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The future of Detroit

City Journal has a good article on the problems and future of Detroit.

The new mayor’s boldest argument may be that Detroit needs to shrink to revive. Detroit has contracted from 2 million residents to about 900,000; whole areas of the city have virtually emptied. As many as 70,000 homes stand abandoned. On some blocks, many homes have gone unoccupied and untended for so long that summer vegetation completely engulfs them; only the outline of the house suggests something man-made. Detroiters refer to certain city districts as “feral”—that is, having reverted to nature. Yet the city must still provide services to these areas’ few remaining occupants, at great cost.

Bing hopes to raze entire underpopulated neighborhoods and relocate their few residents to more viable areas of the city. Perhaps as much as one-quarter of Detroit would revert to unoccupied parkland and woods under Bing’s plan. The controversial initiative is a necessary step, the mayor believes, in reducing the size of government and hence regaining control of finances, out of balance after years of mismanagement. The city has an accumulated deficit of $300 million. Even though Bing has already cut about 1,000 positions, the city still employs some 13,000 workers to serve its fewer than 900,000 residents, yielding one of the highest ratios of workers to population among major American cities.

As I posted earlier today, the school system is still in shambles

Detroit’s school system is in even worse shape than Newark’s, if that’s possible. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently called it “a national disgrace.” The problems are both financial and academic. Because the political class in Detroit has long viewed the schools as patronage mills, the system didn’t shrink as enrollment fell by half over the last decade. A state-appointed monitor has uncovered approximately 500 employees on the payroll in positions that aren’t budgeted. He’s requiring workers in the system to show up to collect their checks in person because of widespread concerns about “ghost” employees ripping off taxpayers. Detroit also suffers from astonishingly poor academic standards. In last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit’s students registered the lowest score of any school system in the history of the test, with 69 percent of fourth-graders and 77 percent of eighth-graders scoring below the basic level in math.

There is some hope

As for Detroit, it remains a gateway to Canada and the Great Lakes region, and its airport is one of the nation’s busiest. Despite the years of decline, the city boasts what development experts call a “meds and eds” economy—that is, major health-care and research institutions like Henry Ford Hospital and important universities like Wayne State. Detroit also has a rich infrastructure and architectural legacy from its glory days, including numerous art-deco commercial towers. Many of them were abandoned over the years but still stand, such as the hauntingly beautiful old Michigan Central Station and the Book Tower.

And the upside of the city’s population decline is that affordable office space and homes are plentiful, even in well-occupied portions of the city. “Detroit has the opportunity to make itself attractive to young professionals who work at its universities and are drawn to urban living, and to immigrants, who now make up just 5 percent of the population,” says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc., an economic development group. “Mayor Bing can make a difference by making government more business-friendly.”

One Comment

  1. Erin Wilson says:

    I’ve been reading about some interesting initiatives to farm some of that land, and eliminate some of the ‘food deserts’ there. I’d be brilliant if someone would carry it through…

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