Thursday, April 02, 2009

Detroit in the News

Detroit in the News: I took last month off from Detroit bashing, which worked out well because others took up the mantle. An article in The Atlantic speculates on the effect the financial meltdown will have on the future landscape of America and uses Detroit as a rust belt representative:

Perhaps no major city in the U.S. today looks more beleaguered than Detroit, where in October the average home price was $18,513, and some 45,000 properties were in some form of foreclosure. A recent listing of tax foreclosures in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, ran to 137 pages in the Detroit Free Press. The city's public school system, facing a budget deficit of $408 million, was taken over by the state in December; dozens of schools have been closed since 2005 because of declining enrollment. Just 10 percent of Detroit's adult residents are college graduates, and in December the city's jobless rate was 21 percent.

To say the least, Detroit is not well positioned to absorb fresh blows. The city has of course been declining for a long time. But if the area's auto headquarters, parts manufacturers, and remaining auto-manufacturing jobs should vanish, it's hard to imagine anything replacing them.

When work disappears, city populations don't always decline as fast as you might expect. Detroit, astonishingly, is still the 11th-largest city in the U.S. "If you no longer can sell your property, how can you move elsewhere?" said Robin Boyle, an urban-planning professor at Wayne State University, in a December Associated Press article. But then he answered his own question: "Some people just switch out the lights and leave--property values have gone so low, walking away is no longer such a difficult option."

Perhaps Detroit has reached a tipping point, and will become a ghost town. I'd certainly expect it to shrink faster in the next few years than it has in the past few. But more than likely, many people will stay--those with no means and few obvious prospects elsewhere, those with close family ties nearby, some number of young professionals and creative types looking to take advantage of the city's low housing prices. Still, as its population density dips further, the city's struggle to provide services and prevent blight across an ever-emptier landscape will only intensify.

Eventually concluding:

Finally, we need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. Places like Pittsburgh have shown that a city can stay vibrant as it shrinks, by redeveloping its core to attract young professionals and creative types, and by cultivating high-growth services and industries. And in limited ways, we can help faltering cities to manage their decline better, and to sustain better lives for the people who stay in them.

But different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. Band-Aids and bailouts cannot change that. Neither auto-company rescue packages nor policies designed to artificially prop up housing prices will position the country for renewed growth, at least not of the sustainable variety. We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography.

It looks like the outrageous view (with which I concur) regarding Detroit -- that it is a Lost Cause and must be allowed to die -- is moving from the outskirts of crankdom to the mainstream. Even the blue-haired old warhorse Time magazine has a slideshow going on called, Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline. Maybe it is still possible for the world to face facts.