was bankrupt. That wealth went somewhere, even if you just say thin air, and while it's harder to say someone "took" it, it was a slow-motion theft from our cities, our manufacturing belts, and especially minorities who as noted were less able to move to the suburbs where the cream of the jobs went. Basically an entire generation or three of this country turned its back on our cities, and then blamed -- and still blame -- the cities for having their jobs, their people, and their decades of infrastructure investment evaporate and crumble. Investment that accrued to all of us, and which was replaced by investment in other things -- rail passenger systems that withered and died while concrete freeways twelve lanes across flourished. I'll give you a new dollar, but you have to burn two first.

People moved because they could.

This is true in individual cases, but in the aggregate it was also a result of deliberate investment policies that favored sprawl, that favored highways, that ultimately destroyed many urban transit systems, and danced around the god of the detached suburban home in a spacious yard, devaluing many other ways of living.

The way to prevent sprawl is to legislate against it.

This is what I mean by saying we are just learning how to prevent, decades after it's too late for some cities.

In any case, this is far less accusation than lament.
posted by dhartung at 4:03 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that wealth was, in effect, stolen.

Who stole it? Where is it?


If you mean money stolen from the citizens of Detroit and spent by lawmakers. BOY HOWDY. Ya know Detroit had it's own welfare system in the 40's and 50's. One factor that led to people coming from other places. If the job fails, there is a generous welfare package available, thats how rich the city was, the richest at one point.

"The legal corruption was the cozy symbiosis of Democratic politicians and powerful unions, especially the public-sector unions that gave money to elect the politicians who negotiated their contracts — with wildly unsustainable health and pension benefits."
posted by clavdivs at 7:52 AM on August 19, 2013


It's own ... wat

(Googles)

Ah. What it had was a county-operated relief system that was one of many such state and local systems, all of which began to be gradually superseded by and incorporated into the federal system following the Relief Act under FDR. Not really any different from any other locale, though obviously payments and standards varied. By the end of the Depression they were most everywhere.

You really think more people came to Detroit for the bennies than came for jobs, during the actual heyday of actual middle-class-wage manufacturing jobs? And more to Detroit than anywhere else? Notwithstanding that welfare bennies, more than almost any other spending, tend to recirculate right back into the local economy: Keynes would smile.

But Krauthammer? Of course. The poorz did it. This thesis is now entrenched in conventional wisdom and will never, ever die.
posted by dhartung at 4:03 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


good call Dan. I should have clarified the bennies but they were large and no I don't think they contributed to the influx but it provided a relief valve for those unemployed or in-between jobs. So it provided an extra incentive for those who might not want to do the factory work or if something happened to the worker. I will maintain the city had a generous welfare system as per Le Duffs book. It was different because it was substantial, I know this because half my familiy is from Detroit. It also had some of the best free services in the country as far as early training etc. Flint built it's own cultural center paid for by private money, not public. THE ONLY ONE IN THE COUNTRY TO DO SO AT THAT TIME or since for that matter. The public "dole" was not just county money but other private sources so yeah not much different except Detriot was flithy rich.

Don't duck behind kraut the snout now. The "poorz" just do what they genrally always do so what is the contention with krautys thesis. The corruption and graft really did not change after colman young got in, he just milked an already dying city. The welfare programs from the late 40's and 50's helped keep folks alive but still remained in detroit rather then move away. The city was already contracting in the 50's as far as autos go, they just did not need that aresenal of democracy behomth sic sp...no more axis to destroy but it was nice to rub the chevy in Stalins face.

keynes may smile but he would have been whacked in da-twa back in the real day. The city paid it's bills and expanded like no other. There are many nails in this coffin sir.
posted by clavdivs at 7:43 AM on August 21, 2013


An interesting compilation of home movie images from Detroit, 1937-49. Deadline Detroit add some interesting, and uncomfortable, context.
posted by Wordshore at 3:21 PM on August 26, 2013


Anyone else watching "Low Winter Sun"?
posted by planetesimal at 3:23 PM on August 26, 2013


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