Open Invite: Reinvent the Motor City

by Maggie Flickinger

Imagine walking down a city block in your hometown and realizing that just one in ten homes are occupied.  The others, once charming historic bungalows, are now overgrown, crumbling visages with nary a hint of their past lives as part of a vibrant community.  Repeat this pattern block after block.   Think a visit to downtown will reassure? There, a 35-story skyscraper sits entirely vacant, as it has since it was built – many of its neighbors have won a few tenants, but sit mostly empty.  City-wide, average residential vacancy is almost 30%, with many areas much more hard hit.

Open Invite: Reinvent the Motor City

Just some of the abandoned homes on one block in East Detroit, published by Mother Jones in November 2010.

This is the story of Detroit, the city once heralded as the very picture of American success.  In its halcyon days, the Motor City realized ambitious architectural projects, fueled by a robust industrially driven economy. Now, over 40 square miles of the 139 square mile footprint lie vacant – a collective area verging on an equivalent to the entire city of San Francisco. The vacancy rates go hand-in-hand with a precipitous population decline: the city more than halved its population in the past half-century, and according to census figures lost over a tenth of their population between 2009 and 2010.

Open Invite: Reinvent the Motor CityOpen Invite: Reinvent the Motor City

These changes bring a number of social and economic woes in tow. While down from the 2009 high of 45%, unemployment still hovers at three times the national average. Just last week, it was announced that half the city’s schools are slated to close, a move that will bring average class sizes of 60 students. Embattled Mayor Dave Bing faces an annual budget gap of over $150 million, and the city’s coffers have run dry: long-term debt is a staggering $5.7 billion.

Yet, hope may be on the horizon. Each of the sobering statistics above are being countered by proposals and ideas being submitted from across the nation as part of Bing’s open invite to revitalize his city. Highlights:

From the government comes Bing’s Detroit Works Project (DWP), ultimately tasked with creating a new master plan for the city, it’s currently serving as a sort of clearinghouse for the ideas pouring in.  Bing also has his own Twitter handle, and appears to be responsive to ideas germinating in the digital realm.  Project 14 introduces heavy subsidies for police & firefighters to purchase and move into renovated historic homes. Helmed by the motto “Live Where You Protect and Serve” the program is a response to the fact that while less than half of Detroit’s blue live within city limits, crime has increased dramatically during the recession.  A partnership with the Department of Transportation and Housing & Urban Development (HUD) looks to create a light rail corridor that will both address the city’s transportation inadequacies and concentrate vital and affordable development adjacent to this community amenity.  Federal aid looks to sponsor the demolition of 10,000 vacant buildings over the next four years, and DWP aims to work with community organizers to preserve historic and otherwise meaningful structures while defining demolition sites.

Social movements like “Declare Detroit” are attempting to revitalize the city by harnessing people power.  Their video outlines twelve principles for a vital city, and the associated declaration has been signed by thousands of Detroiters.  Private urban farming initiatives have been proposed, despite the challenges of bioremediation in misused urban areas, and small community gardens such as that featured in the film Economics of Happiness have sprouted across the city.  And, arguments of validity and reflection on cultural mentality aside, the widely publicized Robocop statue coup illustrated that there are people out there looking to help – to the tune of $50k in six days – if you approach them via the right intersection of social media and humor.

This blend of grassroots action and governmental fortitude will be necessary moving forward.   The task at hand is beyond simply rezoning and into the realm of redefining the city’s very boundaries.  This could include decommissioning significant portions of the city (removing them from public service such as water & power) while offering remaining inhabitants relocation packages including “housing swaps” into nodes targeted for vitality.  A Comprehensive Plan could create new clusters of support, safety, and community, connected by light rail or other mass transit solutions.  Areas not targeted for revitalization could be razed and converted to park or farmland.  In any scenario, the only truly successful plan will be for people and government alike to start thinking outside the four walls of their individual homes and into their community, to implement a holistic revisioning of the urban fabric rather than bulldozing homes haphazardly.

Do you see potential in Detroit’s decay?  It’s time to roll up those sleeves, get your fingers dirty, and respond to Mayor Bing’s invite: help to reinvent the Motor City into a City Ideal.

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