Destroy the City to Save It

by Benjamin Domenech on 8:53 am March 10, 2010

The Corpse of Detroit

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In March of last year, I posed the admittedly radical question: is there anything worth saving in Detroit? Wouldn’t the city where sirens never sleep be better off if we just burned it to the ground and started afresh? Dubbing it “urban policy chemo,” I got some significant pushback from some corners of the internet.

The best help to Michigan’s economic woes might come from razing much of the Motor City… This is beyond broken windows theories — we’re talking about broken houses, buildings, skyscrapers; an entire broken community, economy and polity.

Now, the Mayor of Detroit himself has come around to my view — and the views of professional urban policy experts. The city, facing $300 million in deficits and an unemployment rate approaching 50%, can no longer afford to patrol the husks of the city. His plan: bulldoze roughly a quarter of the buildings.

“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”

I have to applaud Mayor Dave Bing, son of Northeast Washington, for making this decision, which has to cost some significant political capital and destroyed any illusions about an easy path to revitalization. But the point is, spending less than $30 million in federal funds to tear things down and start afresh is the only way to have any hope of a comeback. One-third of Detroit’s lots are vacant anyway.

Here’s what I wrote back in March:

Razing these former houses and condemned businesses — now transformed into tinderboxes for arson, crime, and urban decay — until you achieve critical mass would end the problem of oversupply and the roughly one-third overvaluation of homes. Demolition crews would provide jobs at least for the short term.

If we don’t do it ourselves, the societal ramifications for these communities could well effect a far more terrible result, as do-it-yourself arsonists have been doing in Detroit for years. Taxpayer funds for Detroit is just a band-aid on cancer: it won’t change the endpoint for the city, and buy delaying the fundamental change that needs to occur, it will only make things worse in the long run.

Now, it’s a bit more complex than all that. Despite the hyperbole of my question, there are things worth saving in downtown Detroit, and opportunities for development in the near future. Don’t be fooled by lazy journalists who love pictures of abandoned stuff. But clearing out a sizable portion of the deadwood will help make those properties worth saving more attractive to outside investment. It’s generally better to have a park next door than a crumbling building.

I’ll be curious to see what innovators like Aaron Renn think about this.

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