Urban Exploration of urban deprivation
June 6, 2010 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Abandoned Detroit Public Schools "People tend to have a visceral reaction to the sight of books piled ten feet high and left to rot in a windowless warehouse or strewn about a classroom floor. They seem to have more sympathy for books than for the children who’ll never have the chance to use them. Half of Detroiters cannot even read. Unemployment is above 20 percent and our streets are filled with hopeless people. When I see schools left like this, I know exactly what waits for many of these kids. I see it every day on the streets."

(I've never visited Detroit myself so I wish I had more to add - just found these photos and stories so sad.)
posted by mippy (75 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hey, it's like Sweet Juniper weekend or something.
posted by grabbingsand at 7:01 AM on June 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I really wish we could stop doing this. If feels like there is some sort of active campaign to make Detroit the symbol for everything sad and terrible.

Yes, it's a town that has suffered, and no, nobody gives a damn except the photographers that roam the town documenting decay and desolation.

I'm sure I'm not the only one in Detroit/southeast Michigan that just sighs when another FPP about how bad it is hits the front page of some out of town paper or here at metafilter

enough is enough...
posted by HuronBob at 7:04 AM on June 6, 2010 [15 favorites]


I flew into Detroit for a few days last year and had to take a fairly lengthy limo trip to my final destination each way. On the way out, my driver had nothing to good to say about the area -- he seemed to feel trapped there and hated it. On the drive in, though, my driver, while acknowledging that the area had problems, stressed that there was a lot of god stuff going on if you would just go out and look for it. She seemed pretty happy to be living in the area. For what any of that is worth.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:13 AM on June 6, 2010


Half of Detroiters cannot even read? Seems like a fishy statistic to me. But indeed the numbers seem to be widely disseminated even if they were originally plucked out of thin air. Also widely reported is that 65 - 70% of Detroiters graduate High School. Which means, presumably, that between a fifth and a quarter of High School graduates in the Detroit area are functionally illiterate. Can that be right?
posted by tigrefacile at 7:16 AM on June 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Can that be right?

"Illiterate" is a subjective term, but 50% sounds like serious bullshit. Half of that still sounds fishy.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:19 AM on June 6, 2010


Can you imagine if Detroit was in Texas? The hate would never end.
posted by Daddy-O at 7:25 AM on June 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


These articles are all 2009. Is there something new since the last time we've done this?
posted by cjorgensen at 7:26 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


They're likely referring to functional illiteracy, which is why numbers in urban areas seem shockingly high (this isn't the old school definition where you're signing your name with an X).
posted by availablelight at 7:26 AM on June 6, 2010


Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff:
After suffering through the nation’s worst and most concentrated examples of racial violence, industrial collapse, serial arson, crack war, and municipal bankruptcy following years of municipal kleptocracy, Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters. If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.
posted by octothorpe at 7:27 AM on June 6, 2010 [24 favorites]


Unemployment is above 20 percent and our streets are filled

Not to be grouchy/reactionary but why don't they all get together and file a class action suit against the UAW or something...
posted by sammyo at 7:28 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Detroiter born & raised, here. And honestly, if you delve into the history of the area you'll understand what's happening here. It's more than ruin-porn.

For instance: yes, the schools are abandoned. Population decreases, and all these baby-boom postwar buildings aren't needed any more. In a community with a healthy tax base, they can be properly disposed of. However, Detroit doesn't have the money to clean up after itself.

Until a few years ago, when the recession really hit the automotive industry (well before the rest of the country), Detroit was the hole in the donut of wealth. The surrounding suburbs were in a building frenzy -- homes, schools, malls, business parks...but now the donut has, erm, dried up as well. What's sickening is that so much went into these cookie-cutter suburban communities, without any thought as to reclaiming a once-great city that most suburban people commuted to on a daily basis.

Detroit will never right itself until Detroiters and SE Michiganders own up to the damage they did to themselves. They wanted it the way they wanted it -- corrupt politics, tax-breaks that never trickled down, putting money into stadiums and not schools -- and now they got it the way they got it.

Me? I moved to another state. Call me part of the problem, but at least I can work and pay my bills now.
posted by kidelo at 7:39 AM on June 6, 2010 [17 favorites]


If feels like there is some sort of active campaign to make Detroit the symbol for everything sad and terrible.

Unfortunately, it kind of is right now, just like Katrina became the symbol of inept government response. In both cases, you have the compellingly jarring imagery of the richest first-world country in the world having its decayed underbelly exposed to the world. It's not that it's surprising that there is poverty here (that's been a feature of the US since the beginning of European settlement) -- it's the deliberate institutional and governmental neglect and destruction that you see in places like Detroit that is so surprising for a lot of people.
posted by Forktine at 7:51 AM on June 6, 2010


We could balance everything out by focusing on Camden for a while.
posted by TrialByMedia at 8:05 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I thought the trees growing out of the piles of books were really beautiful... but the mention of the dead body in the book repository? That's kind of a bigger problem than just school abandonment. How was that glossed over? "Oh yeah, and we found a dead guy over there." WTF?! Was he homeless and chilling with the books? Did someone have a book related vendetta? How do you just let that one go as a drive-by comment? "Things we found in abandoned Detroit schools: Books. Trees. Dead bodies."
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:06 AM on June 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hey, it's like Sweet Juniper weekend or something.

Check out the dog kart!
posted by ennui.bz at 8:09 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


If feels like there is some sort of active campaign to make Detroit the symbol for everything sad and terrible.

I think it's more that there's an active campaign to get people in the US to fuckin' wake up and give a damn about what is happening to Detroit. Nawlins seems to get all the sympathy when it comes to cities which have been ruined in the past decade or so, and despite that situation involving a major act of Nature, there was still a huge amount of human factor involved in the destruction there. But Detroit -- it seems like the attitude of most Americans is that it somehow is the fault of the people living there that it's in decline, which is complete bullshit. However, it's exactly the sentiment I've heard coming from the mouths of the non-enlightened eastern WA residents around me. I'm sure they are indicative of attitudes across the country.

So people try to draw attention to what is happening there, hoping that some day, something will snap and people will actually start caring. It's sad to see apathy on such a national level toward a once vital and in many ways legendary city.
posted by hippybear at 8:20 AM on June 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Half of Detroiters cannot even read.

what
posted by DU at 8:20 AM on June 6, 2010


I work on Detroit's west side and my job involves driving around, so I see many of these structures. They are usually covered with some sort of grey thing over the window that reads "VPS". Of course these security mechanisms are easily defeated and people can go in mostly anywhere they want. There are many abandoned schools, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mackenzie High School is particularly beautiful from the outside.
Don't know the name of this one but it is pretty cool as well.
Another example of a boarded up elementary school.

I'm sure the eastside has a lot more than this.

That said I too am sick of the constant detroit-ruin-porn FPPs (to say nothing of the inept-detroit-government-look-at-how-'they'-can't-govern-themselves FPPs). One of these days I will get around to making one about everything good that is going on here which is not necessarily paid attention to, but it is my hope that in the long run detroit will be more well known for what is going on now than its 20th c. decay.
posted by ofthestrait at 8:29 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


For the few times I have actually gone out that way, Detroit is awesome, all things considered. And hey, we have the 21st perfect game (unofficially).

Also, FWIW, the public schooling crisis that these photos display is a national problem, not just Detroit, even though the city is used as a model for everything that could go wrong in the public arena.

What I am saying is that I am fairly confident I could go find a public school district outside of Michigan and shoot photos like the ones linked above.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:34 AM on June 6, 2010


"I think it's more that there's an active campaign to get people in the US to fuckin' wake up and give a damn about what is happening to Detroit. "

I don't see the balance of "let's do something positive to make a change" from the folks publishing the ruin porn (thanks for that phrase, kidelo, says it well)... It reminds me of the old days when folks would drive through the poor side of town with their windows up and "tut, tut, what a shame", and not do a damn thing to change it.

otherwise I might agree with you...
posted by HuronBob at 8:38 AM on June 6, 2010


"I'm sure I'm not the only one in Detroit/southeast Michigan that just sighs when another FPP about how bad it is hits the front page of some out of town paper or here at metafilter"

Like I said. I've never been to Detroit, and other than the previous post about the abandoned zoo, wouldn't know what it's like now, wxcept that it's been hit hard by the decline in manufacturing just as East Lancashire or Fife has over here. I would have posted these pictures if they were taken in Darlington, Doncaster or Dundee, because I thought they and the story they told were interesting. They reminded me of the photos of abandoned Chernobyl schools, except I wondered why people had packed up and left when there was no imminent nuclear threat. I grew up in a very poor town - rows and rows of houses covered in thick metallic shutters to keep out looters, because they could neither be sold nor rented and could only stand empty - but have never seen public services abandoned like this. Even the closed mental hospitals urbexers are fond of had mostly everything removed on shut-down.

Also widely reported is that 65 - 70% of Detroiters graduate High School. Which means, presumably, that between a fifth and a quarter of High School graduates in the Detroit area are functionally illiterate. Can that be right?

I don't know if you need a test to graduate high school in the US, but in the UK there are many many students who go through the school system and leave without or with minimal qualifications. I mean people who have trouble with basic maths or filling out application forms. The incidence is higher in poor and inner-city areas. The school some of my nephews went to is on the edge of a very deprived council estate and my oldest nephew managed to avoid sitting any of his exams as nobody felt the need to check up on him - they have one of the lowest pass rates at GCSE (pupils are legally forbidden from dropping out of school before GCSEs except in exceptional circumstances) in the borough. I can well see how this statistic might pass in Detroit.
posted by mippy at 8:40 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


The couple of years I spent in Detroit, probably the most common thing I remember people pointing out was the short term thinking in everything - from using the cheapest asphalt to maintain the roads to the run down fire station to spreading everything out while lacking a decent public transportation, the high segregation factor in neighborhoods, and resting it all on the auto industry to keep it running.
posted by yeloson at 8:41 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Because I can't edit, from the Wikipedia link:

"The UK government's Department for Education reported in 2006 that 47 percent of school children left school at age 16 without having achieved a basic level in functional mathematics, and 42 percent fail to achieve a basic level of functional English. Every year 100,000 pupils leave school functionally illiterate in the UK."

I would bet the glasses on my face that those levels vary wildly between poor and more middle-class areas, or cities, both here and in the US.
posted by mippy at 8:45 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, at least Detroit is avoiding the tragedy of gentrification, which MeFites have assured me is the worst thing that can happen to a neighborhood.
posted by happyroach at 8:51 AM on June 6, 2010 [14 favorites]


The FAQ page on the Detroit Literacy Coalition's website says this:
What is the functional illiteracy rate in Detroit?
47% of metro Detroiters are reportedly functional illiterate.

What is the high school graduation rate in Detroit?
There is no accurate data reported but it hovers about 65 - 70%.</blockquote
posted by Houstonian at 9:13 AM on June 6, 2010


Reportedly?
posted by furtive at 9:20 AM on June 6, 2010


I've seen that 50% literacy rate in many different places and tend to believe that it's an accurate figure. Here, for example, is a report about the president of the Detroit School Board who is functionally illiterate, despite having graduated not only from high school but also Wayne State University.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:21 AM on June 6, 2010


WSJ reports that the problem now in Detroit is the flight out of the city of African American residents.
posted by HuronBob at 9:26 AM on June 6, 2010


Here is a more positive look at what is going on in Detroit right now. Sounds like things are starting to improve in a couple of different areas.
posted by troll on a pony at 9:28 AM on June 6, 2010


I've seen that 50% literacy rate in many different places and tend to believe that it's an accurate figure. Here, for example, is a report about the president of the Detroit School Board who is functionally illiterate, despite having graduated not only from high school but also Wayne State University.

He has a learning disability. Was that the point?
posted by gjc at 9:34 AM on June 6, 2010


Reportedly?

Here's a more complete explanation of how the National Assessment of Adult Literacy was conducted.
posted by Houstonian at 9:39 AM on June 6, 2010


Since Detroit does seem to be a favorite MeFi subject, has anyone got a recommendation for a book or two to outline exactly how, over the course of my own lifetime, the city has gone from being a symbol of American pride to "the symbol for everything sad and terrible?"
posted by tyllwin at 9:48 AM on June 6, 2010


Why isn't there any accurate data about the high school graduation rate?
posted by box at 9:53 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis : Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit; Jerry Herron's Afterculture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History.
posted by sweetjuniper at 9:54 AM on June 6, 2010 [9 favorites]


Thanks
posted by tyllwin at 9:56 AM on June 6, 2010


I can understand the criticisms of obsessing over Detroit as a "failed city" presented in this thread.... All the same, as a lover of ghost towns, urban decay, and crumbling buildings, I gotta say there were some really beautiful pictures in this set.
posted by meese at 9:57 AM on June 6, 2010


The couple of years I spent in Detroit, probably the most common thing I remember people pointing out was the short term thinking in everything

If that's the case, then Detroit's a canary in a coal mine.

They wanted it the way they wanted it -- corrupt politics, tax-breaks that never trickled down, putting money into stadiums and not schools -- and now they got it the way they got it.

Again, I say -- canary in a coal mine.
posted by blucevalo at 10:02 AM on June 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


From one of the OP links: Half of Detroiters cannot even read.

There's a difference between functional illiteracy and pure illiteracy. 47% of Metro Detroiters being functionally illiterate is still unbelievable. But get your facts straight, Vice Magazine.
posted by blucevalo at 10:15 AM on June 6, 2010


"Why isn't there any accurate data about the high school graduation rate?" it is a pretty widely held belief that "graduation rate" reporting is pretty inaccurate. School districts (at least here in Michigan) do not report accurate data.

For example, from an Oakland Press article "Detroit Public Schools reported a 58 percent graduation rate in 2008-09, compared with a statewide rate of 89 percent. An Education Week report in 2007 put Detroit’s graduation rate at 24.9 percent, lowest among the nation’s 50 largest districts."

Do you find it interesting that, as the city slips into decay, the graduation rate more than DOUBLED in one year..

Statistics tell us what? ... The average human has one breast and one testicle.
posted by HuronBob at 10:22 AM on June 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm intrigued by these stories about Detroit. We're accustomed to living through boom stories. Then we worry about all the areas of nature disappearing by being built upon. And we worry about the crowdedness etc.
I'm wondering whether it is possible to manage contraction somewhat by good urban planning and good government on the right level.
If I allow myself to dream out loud I'd say; facilitate that superfluous workforce can move somewhere else. Tear down superfluous houses in a planned way. Use the space that results for parks and cycling infrastructure. Create a US american future proof city that is not build on the premiss of cheap gas.
Create nuclei of gentrification. Maybe by the allure of being able to get to work within 10 minutes of cycling or public transport.

I'm not belittling the heartache of the problems in these areas. I just think that if expansion is a normal social phenomenon then contraction is as well and a society should deal with that in a rational constructive way.
posted by joost de vries at 10:23 AM on June 6, 2010


I've lived in SE Michigan for 30 years and for the first time I actually feel more hopeful about Detroit. Why? Far more efforts by more groups to bring good things into the city. Techtown is an incubator started in the old Corvette factory to bring high tech jobs into the city - now supporting non-tech based businesses and arts businesses. Time's Detroit blog is following many of the positive things happening in the city.

Detroit is one of a number of rust belt cities that need to downsize - the population has dropped more than 50% over the last generation, making it impossible to efficiently provide services. Downsizing the city in a coherent and fair way is an enormously difficult project but it's essential to make a functional city. One of the results of all the open land is a huge and promising growth in urban farming.

The rust belt/trashed economy provides other opportunities. Detroit has an amazing arts community with many artists taking advantage of the glut of cheap space. Some examples: Russell Industrial - over a million square feet of former factory space now inhabited by many arts and music businesses. The Whitdel Apartments provide moderate/low income housing and arts support - community art center/computer lab/gallery as a joint project between Southwest Housing Solutions and the Contemporary Art Inst of Detroit (CAID). Many people have heard of the Heidelburg Project. Fewer of Mosaic and Matrix Theaters.

Will all these arts groups solve Detroit's problems? No but they're part of the solution which is bringing people and money into the city. High tech will help. Biotech is growing in SE Michigan. Having Detroit city council member elected from districts instead of at large is a huge improvement. The schools are one of the biggest problems facing the city and the combination of dire statewide, let alone national economy with Detroit's specific issues make that an enormous problem. Detroit is not the only big city with highly problematic schools but that is arguably the most important problem to solve.

And oh yes - Detroit is a beautiful city. There is a lot of truly stunning architecture and much of it is being lovingly restored. Lots more to discuss but this is long enough. Full disclosure - I work with Techtown to plan the third "From Rust Belt to Artist Belt" conference which will be next spring. I show actively in Detroit and while I don't live in the city I'm in and out of it all the time.
posted by leslies at 10:31 AM on June 6, 2010 [13 favorites]


Thanks, leslies. I'm glad to read any and all good news about Detroit. It's an incredible city.
posted by blucevalo at 10:41 AM on June 6, 2010


OK, this I found pretty...remarkable:


There are families of white folk who fled Detroit for the suburbs in the 60s who have now become so terrified of visiting the city that they’re willing to disinter their dead loved ones and rebury them in their current neighborhoods. And it’s not just one or two oddballs doing this—more than 1,000 bodies have been exhumed and moved since 2002. It’s a full-blown trend.

posted by availablelight at 10:42 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, at least Detroit is avoiding the tragedy of gentrification, which MeFites have assured me is the worst thing that can happen to a neighborhood.

Pushing out residents into poor shitty areas so that new, richer people can make it a nice place to live for themselves is not functionally different than being left in a poor, shitty area to begin with.

Except, I guess for developers who can cheer that they made it a nice place to live, free of all those people who once lived there.

See also: Manifest Destiny.
posted by yeloson at 10:47 AM on June 6, 2010


I'd also like to say that Detroit is just a symbol, or canary, or whatever. Richmond, Indiana is smaller and nothing like so extreme, but you see similar problems in terms of people who not only have no prospects in life, they can't even *imagine* having them.

Detroit is just a particularly jarring symbol of American ruin because it was America's powerhouse and pride. But there are lots of instances of the same disease.

That said, I *like* ruin porn (otherwise I wouldn't have bought a ruin) and I always have a special place in my heart for Detroit pictures.
posted by Michael Roberts at 10:59 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why don't you Detroiters posts some positive FPPs?
posted by delmoi at 11:08 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Detroit has its defenders. My cousin Joe is one of the guys behind the HUB of Detroit, a non-profit bicycle shop that returns all its profits to the community in the form of donations of bicycles, parts, and labor. They work with local youth on an Earn-A-Bike program, where the kids work in the shop towards a bike of their own, and in doing so pick up marketable job skills.

Joe is PASSIONATE about Detroit. Talk to him for two minutes and you'll hear about how Detroit is the quintessential American city, being the birthplace of the auto industry, the assembly line, pizza delivery, and Motown. He'll tell you about the shameful lack of support for Detroit's youth, the canker of "White Flight," and ridiculous short-sightedness of a city planning group that only plans for the suburbs. But he also talks about the work he and his business do with the "art walks" that leslies mentions, the opportunity that cheap rent and available space presents to artists, writers, and performers, and about the number of urban farms in Wayne County. (It's huge, by the way. There are a number of organizations that take derelict property and turn it into productive food-growing land, either by working with the putative owners of the property or sometimes just by seizing it outright.)

Detroit is wounded, but not dead. She's been bruised and abused, but she's still kicking. The ruin porn makes great photos, but there's a lot more to see.
posted by KathrynT at 11:10 AM on June 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


yeloson, leaving your worst residents in museum-quality buildings so they can make your good architecture a poor shitty area is also not the answer. I just did my trash fairy duty before mowing the lawn yesterday, so I'm particularly pissed that gentrification here isn't moving more quickly. There are plenty of poor residents I don't mind - my family isn't what you'd call rich; I spent a couple of winters sleeping on relatives' couches after the water froze, too. But for a small city, Richmond has an amazing number of people the world wouldn't miss, and I really wish they'd stop walking through *my* street on the way home from the bars at 4 on a Sunday morning screaming at the top of their lungs about, or to, their motherf****ng b****es. (Also I wish some of them would learn some new words, because the old ones get boring quick.)

There are things in your life that make you inherently more conservative; living in Richmond's historic Starr District is one of them. I love these houses with a passion, but having to look out the window gets really old.
posted by Michael Roberts at 11:10 AM on June 6, 2010


It seems like it would be an excellent project for Habitat for Humanity or a similar organization to "regentrify" neighborhoods for the people that live there. I'm sure there are lots of roadblocks, like properties being owned by slumlords instead of the people that live there, and in some cases the cost of refurbishing might be greater than building new, but it seems like preserving the beautiful old architeture and making the neighborhood something for the residents to be proud of would be worth the effort, especially if it were done by a non-profit with community involvement.
posted by RestlessNeerdowell at 11:18 AM on June 6, 2010


A well-known director wants to make a post apocalyptic movie. Suggestion: Detroit. Five days spent location scouting, lots of pictures taken (April 2010). Everybody is shaken. Usually, there's a lot of joking around and fun times location scouting. Not this time. What got everybody so pensive and depressed? Well, the thought: this is where America is headed, unless things change drastically... only nobody thinks we'll pull out of it, Obama or not.

I'm sure there's all kinds of motivation behind this "ruin porn", but for a lot of people it's the same fascination as seeing a corpse - you know, that one day, that's YOU. So you look. Did you know that elephants are fascinated by the skeletons of dead elephants? They handle them, hang out around them, seem very subdued. We can see pictures at a distance, and use words to communicate, but the fascination is the same.

Detroit is the skeleton of America - and we're fascinated, fearful and mourning.
posted by VikingSword at 11:28 AM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I see schools left like this, I know exactly what waits for many of these kids

The chance to be Robo-cop?
posted by clavdivs at 11:31 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems like it would be an excellent project for Habitat for Humanity or a similar organization to "regentrify" neighborhoods for the people that live there. I'm sure there are lots of roadblocks, ...

not the least of those roadblocks is that if there are no jobs, there's no way someone can keep up with the upkeep on a house. you can rehab your heart out, but if you can't maintain what you've got, it all goes back to shite in a heartbeat.
posted by msconduct at 11:36 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have lived in SE Michigan for most of my life. I currently live in Ann Arbor, which is less than an hour away from the city by car, but it may as well be on another planet.

The Detroit-in-ruins stories always make me feel slightly embarassed and terribly heart-sick. However, I am glad that people take the time to write the stories and take the photos, because it suggests that they give a flying fuck.
I invite anyone to drive through the once-great city and not be baffled by the senseless waste--so much beautiful architecture, so much land!--and the obvious human suffering going on. The scale of the decay and poverty is staggering. For years I've been convinced that the only way Detroit will ever get better is if the Federal Gov't spends the assloads of money it will take to fix the infrastructure. Really, the people of Detroit cannot do it. The State of Michigan is broke as a joke. The City of Detroit is a disaster area--a man-made one--but a diaster area.

Oh, I love it when people blame Detroiters for their own predicament.
Let me tell you something: just about everyone left living in the city itself only do so because they can't get out. Sure, I've known people to have cool lofts in Greektown. You can buy a mansion in Detroit for what it would cost to buy a 1 bedroom condo where I live, and some people do, but mainly there aren't a lot of people moving in to Detroit. This is nothing new, of course. People started fleeing the city decades ago. And that's the problem, obviously: sprawl. People were allowed to leave when things got fucked up instead of having to stay and fix the problems, overcome the racial tensions, etc. I used to date an English guy from Manchester who thought Detroit is what Manchester would be like without the people.

I am friends with a few people who grew up in the city proper--mostly young black guys. They sell drugs for a living. They're smart, but poorly educated. They could be doing a lot more, but the obstacles are huge. Even they only go back to The D to get product to sell in the suburbs.

Actually, that brings me to the one other solution to Detroit's woes I can think of: legalized weed. It would actually solve a lot of Michigan's problems. Let all of the drug dealers out of jail, because it's a waste of fucking money. Turn all of Detroit's vacant lots into farm land or greenhouses. I know I'm talking crazy here, but it would be a vast improvement. Detroit needs money badly. So let's turn it into the Amsterdam of the Midwest. Imagine people flocking to the city to sit in coffee houses smoking reefer without fear of arrest. I would :) I know people from all over the country who would. City planners could require that the owners of such establishments maintain local residence to incentivise further improvements and development.

Detroit still has so much potential, but it will take a lot of money to make it a functioning city again. Money's gotta come from somewhere.
posted by apis mellifera at 11:40 AM on June 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Apis: if you think about it, the money to build out Detroit during the 40s and 50s came from the Federal government. Detroit built a lot of the military hardware for WWII , and that was all federal government money flooding into the community.
posted by wuwei at 12:02 PM on June 6, 2010


Turn all of Detroit's vacant lots into farm land or greenhouses. I know I'm talking crazy here, but it would be a vast improvement.
not so crazy. industrial hemp in lots that are checked for soil pollution is good. There is a very involved underground movement getting this started and they have some money. A test case may be here in Flint.

RECALL WALLING NOW!

I was raised in Ann Arbor and this idea (cultavation)was floating around in the 70's.
posted by clavdivs at 12:04 PM on June 6, 2010


I've lived in Detroit for much of my life and worked in Detroit even after I moved out of the city. I still venture downtown regularly to the Fisher Theater, Detroit Opera House and the Fox for shows (I'm a subcriber). There are several nice restaurants and clubs near these venues, which makes for a nice evening on the town. But these pockets of entertainment are all downtown. It's the neighborhoods that need refurbishing, and lofts of starving artists in a few selected areas ain't gonna do it. There are no chain grocery stores or movie theaters within the city limits. No big box stores of any type. Police, fire and EMS services are sketchy at best. Many squad cars cruise the streets with non-functional equipment and it's not unusual to get a busy signal when dialing 911 (I personally experienced this - when Mr. Adams finally got through after 10 minutes of dialing, the operator told him that there would be at least a 45 minute wait for EMS to be dispatched and that he'd be better off taking me to the hospital himself. He drove me to St. John's Hospital at Seven Mile and Mack and even though I was literally doubled over with chest pain we were not able to enter the waiting room to sign in before being physically patted down and my purse being emptied and the contents searched. He ended up taking me to Bons Secours Hospital in nearby Grosse Pointe, where I was diagnosed with pericarditis.)

When I worked at a steel processing plant near I-94 and Mt. Elliott, it was a fact of life that you had to either bring a lunch or drive to Hamtramck to find a store or restaurant to buy something to eat. You had to buy gas out in the suburbs on your way to work, because there were precious few stations within a 10 mile radius of our plant, and the gas prices at any station en route to work within the city limits were easily 30 cents or more per gallon that at suburban stations. Plus it was considered foolhardy to actually stop and buy gas at such a station, as one of my co-workers found out when he was robbed at gunpoint. When he called the police immediately after the fact, they refused to send out a squad car, they told him to come in to the precinct and file a report.

Detroit residents who still have a working fire hydrant on their block guard it assiduously, because there are folks who steal them to sell for scrap metal. There are some gorgeous homes/estates available in areas like Indian Village, Boston-Edison and Rosedale Park (to name a few) but folks who buy a mansion in any of these areas still face the same obstacles - no place to shop, lack of public schools for their kids, and unconscionable home and auto insurance rates. Most of the city's upscale neighborhoods pay for private security and garbage removal. It makes me sad...Detroit has so much to offer - I love being only a 15 minute drive away from Canada and benefitting from some of the lowest sticker prices for cars and some of the best medical benefits (the last two courtesy of the Big Three and their UAW contracts). The Detroit Institute of Arts and the main public library are world-class, but again they are downtown. When casino gambling was on the ballot, it was pitched as pouring money into the city's coffer. There are three very busy major casinos downtown now, where is all that tax revenue going? The city is still very much in the red, bleeding money so much that mayor Dave Bing is looking at "downsizing" neighborhoods in an effort to pare the city's budget.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:05 PM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, at least Detroit is avoiding the tragedy of gentrification, which MeFites have assured me is the worst thing that can happen to a neighborhood.

I think this is salient. Having spent 8 years St. Louis, another city that's lost half its population in less than half a century, I'll be the first to tell people on either side of the debate that It's Just Not That Simple. I mean, if all you've seen of gentrification is the transformation of neighborhoods in places like Brooklyn or San Francisco, you're missing half the story. Cities across America are suffering, and they badly need a tax base -- and I'm not talking about one-off casinos or riverfront amusements, but actual neighborhoods that people want to live in, and businesses they want to patronize.

But really, it's all part of the larger narrative of American cities. And it's somewhat of a unique story. Elsewhere in the world, wealthy people live in cities because that's where you'll find culture and commerce and improved services. Suburbs are for people who can't afford the cities, and must suffer the commute times as a result. The American dynamic where cities are for poor people and leftists is relatively specific to the US, and from what I've been reading, that dynamic has been on its way out for the last 10 years or so.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:33 PM on June 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think people like to use Detroit as an example of what not to do. Do not become entirely dependent on one industry, do not allow your school system to collapse, do not move to surrounding counties en masse and pretend the city is not your problem etc... It's a living, breathing cautionary tale. This what our city (Milwaukee) could become of we are not careful. Detroit ranked dead last nationally in performance on 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests, also snugly ensconced in the bottom 5...Milwaukee. There but for the grace of His Noodly Appendage...
posted by MikeMc at 12:36 PM on June 6, 2010


So let's turn it into the Amsterdam of the Midwest.
Hey, don't steal our shtick.
posted by joost de vries at 1:33 PM on June 6, 2010


The earlier "Phoenix out of the ashes of decay" success story is....Pittsburgh. And they have a lot to teach Detroit. When my family moved there in the mid-70's, the renaissance was slowly gaining steam and a lot of the abandoned, decaying neighborhoods/buildings were being repurposed for walkable neighborhoods, adaptive reuse, technology and the arts. It was one of the dirtiest, unhealthiest cities in the United States (writer James Parton called it "hell with the lid off") that became of the most affordable and livable.
posted by jeanmari at 1:52 PM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I grew up in a city that is a smaller version of Detroit, and is also doing the urban downsizing and nature-reclaim in various parts of town. I'm generally glad to see this type of article or post. Yes, some of it is "ruin porn," but as with things like "food porn," it is the direct result of the kind of attention that can have real benefits.
posted by hat at 2:35 PM on June 6, 2010


I mean, if all you've seen of gentrification is the transformation of neighborhoods in places like Brooklyn or San Francisco, you're missing half the story.

People complaining about gentrification aren't even talking about modern Brooklyn or SF. They're cribbing talking points out of a 40-year-old playbook when "urban renewel" meant bulldozing entire neighborhoods to put up luxury apartment towers that were supposed to represent "the future." Nowadays, that same (righteous) indignation is being transfered to the process of middle class people buying old homes from longtime residents, renovating them, and settling into the neighborhood.

If you look at gentrification through the matrix of ill-conceived government urban terraforming in the 60s, the indignantion is understable, but what's happening today is completely different.

But, yeah, lucky for Detroit they haven't had to deal with hipsters and yuppies buying some of those old houses and moving into their neighborhoods and then getting all indignant about how crime needs to be lower and streets need to be kept clean.
posted by deanc at 3:11 PM on June 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Man, every time I read comments on any news article about Detroit, the seething hate and racism just astounds me.

But yeah, Detroit's a mixed bag. A magic bag even. Or stick. Sometimes it's a magic stick. Wait, one of those is in Ferndale, innit?

I would love it if they put up a giant statue of Ozymandias there, though. Look on my works, indeed.
posted by klangklangston at 4:07 PM on June 6, 2010


I am writing this from Detroit as I am here to help organize the United States Social Forum . It starts Tuesday June 22 and finishes Saturday June 26. The USSF is the largest gathering of grassroots organizers in this country. This is the second occurence, the first was held in Atlanta in 2007.

For those of you who would love to hear more about all the great grassroots organizing that is going on here, come to Detroit and hear from the organizers themselves. All of the workshops on Tuesday and Saturday will be "Detroit Highlighted" workshops which will be run by amazing local organizations.

I myself am excited to be here because i am orginally from Michigan, and like most of you until the last year have mostly only heard the bad things about Detroit. But I've been nothing but inspired to work with and learn from people here on the ground. Basically government and corporations have abandoned this city, but the people here are starting to transform this city on their own.
posted by lips at 5:25 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Half of all articles about Detroit should not be believed.
posted by bwg at 6:40 PM on June 6, 2010


Recently, I read an article that shows that the counties surrounding Detroit are finally starting to realize that their fate is intertwined. L Brooks Patterson, who for many years had an adversarial relationship with Detroit, was at a regional financing seminar, made his presentation & was feeling pretty good about himself & Oakland County, where the children are way above average, and the bankers said, "well, yeah, all well & good, but we'll probably gonna have to lower your bond rating." The reason: if Detroit fails, the damage affects the whole body, not just the sick part.

I hope Brooks is sincere, and it seems like he's working with Dave Bing on initiatives that might help bring some stability--recovery may be too much to hope for just yet.

I moved to Michigan 30 years ago and I have mixed feelings about the region. There are many plusses and of course plenty of blame to go around. I am committed to this area and like some of the other posters here, am doing what I can to improve the lives of my Michigan.

Lips, I'm sorry I won't get to the USSF, but there are quite a few of my colleagues who will be. If you see folks from the Young Peoples Project-Michigan, they are friends who are making a difference by working in schools & communities to teach both math literacy & community organizing. These are skill sets that will rebuild Detroit from the inside, if it will be rebuilt.
posted by beelzbubba at 7:06 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I currently live in Ann Arbor, which is less than an hour away from the city by car, but it may as well be on another planet.

I lived there until about 4 years ago, and I think almost anybody who's lived there or lives there would second that. Of course, it's also on a different planet from most of the townships around it too (except maybe Chelsea and Saline). You don't even have to go to Detroit to get a flavor for that.
posted by blucevalo at 9:17 PM on June 6, 2010


Too right, blucevalo. I grew up in Howell (former home of the "Grand Wizard" of the KKK, so I've been told) and Whiteboy, I mean Whitmore Lake.

Whitmore Lake wasn't so bad, as it is only about 15 miles from Ann Arbor, but yeah, talk about another planet. I grew up surrounded almost exclusively by white people. Highly religious, extremely conservative, frequently racist white people. It's why I cling to my little island of happiness here in Ann Arbor. I've lived in Ypsilanti, too, and thought it was fine, although it has a reputation for being a slightly tougher town than A2. I'd way rather live there than anywhere in Livingston County again.
posted by apis mellifera at 10:16 PM on June 6, 2010


Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls

I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights.

Bowie, Panic in Detroit.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:54 PM on June 6, 2010


If feels like there is some sort of active campaign to make Detroit the symbol for everything sad and terrible.

To me, the last 10 years seems like an active campaign to make the US the symbol for everything sad and terrible. And that campaign is headquartered in Washington, D. C.

Detroit was heavily reliant on *two* limited resources for what success it enjoyed: iron and fossil fuels. It was -doomed- to go down along with heavy industry. Should have been no surprise for anyone there.

The same will be true in this century for -every- business that was built on the easily-tapped riches of the Fossil Fuel Century.

John Shuttleworth, 1975 interview

Spread more land than can possibly be farmed, more gold than can be counted, more "work" — in the form of grabbing a share of an apparently endless bounty before a group of people any people, even the wretched serfs and debtors who were, in large measure, our ancestors and you'll find that all our most cherished concepts and discoveries practically invent themselves....
PLOWBOY: And the Frontier is now gone.
SHUTTLEWORTH: It has been, for all practical purposes, completely mapped and tapped.... The Great Frontier is closed.

Twilight of the Machine
posted by Twang at 2:20 AM on June 7, 2010


The American dynamic where cities are for poor people and leftists is relatively specific to the US, and from what I've been reading, that dynamic has been on its way out for the last 10 years or so.

A dynamic that will continue as the price of oil increases.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:41 AM on June 7, 2010


Woah, weird html problem.

Let me tell you something: just about everyone left living in the city itself only do so because they can't get out.

That's not quite true.

Detroit's income distribution is interesting because there are actually a fair number of middle class people left in the city. Income-wise, the thing that really separates the city from the suburbs is that there are essentially no wealthy people there.

What's true is that almost all the white people have left. It's a _very_ black city. Check it out: This is a map showing race data from the 2000 census, at the block group level. Dark green is 84-100% African-American. The white color is all less than 30% black. Can you spot 8 Mile?

I don't have a screen cap of income data, but overlaying that info with the race data is interesting. One of the more striking things is that blacks tend to stay pretty damn close to the city after they become solidly middle class. Most stay, some move to the northwest suburbs, but few leave for the outer suburbs. There's a sharp line between white and black at the city's edge, but a very fuzzy line between rich and poor. What you're looking at is a pretty good contender for most segregated city in the USA.

I'm a life-long Ann Arbor area resident. I love the city. I understand the optimism some people have. Detroit is a little bit like the wild west. You can do what you want without much interference. Run a strip club in your home. Buy an entire old factory and set it up as artist space. Drive down the street naked on a tractor and not get arrested. Whatever. It's easy to do *good* there, too, because everything you do is an improvement. Every project is a sign that things are improving. Love for Detroit is a fad right now, and I'm enough of a pessimist to figure that fad will die out way before the city gets to the point where it's healthy. You pay attention for long enough and it's hard to ignore the broader issues that make it hard to imagine Detroit as a normal American city again.

Politically, Detroit has no power or friends in state or federal government. For years, the city had two votes on the regional planning authority, while the surrounding suburbs had something like 10 votes in total. The white suburbs run the show and all the money stays outside the city. Period. They're not going to lend a hand to the city, because there's no short-term reason for them to do so. In the long run, yeah, it's in our interest to rebuild it, but try telling that to anyone who lived through the riots, had parents who lived through the riots, or had grandparents who lived through the riots. Suburbanites over the age of 40 are terrified of the place.

The city lost half its population. It'd need a million more people paying property taxes in order to support it's infrastructure at the same level as in the 50's and 60's. It lost all its industry and there's not much reason for businesses to locate there. Almost every potential construction site in the city needs expensive environmental remediation. The infrastructure is in horrible condition. I used to work in the city and it's a major PITA commute without mass transit. Crime is a very real problem in most of the city.

The best option is to raze half the city and concentrate on fixing a few areas. It's amazing to hear people discussing it seriously now, but I can't imagine it working. You need to convince residents to play along with you. Detroiters aren't going to trust the government. They've been burned in the past. People suffered through the riots, white flight, collapse of the auto industry, years of rampant arson, some of the nation's worst crime, failed public housing efforts, destruction of whole neighborhoods for failed public housing projects and highways that serve no one but suburbanites who want to get at the good stuff downtown. Now you want them to abandon their homes and move to a new part of town?

I feel like such a downer. Maybe I should have had my coffee before writing that.
posted by pjaust at 7:09 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


used to date an English guy from Manchester who thought Detroit is what Manchester would be like without the people.

I can understand that. Manchester is not the same city it was 12 years ago, thanks to a council effort to reverse huge social deprivation and crime (demolishing and rebuilding housing estates etc) and the IRA bomb which took out half the city centre meaning they had no choice but to rebuild. The upshot, though, is that there are a lot of empty warehouse conversions right now as they are too small and expensive for many families to live in. It's not as bad as London - I'm a professional person here and it would take two years' salary to save the deposit for an average flat in an average area - but sometimes gentrification does not always favour the people who have lived there when it was known as Skid Row.
posted by mippy at 7:21 AM on June 7, 2010


>and the IRA bomb which took out half the city centre meaning they had no choice but to rebuild.

Ah yes, the traditional European school of architecture, aka Luftwaffe/RAF etc. It's like some horrific kind of pruning.
posted by mdoar at 11:08 AM on June 7, 2010


Detroit will never right itself until Detroiters and SE Michiganders own up to the damage they did to themselves. They wanted it the way they wanted it -- corrupt politics, tax-breaks that never trickled down, putting money into stadiums and not schools -- and now they got it the way they got it.

White Detroiters fleeing to the suburbs and continuing to use Detroit resources while paying taxes elsewhere is what did it. The corruption came later, after the pie had shrunk.

Those of you who never lived inside the city limits don't know anything about Detroit. The suburbs are another world, and the suburban view of Detroit is based on infotainment.

I'm a white Detroiter who left rather than be laid off for the third time in a row. I own a house there I can't sell. My neighbours (most of whom have left the city now) tell me the crack dealers are taking over completely (it was a nice neighbourhood of teachers, preachers and social workers, but now the proximity to 8 Mile means it is a drug market for suburbanites). Detroit is both far better and far worse than you think.

It is a heartbreaking city.
posted by QIbHom at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


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