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I wanted something nobody wanted, something that was impossible.
January 10, 2014 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500
Detroit is the true 20th-century boomtown, the most American of stories. In 100 years, we went from a backwater hamlet to one of the richest cities in the United States. Referred to as the “Paris of the Midwest,” it was the city with the most theater seats in the U.S. outside of Broadway, the silicon valley of the ’60s, the highest rate of homeownership in the nation. We boomed and we busted, hard and early, and like an alcoholic drunk on 20th-century capitalism, we hit rock bottom first and hardest.
posted by still_wears_a_hat (43 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was just coming here to post this. Thanks.
posted by lily_bart at 1:05 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Hm. The "silicon valley of the '60s" makes me wonder about Silicon Valley's future.
posted by edheil at 1:11 PM on January 10 [12 favorites]


edheil - well, it's been carving out the middle class for years, just as Detroit did. Whether it takes the same trajectory is another matter, but like the auto industry, the tech industry is diffusing across the United States, and the world, and the "supply chain" of technology (the Internet) is faster than the supply chain Deotrit ever had.
posted by petrilli at 1:12 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


No boomtown lasts forever but Silicon Valley has location and climate going for it, neither of which are things Detroit had. People will always want to live near coastal California.
posted by Justinian at 1:13 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


This was a really good read.
posted by Windigo at 1:15 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I read that straight after reading the article in this FPP from earlier today. New York and Detroit are only 614 miles apart by road. But in terms of accommodation prices (head hurts).
posted by Wordshore at 1:21 PM on January 10


Is it because all the wizards moved away?
posted by jeffburdges at 1:28 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


No boomtown lasts forever but Silicon Valley has location and climate going for it, neither of which are things Detroit had. People will always want to live near coastal California.

There's a lot of coastal California. I think the main draws of Silicon Valley are tech jobs and an ecosystem that is supported by families with one or two six-figure wage earners (fancy restaurants, really good cafes, Tesla dealerships ...)

In the dystopian future where tech goes elsewhere, I think Silicon Valley would become low rent pretty quickly.
posted by zippy at 1:30 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


No boomtown lasts forever but Silicon Valley has location and climate going for it, neither of which are things Detroit had. People will always want to live near coastal California.

Most of the people moving out of Detroit only went a few miles into the suburbs. The population of Detroit has fallen about 60% since the 1950 peak, while that of the total metro area went up 33% in the same time frame.
posted by theodolite at 1:33 PM on January 10 [11 favorites]


Despite it resulting in Mayor Rob Ford, I think a Toronto-style amalgamation of city core and surrounding suburbs into a single mega-city would have saved Detroit. They at least would have gotten a share of the tax money from the white-flight suburban areas to keep inner-city services running.
posted by rocket88 at 1:40 PM on January 10 [12 favorites]


Down the street from Forestdale, Paul seeded a hay field on a lot a school once stood. Twice a summer we bale hay for the animals to eat over winter — 400 bales each time in a good year, heaved into hay wagons and pickup trucks by the neighbors. Paul taught at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant and nursing teenagers, which at one time had a graduation rate of over 90% (when the national average for pregnant teens is 40%). He started a farm at the school to help teach the young women about science and mothering by caring for crops and livestock. The hay fed these animals too. One day I visited him in class, and he stopped mid-sentence during a lecture. One of the baby chickens was hatching in a fish tank and he gathered his students around to watch the tiny beak protrude from the shell and the new life emerge. In 2011 his school was closed by the city, citing cost, and was purchased by a charter school. Paul lost his job and the school is now run for profit.
As soon as I started reading this paragraph I knew I recognized this guy. He's featured in this movie, Grown in Detroit, which I saw when I juried a local film festival. Excellent, hopeful, inspiring movie. And it's sad that he doesn't teach there any more - I do wonder why not.
posted by Miko at 1:40 PM on January 10 [7 favorites]


"Sometimes success means just holding on."

Poetry.
posted by yoga at 1:55 PM on January 10 [9 favorites]


This:

"Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans, has moved more than 7,600 employees downtown. He also just sent a notice to one of my ex-girlfriends, explaining he has purchased the apartment building she’s lived in for the last 16 years and his future plans don’t include her."

Oh those greedy tendrils, though. And this:

"This bears repeating: In the United States of America, I am not, nor are any of my neighbors, able to select who will lead us locally. We have a mayor, but he can’t do anything aside from what the emergency manager tells him he can. "

Might make for a harder job than restoring a $500 abandoned house.
posted by yoga at 2:03 PM on January 10


People will always want to live near coastal California.

The California coast is completely unpopulated except for two places.
posted by ryanrs at 2:04 PM on January 10


The California coast is completely unpopulated except for two places.

Having driven much of the California coast, I must disagree.
posted by Phredward at 2:06 PM on January 10 [5 favorites]


Yeah what about San Diego and Salinas and Santa Barbara etc.? Though I admit, I just jumped on Google Earth to look at the west coast and compared to the east coast is is shockingly undeveloped, especially north of San Francisco. Never really noticed that before.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:09 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Also this is a really interesting thoughtful essay, thanks still_wears_a_hat.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:10 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


shockingly undeveloped, especially north of San Francisco.

South too: Big Sur. These vast areas which can't be developed are why residential coastal California is so crowded and expensive -- nowhere to go but up.
posted by Rash at 2:17 PM on January 10


Wretch729: Though I admit, I just jumped on Google Earth to look at the west coast and compared to the east coast is is shockingly undeveloped, especially north of San Francisco. Never really noticed that before.

At least in California, you can thank the California Coastal Commission for this. They've been really hard on any proposed coastal developments since their inception in 1972. Like "we won't allow you to build anything new that will detract from public views to the ocean, and public views from the ocean." Seriously, even if you own 500 acres of pristine coastline in California, you can only build one little home - they will require you to downsize plans for any home they consider to be overly large (whatever size that might be). Which, as a hippie of sorts, I approve.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:20 PM on January 10 [15 favorites]


Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans, has moved more than 7,600 employees downtown. He also just sent a notice to one of my ex-girlfriends, explaining he has purchased the apartment building she’s lived in for the last 16 years and his future plans don’t include her.

It's remarkable how quickly Gilbert has acquired the majority of the properties along Woodward Avenue (the main street for the entire region) in the central business district. I think he's up to 30 or 35 buildings. He's also the principal funder of the privately backed streetcar that's just beginning construction. There is a bike-share system that's only for employees of his "Bedrock family" of companies. The downtown is full of private shuttle buses bringing Quicken employees from outlying parking lots. Downtown Detroit still has a long way to go, but the transformation just in terms of people on the street in the past five years is incredible.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 2:25 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


its totally cool how quickly the urban blight is being oxidized and broken down into arable land. Go nature! Just add fire
posted by Colonel Panic at 2:29 PM on January 10


I don't mean to sound snarky, but, damn, Gilbert's moves sound like he's building the foundation for OCP and Delta City.
posted by RakDaddy at 2:29 PM on January 10 [6 favorites]


I really enjoyed this read. Thanks for posting!
posted by jillithd at 2:50 PM on January 10


Great piece. Nice to see a story about Detroit that's not just pretty disaster porn.

why are half of you talking about california and not detroit?
posted by octothorpe at 2:56 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. Maybe we can leave off the travelogue-of-California thing? Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:00 PM on January 10


yoga: "Might make for a harder job than restoring a $500 abandoned house."

I think this is indicative of the suburbanites' stance on Detroit, and it's difficult to square with the hopefulness of articles like this.

Detroit's metro area is backwards, with the bulk of the population living in the suburbs. It's the legacy of white flight. And those suburbs are comprised of everything from the post-WW2 blue-collar crackerboxes (e.g. Warren), old-money mansions (e.g. Gross Point), white flight-era middle class suburbia (e.g. Rochester Hills), and the sprawling, endless oceans of housing-bubble-era McMansions (e.g. Troy). The metro Detroit suburbs are really the economic powerhouse of the state, with a few outlying bastions like Ann Arbor and East Lansing. And the prevailing attitude of the suburbanites is that they're tired of footing the bill for this failed city.

The view from the suburbs is: Detroit hasn't been a cultural or economic center for decades. It has deep, systemic issues with political corruption, racism and violence. Its infrastructure is disintegrating. The police, fire, and education systems are non-functional - half the populace can't even read! It's a black hole for state taxes in a state with a seriously struggling economy. It just isn't worth the trouble to save.

Now obviously not everyone feels that way, but that's the context for Gilbert, the state emergency manager, and "whitesizing."

In most other metro areas, that would be absurd, but Detroit's dependent upon the tax base of a bunch of suburbs that are increasingly tired of footing the never-ending bill to save Detroit.
posted by Vox Nihili at 3:05 PM on January 10


I recommend driving through Detroit, and Poletown in particular, in Google Street View. It's amazing, and obvious, how many lush vacant lots there are where houses/businesses/whatever used to be.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:15 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Who knew that Dhalgren would be such a prophetic vision of the future?
posted by Dmenet at 3:28 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


In the dystopian future where tech goes elsewhere, I think Silicon Valley would become low rent pretty quickly.

I think the difference is that Silicon Valley isn't a city, San Francisco is.

San Francisco, as a city, has a lot to offer beyond "Silicon Valley". For one thing, it's old and established in a way that isn't analogous to Detroit. I think Silicon Valley's relationship with San Francisco is more analogous to New Orleans and the oil industry. There was a New Orleans before oil, but New Orleans after the post-war oil boom is a much smaller, more insular, and less vital place.

All that shitty ticky-tacky sprawl around Mountain View, though? Yeah, I can see that getting real Detroit real fast. There is going to be a day when people are not going to be willing to spend seven figures on a chintzy mcmansion in the outer burbs, assuming an eventual Silicon Valley bust.
posted by Sara C. at 3:43 PM on January 10


The West has any number of ghost towns, boom towns that were founded to exploit a resource, then we're deserted when their rain for being dried up. Detroit was a similar single-resource city, so it's not surprising we're seeing the same thing happening.
posted by happyroach at 3:46 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


The Bay Area has a port, tourism, refineries, wine, etc, and San Francisco is busting at immovable seams. I think the tech thing will cool (it's just too easy for tech to diffuse to hubs elsewhere, especially with the NSA busy globally destroying the reputation of American tech products and companies). With a smaller tech industry in the Bay, there will be some of what happened to Detroit, but the area does have a lot else going for it long-term, and I don't think it would be anything approaching Detroit-level of catastrophe to downsize San Francisco to that smaller share of the global economy.
posted by anonymisc at 3:57 PM on January 10


There's this small, naive, ignorant, dangerous part of my brain that says "Oh boy, when the world really goes to pieces from [global warming, economic collapse, whatever], then we can go back to handcrafts and farming and building little reclaimed hardwood cottages under the abandoned skeletons of skyscrapers and it will be so charming and hardcore at the same time". This article got that part of my brain very excited, so much so that I had trouble paying attention to the actual article itself. Still a very good read, would love to hear what other mefites got out of it.
posted by rivenwanderer at 4:44 PM on January 10 [8 favorites]


Detroit is more 300 years old. For a U.S. that's pretty old. Lack of age wasn't Detroit's problem.
posted by Area Man at 4:45 PM on January 10


There is actually a lot of positive things going on in Detroit which the media doesn't fo... wait; didn't I just write this as a comment and some links? Yes, a week ago, in another FPP about Detroit.
posted by Wordshore at 4:55 PM on January 10



All that shitty ticky-tacky sprawl around Mountain View, though? Yeah, I can see that getting real Detroit real fast. There is going to be a day when people are not going to be willing to spend seven figures on a chintzy mcmansion in the outer burbs, assuming an eventual Silicon Valley bust.


A great deal of those ticky-tacky suburbs were there before Silicon Valley: my family has been living on the Peninsula in ticky-tacky suburbs around Mountain View for three generations. Silicon Valley didn't make the Santa Clara Valley an incredibly desirable place to live, and there are still plenty of people around that do not work in the tech sector. There are far too many industries centered here to see a Detroit-level bust. You'd have to also have busts in biomedical, hardware, pharma, R and D, and green energy.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:06 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Someday a great book is going to be written about the rise and fall of Detroit. In 1939 they had the highest concentration of factories for building cars (or tanks and airplanes) in the western hemisphere. Then the government swooped in and took it over and expanded it hugely and quickly to build a gazillion tanks and airplanes. Then from 1945 until 1965 they were the industrial center of the free world with 100 different new models makes of sexy automobiles every single year.

Then the bubble reached its point of maximum expansion and began a long lengthy contraction. 1945 to 1965 is the interesting part though. They were like Scrooge McDuck throwing gold coins in the air just drunken on it all.

(If this book has already been written please be kind enough to point me to it because I have not yet seen it and would like to read it.)
posted by bukvich at 5:23 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


The view from the suburbs is: Detroit hasn't been a cultural or economic center for decades. It has deep, systemic issues with political corruption, racism and violence. Its infrastructure is disintegrating. The police, fire, and education systems are non-functional - half the populace can't even read! It's a black hole for state taxes in a state with a seriously struggling economy. It just isn't worth the trouble to save.

The view of those who moved [much] farther than the suburbs is similar. It's hard not to compare it to Chicago, which was experiencing similar troubles in the 1980's. We ask ourselves: why did Chicago rise back up while Detroit continued sinking?

And the sad answer some of us have come to is: Detroit was never supposed to be a major city. If it weren't for the auto industry Detroit would have remained a nice mid-size city on the straits. It's size wasn't sustainable.
posted by kanewai at 5:50 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Someday a great book is going to be written about the rise and fall of Detroit.

It comes down to what you feel merits the descriptor "great." There are umpteen bazillion books about Detroit; it's an intense focus for people interested in urbanity.

Detroit: An American Autopsy
Five Compelling Books About Detroit's Tragic Decline, History
Detroit is the Star in a Bevy of New Books

...it's just a start. Detroit's rise and fall isn't any kind of untold story. It's become test case and cautionary tale for urbanists nationwide and has been for years.
posted by Miko at 6:09 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


Wonderful article.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:14 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Farming Detroit is about Paul Weertz and his ten-acre farm in the city:
“Detroit is unique because we have all these vacant lots and if we can think it through, we could have high-density housing but save some green space for people who want to get their hands in the dirt. Maybe, as we get a development plan and more people move back to Detroit, it will be greener.”
I like this dream of Detroit, and for cities in general.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:27 PM on January 10 [5 favorites]




If I could take the climate at all--I get the vapors when it gets below 40 and turn into a grumpy bear when it snows--this would've sounded like an appealing adventure when I was in my more adventurous phase.

As for Silicon Valley, I said a variation on this in another thread but while it's certainly entirely possible to found your tech startup in Boise or Des Moines or Cleveland, the problems you run into are: You don't have that well of local support to draw from, people that are hot shot enough programmers and so forth all migrate to SF or LA or wherever so the talent pool isn't nearly as deep, and you run into the significant problem that most people just don't want to live there. I worked for a startup trying to get going in Alabama and we found out quick nobody wanted to live there even if a modest salary would let you live like a king. (I mean it literally, I lived in an apartment so big we had no idea what to do with all the space). And the not-insubstantial fact that if you do relocate to Cleveland and you get laid off, it's not like the SF/SJ scene where you can probably find another job pretty quick. So that's what you're going to have to replace if you want to be a tech center.

But that doesn't mean some as-yet-unforeseen industry won't pop up someplace and make that the new boomtown. The Dakotas have a huge influx of people going up because of the oil boom, though obviously oil can't last forever. Maybe solar and wind take off in a big way and people move to wherever that winds up being clustered. Or maybe there's something as far-out to us as smartphones would seem to the people flocking to Detroit during its boom days (or as far-out to those of us who remembers when a beeper marked you as either an important businessman or drug dealer). I mean, when I was a kid, teachers were still telling us this whole "personal computing" thing was going to be just a fad. A lot can change relatively quickly.

Nothing dictates coastal California has to be desirable forever. An increase in seismic activity and subsequent jump in insurance rates could make it even MORE ridiculously expensive to the point that people finally start leaving. A serious earthquake wouldn't even have to damage a ton of buildings to have an effect on go-go always-on internet culture. Imagine the Googles of the world couldn't get to the office for a week because the freeways were destroyed or they had shaky power/water or they otherwise were out of comission for a week and I imagine there'd be some reassessment. And yeah, I know about telecommuting, but I also know I worked at a business that was entirely built on the internet and we STILL had to come in and sit around for the week we didn't have internet because "people don't work when they work from home."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:26 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


You could probably do a consolidation without the racial issues. The other thing is that Chicago always had a critical mass of Caucasians in the City. After Coleman Young's election the many white Detroiters left. Also, Chicago had and has a functioning private school system which kept many of those whites in town. Detroit did not.
posted by calwatch at 1:18 AM on January 11


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