Thursday, October 8, 2009

Talking with Time

The Free Press hosted a great conversation today with Dan Okrent, author of Time's much-criticized cover story on Detroit. Even John Dingell signed on to ask questions (I take it Okrent's criticism stung). The transcript's worth reading.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The wrong way to rightsize

Every week it seems someone new writes a column on rightsizing Detroit. Darrell Dawsey at the Time's Detroit Blog is the latest to endorse the idea:
So since the city is shrinking and de-industrializing anyway, why not attempt to exercise some control over the contraction, make money from it even? Target areas that have been largely abandoned and provide incentives for those who remain to move elsewhere in the city. Then fence off giant swaths of Detroit. Turn huge portions of the land over to nature, create preserves and parks and lease other portions to farmers who could use it to grow the fresh, affordable food -- and jobs -- that many of our communities could sorely use.

The simple truth is that no one in America should have to live with such blight, and the city's hand in creating it is shameful. That doesn't mean Detroit shouldn't pursue rightsizing, but if it's going to clear land, it needs to do something with it as it awaits redevelopment. Detroiters deserve better than this.

Update: For better photos of the neighborhood, go to Sweet Juniper. The contrast from the 1950s to the present is shocking.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The right pitch to suburbanites

The words "white flight" are rightly found in every story on Detroit's decline, but the parallel phenomenon of black flight (mostly of the middle class) is routinely ignored. Yet it's the latter phenomenon that's driving the city's present population loss. Just look at the numbers*. In 2000, there were 775,772 African Americans living in Detroit. In 2008, there were only 651,762. That's a decrease of 16% in just 8 years.

If the city hopes to stem the tide, it needs to assuage the concerns of people like John Simpson. In a column on Gotryke (recently posted to DYes), he explains why he lives in the suburbs despite his love for all things Detroit, from Aretha Franklin to Faygo to Coleman Young. In three words: he had kids. So he moved to a better school district with safer streets. Sure, he'd love to be back in the D, and he might pitch in if the city were really on the rebound ... but until then he'll sit on the sidelines and watch from the suburbs.

For a committed Detroiter, it's a frustrating sentiment to hear. If he cares so much, why doesn't he move back now and work to make the city better? But the unfortunate truth is that the burden lies on the residents and leaders who remain -- not to fix all the city's ills, but to change the trajectory of the city from unremitting decline to hope and rebirth. Johnson writes, "I would move home in a heartbeat if I believed that Detroit was moving in the right direction, was meeting those challenges head-on, and was on a path toward better schools, safer streets and 'a better quality of life.'”

He's not a lost cause. He's not harboring racial animus. He's not pining for the return of Hudson's and other relics of the past. He just wants a good neighborhood where his kids can learn and play safely, and there are many others who only ask the same.

What the city needs to do -- what residents and leaders need to work toward -- is proving, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, that Detroit's becoming a better place to live. Not that it's perfect, not that's it the same as the suburbs, but that it's moving in a direction worth committing oneself to. Then Detroit will have a story worth telling to all the people who'd like to live in Detroit, if only.

*The estimate for 2008 comes from the American Community Survey. I note this because it pegs Detroit's current population at 777,493 -- far below SEMCOG's estimate of 830,000 and even farther below the U.S. Census estimate of 912,062. If the ACS is lowballing the population, then it's also exaggerating the extent of black flight. The phenomenon is still real, but the rate of flight may be less than 16%.