Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The change we're stuck with

What a day to stop the presses. As the New York Times rubs in, Detroit's dailies ended home delivery on one of the heaviest news days of the year. General Motors and Chrysler will be forcibly restructured by the White House, L. Brooks Patterson wants to steal the Auto Show, Michigan State made the Final Four, and the fact that both papers stopped home delivery is itself national news.

As the headlines make so evident, Detroit has never needed its journalists more, but the recession is putting one paper after another out of print or out of business altogether. The casualties so far include Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, and Detroit, whose papers have all cut daily delivery, and the Ann Arbor News, which closed outright. If the economic downturn lasts much longer (and it's likely to last quite awhile), there may be no newspapers left standing to tell us about it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Non-profits retrench

This weekend the New York Times ran an article on Detroit's struggling non-profit sector. Charities across the region are on the brink of fiscal collapse just as they're needed most, and Detroit's major foundations -- like Kresge, Skillman, and Hudson-Webber-- don't have the funds to save them all. As a consequence, non-profits are being forced to cooperate, combine, or close. Even the symphony and the opera may be forced to share an orchestra to cut costs.

Friday, March 20, 2009

History repeats itself

The New Yorker's George Packer points out this passage in a history of the twenties published in 1931:

The suburban boom itself did not begin to languish in most localities until 1928 or 1929. By that time many suburbs were plainly overbuilt: as one drove out along the highways, one began to notice houses that must have stood long untenanted, shops with staring vacant windows, districts blighted with half-finished and abandoned ‘improvements’; one heard of suburban apartment houses which had changed hands again and again as mortgages were foreclosed, or of householders in uncompleted subdivisions who were groaning under a naively unexpected burden of taxes and assessments.
Eerie, isn't it?

He also links to Sweet Juniper's haunting photo essay, "School's Out Forever," published recently in Vice Magazine. Definitely worth a look.

State takes over Pontiac's finances

According to the news, the state is appointing a manager to run Pontiac. Flint was state-run from 2002 to 2006, and other declining urban areas, Hamtramck and Highland Park included, have suffered the same fate. Local leaders have been unable to close deficits that keep growing every year as population and tax revenue declines.

Could Detroit be next? Not likely. The politics would be brutal. But the state has taken control of Detroit Public School's finances for the second time, and the city itself is facing a $300 million deficit -- the latest in a series of chronic, growing deficits that have no easy solution. Every tax hike drives more residents and businesses away, but so long as the city's population continues to slide, the city will continue to have less revenue each year to provide services to the same size area. This is an equation for disaster -- day by day, dollar by dollar.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Habitat switches to demolition

The New York Times has a report today on how Habitat for Humanity is now knocking down more homes in Saginaw than it's building. In partnership with the city, the group is paying low-income workers to dismantle dilapidated homes and recycle anything salvageable. In essence, the city is co-opting the scrappers, letting Habitat take the valuables instead and use the profits to finance new home construction. Still, it's awfully ironic to see Habitat workers wielding sledge hammers.

Bridge Watch

Last night the U.S. Coast Guard got more public input than it was anticipating when 500 people showed up to comment on the environmental impact of Matty Moroun's proposed new bridge. This could be a big setback for Moroun, who boldly went ahead and built on-ramps to the unapproved bridge without waiting for public comment or federal approval.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Send in the artists!

When people hear homes are selling for $100 in Detroit, they momentarily dream of a great deal. Then they see a picture of the property -- burned out, scrapped, and rotting in a dying neighborhood -- and the dream is dashed. Luckily for the city, some artists find that image irresistibly romantic -- and the price can't be beat. The Detroit News has a profile today of a group of artists who are eagerly buying up derelict property just north of Hamtramck. (A local novelist first wrote about them in Sunday's New York Times.) I wish them the best of luck, and I hope they bring their friends!

Capturing the beauty in Detroit's decline

Time Magazine has some gorgeous photos of Detroit's ruins. They are the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, two talented French photographers who show great respect for our post-industrial landscape. Check out their website for more, including shots of East Germany for contrast. I'm stealing just one; please follow the links for more:

Hat Tip: Detroit Yes!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Paging the Joshua Generation

In November, the New Yorker published a terrific article on race and the presidential campaign, calling President Barack Obama the foremost member of "The Joshua Generation" -- a new wave of black leaders, like Cory Booker in Newark and Patrick Deval in Massachusetts, whose appeal transcends race. The Breakthrough, Gwen Ifill's new book, has a similar argument, pointing to black leaders who "rely more on pragmatic political coalitions than on racial solidarity."

I think it's time the Joshua Generation makes itself heard in Detroit. The last two weeks have proven, yet again, that politicians across the region suffer from 1967 syndrome -- the delusion that nothing has changed in forty years. Detroit's City Council almost seems to take it as a badge of pride.

Exhibit A: The Cobo Veto. Not only did the Monica Conyers-led Council veto the region's best hope for fixing Cobo and saving the Auto Show, they did it singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" to the region's permanent embarrassment.

Exhibit B: The Leno "Snub". Today, Jay Leno announced a free show at the Palace for anyone unemployed in Michigan. I'm not a fan of his, but it's a great gesture, and I'm glad he's doing it. Not Councilmember Martha Reeves. No, no, no. If it's not in the city limits, she doesn't want it at all. Here she is making an ass of herself on WDIV. Note the refrain: "Auburn Hills isn't Detroit." I got news for you: Yes, it is. No one outside of Southeast Michigan gives a damn whether you're from the city or the suburbs. We're just Detroit. Get some pride and let it rest.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Light rail to run *next year*

The proposed light rail line between Downtown and New Center will be operating by late 2010 (says the Free Press). Realistically, the project will be delayed until at least early 2011, but that's still exciting news. Hopefully this privately-funded project will be integrated with DTOGS, the city's own plan to extend mass transit up and down Woodward and eventually the other main arteries of the city. The 2010s will be the decade that mass transit returned to Detroit.

On the foreclosure crisis

The New York Times Magazine has an epic piece on the foreclosure crisis. The focus in on Cleveland, but you could substitute the word Detroit and never notice the difference. The whole Rust Belt is struggling with an unprecedented glut of abandoned homes, and the rest of the country's on notice.

Foreclosures are a problem all over the country now, but Cleveland got to this place a while ago. Cities, old and new, are looking at what’s occurring in Cleveland with some trepidation — and also looking for guidance. Already places as diverse as Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas and Minneapolis have neighborhoods where at least one of every five homes stands vacant. In states like California, Florida and Nevada, where many of the foreclosures have been newer housing, there is fear that with mounting unemployment and more people walking away from their property, houses will remain empty longer, with a greater likelihood that they will deteriorate or be vandalized. ... “Cleveland is a bellwether,” Immergluck says. “It’s where other cities are heading because of the economic downturn.”