The result of Detroit’s widespread blight.
The Blight and Plight of Detroit
I am neither an economist, nor a city planner, but one does not have to be either of those to understand the plight of Detroit. I am not from Detroit, nor have I ever been there, outside of the airport, but I do not believe one has to be there to understand the blight in Detroit. Upon closer inspection, any remotely informed person can see that this city is less of a blemish in the country and more of a growing land of opportunity.
My husband calls me “obsessive” because I am so fixated on a city that I have never even visited and should not even be on my radar of places in which to be interested. I credit my unending curiosity and morbid interest in urban decay. Detroit is, by far, the capitol of urban decay, or blight. What is blight? I have seen that there is a debate on the Internet about this, but basically, blight is a dilapidated structure that is no longer of any viable use, or a piece of land that has been used as an unauthorized dumping ground.
All you need is Google Earth or Google Maps with Street View to see this blight first hand. Albeit slightly out-dated, I believe some of the passes the Google car has made are fairly recent. Just pick a spot where you see a lot of green where houses are expected to be. You can spot burned out houses in the bird’s eye view, but when you go into street view, it may not be there anymore. For me, it’s like Easter egg hunting. I compare various maps to see which houses are no more and silently take note of the history they took with them.
My “travels” have led me to articles and other websites of people who have actually been able to go and photograph Detroit’s run-down streets. I wonder to myself how this happened. Despite what everyone says and what the articles tell me about the decline of manufacturing, I try to imagine what these streets were like, before the mass flight of thousands of people and before these houses fell into dramatic disrepair.
The Detroit Blight Authority, a non-profit organization, has done a vast amount of good for the city, by razing hundreds of blighted buildings. I also see the other side of the coin, though, and slightly mourn the loss of these buildings, whether they are residential or commercial. Part of my fascination with urban decay is seeing what was inside these structures. Who lived/worked there? Who built this? When was it abandoned? What was left behind? All these questions intensify, the deeper I look. I live too far away to investigate these questions myself and I don’t believe it would be safe for me to go, seeing as the crime rate is rather high and police response is notoriously slow.
The Brewster-Douglass Projects are in the works of being demolished. You can find it along the western side of the 75. A cluster of red brick buildings that look innocuous from above, but once you zoom in, the picture changes. You see shells of what used to be low-income rental apartments. The street view is limited, but you see enough and it is disconcerting. An article found at mlive.com shows that demolition started September 4, 2013. The article explains that a lady, who once lived there, raised three generations of her family there, before things went downhill. She explained that the project housing declined in the 1980’s, when it succumbed to gangs and crime as families left.
These ominous structures are a reminder of what once was. The wide swaths of greenery that occupy where single-family homes used to stand show us what once was there, but what could also be in the future. I feel saddened to find that these buildings are disappearing, like an endangered species. Pieces of history are being wiped out. Homes that held families are being razed. Family memories. I always think of what the walls would say if they could talk. I imagine these homes as living beings; old and decrepit, but full of wisdom and knowledge. They have withstood seventy or more harsh winters and humid summers. Yet, here is the Detroit Blight Authority, mercifully putting them out of their misery. Let us not forget, though, that many of these abandoned structures are vulnerable to arson. It seems like a daily occurrence in the city. Somewhere, there is always something burning.
It is easy to see the potential in all this newly opened up land. There are dissidents who are against restructuring the city or utilizing the land in more productive ways. As a documentary called “Detropia” illustrates, not everyone supports the idea of using the open land as community farms. People do not want to be displaced from their homes. They see it as a form of segregation. That is understandable. Perhaps these homes have been with the family for decades and/or generations. But what can one do with these overgrown pastures? They are ripe for the picking.
I have researched the price and availability of houses and land in Detroit and they are plentiful. I found a house, on Zillow.com that is over fifteen thousand square feet, priced at eight thousand dollars. It is in grave disrepair, but somehow, it is for sale, rather than on the demolition list. It would be a great investment, as it is actually appraised to be worth forty-eight thousand dollars. What a steal! Then you look at the property tax and you have to reassess. $2,056 a YEAR for this? The land is assessed to be worth at least twenty thousand dollars. So the land is worth more than the actual house standing on it.
So even if you fixed it up and tried to turn it around (assuming you do that) you still have to pay the property tax until it sells. If you plan to rent it out, you better hope that whoever rents it is reliable in their payments and does not trash the house. The catch is that whoever rents it should have a job. There is the rub.
Detroit has declined as far as employment goes. Of the 1.8 million residents that resided in the city in 1950, there are only about 700,000 left today. Looking at the housing market, it looks like there are more houses for sale or they are in some stage of foreclosure than there are people living in the city. Couple this with the map published by the City of Detroit that shows the structures slated for demolition, or have already been destroyed, and there is not much left.
The running estimate is that there are about 80,000 blighted structures in the city, which is 138 square miles. Detroit was once an enormous, bustling city, but now, it is merely a shell of what it was. I have a hard time turning away from this city because it changes daily. It is like nature is getting a hand in reclaiming its territory. It has a haunting sense of beauty.
A great majority of the homes and businesses in Detroit sprung up in the early 1900’s. Upon browsing the City of Detroit’s map of Building Demolitions, the houses that are slated for removal are from the 1910’s and 1920’s. The map is color-coded to show what structures are awaiting approval for demolition, are in process of being demolished, and those where demolition is complete. There are more complete demolitions than those in process. I took some time to try to see what these buildings were, via Google Earth’s street view. Since the street view has been updated in what seems the last six months or so, there have been occasions where the house is no longer standing as reflected by the demolition map.
When you look at the street view and see a street block covered in grass and wildflowers and see next to it, a burned out carcass of a house, you have to appreciate the juxtaposition. This is a testament to the empire that is America. The history of Detroit revolves around manufacturing and the major carmakers. Thanks to outsourcing and shutting down any valid source of medium skill employment, those who could moved away, and those who could not leave, stayed at the risk of facing foreclosure, homelessness, and downright poverty.
I want to help, but I am not sure how. Habitat for Humanity is taking strides to help rebuild some parts of the city, providing homes to people in need. The tide will turn, but only very slowly. The Detroit government is in shambles, much like its city. They cannot pay their employees or their investors. It is a vicious cycle, yet no one dare pay attention to it. Detroit is an example of what the earth will look like, after people, without the elaborate CGI you get from the show in Discovery Channel. You want to see how things will be after the Apocalypse? Go to Detroit.
We all turn a blind eye to this glaring problem. Detroit is not a blemish on the map of America. It is a gleaming land of opportunity, where anything is possible, now. It could become the poster child of modern innovation. Detroit can become what other cities should become, that are environmentally friendly and more self-sufficient. Jobs can be created to build farms and put up solar panels on the outskirts of the city.
These blighted buildings are a sad reminder of a sad past. They are beautiful in their own right and one only can guess what secrets they hold. It is time to let go of the past and embrace the future. The city needs to consolidate and cut its losses. The only way to move forward is to let go of the weight of the past.