The Bigger Dig, Detroit Style
Business + Economy

The Bigger Dig, Detroit Style

Motown’s new mayor plans major urban renewal


DETROIT – Just when it looked as if there was nothing more to do but turn out the lights and walk away, Detroit’s political, business and civic leaders are betting on an unorthodox strategy for salvaging one of the country’s most economically depressed and desolate cities: Rather than thinking big, they have begun thinking small. This once-proud city – the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II and the car capital of the world – has languished for decades. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost to other states and other countries; a once vibrant population of 1.85 million in the 1950s dwindled to a mere 912,000 in 2008; and riots and freeway construction rendered huge swaths of the city a moonscape of abandoned and burned out houses and garbage-strewn vacant lots.

For sure, there have been many attempts to save the city since the urban renewal efforts of the 1960s. The 1970s saw construction of the Renaissance Center hotel and office complex and the Joe Louis hockey arena, while the 1980s brought the clearance of an historic Polish neighborhood to make way for construction of General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant. But none of these ambitious ventures succeeded. Now, double-digit unemployment, pervasive poverty and one of the worst public school systems in the country have prompted some radical ideas.

The city's leaders are looking for ways to literally shrink this sprawling city into a more manageable and economically coherent and interconnected urban center, able to offer the jobs, housing and good schools essential to enticing the middle class back to the city. Leading the way is the city’s new mayor, Dave Bing, a former NBA all-star and successful steel entrepreneur, who is focused on right-sizing his city and its government.
Bing’s controversial plan calls for demolishing 10,000 dangerous residential structures over the next four years, greening the city with urban farms, closing 41 school buildings as part of a major consolidation and enhancement of the school system, building a light rail system to connect the downtown to outlying areas, and scores of other initiatives.

Six months after Time magazine described Detroit as “a city on life support,” the Detroit Free Press reported over the weekend that the “elements of an unprecedented urban rescue operation” are taking shape.

The Free Press said that while Bing and public school chief Robert Bobb deal with immediate problems of budget insolvency and vestiges of corruption, some of the nation’s largest foundations, private investors and federal agencies are pursuing more than a dozen initiatives that would, if brought to fruition, transform both Detroit’s landscape and its economy by 2020. In a separate, unusual front-page editorial the newspaper declared, “When you assemble all the proposals, plans and dreams that have been advanced in recent months, the city of 2020 looks dramatically different than it looks today: smaller, smarter, greener, more mobile, with more job opportunities – and once again the pounding heart of a metropolitan region.”

But skepticism abounds, with many doubtful that leveling blighted neighborhoods and closing scores of public schools will attract suburbanites back to the inner city and convince residents to move to more stable parts of town with better schools and public services. Lining up the public and private financing for the venture will be difficult at best in these tough economic times. Moreover, tearing down major chunks of the city is far from easy. Last Thursday, a state asbestos inspector stopped demolition in a southwestern Detroit neighborhood after only one house was razed as part of Bing’s strategy – because of environmental concerns.

 A reporter’s tour of the city last weekend revealed a troubling tableau. To be sure, the city has its charm and boasts of such cultural and commercial gems as the Fox Theater, the Detroit Institute of Art, football and baseball palaces Ford Field and Comerica Park, parks and sports facilities on Belle Isle, upscale townhouses near downtown, and night clubs with thriving entertainment.

Yet there are blocks upon blocks of abandoned commercial and office buildings along Woodward Avenue, the main artery of the city, which once boasted its most fashionable addresses. The downtown elevated monorail or, “People Mover,” sadly offers transportation from one empty building and lot to another. Many of the adjoining residential neighborhoods long ago were devastated by riots and widespread crime and vandalism, and have been reduced to empty fields and burned out shells of structures. Other streets, like Elmhurst near the John C. Lodge Freeway, offer the stark contrast of well-kept, handsome red brick homes and apartment buildings side by side with ramshackle, abandoned structures.

One blogger recently compared Detroit, with its empty lots, derelict buildings and homes overrun with trees, to Pripyat, the Ukrainian city that was evacuated within two days of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. Pripyat remains hopelessly abandoned today— a fate that Bing surely hopes his plans will reverse, not hasten.