MOTOWN REVIVIAL: Detroit faces up to a smaller future
By Matthew Power in OnEarth Magazine
Detroit has become our most notorious story of urban collapse. But reporter Matthew Power suggests that we consider the city’s official motto: “It shall rise from the ashes.”
Chuck Brooks, who runs a small construction company out of his home, keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth as he talks in sonorous cadences. “I was born and raised here, I’ve been a victim of crime here, and I’ve continued to stay here,” he says. Brooks has been stabbed twice and shot twice, carjacked and nearly killed in front of his three children. And still he refuses to leave Detroit, a city that has long been a symbol of urban failure and decay, emptied of both population and hope.
Why does Brooks stay? He gestures to the other tidy houses on his block. His presence, as he sees it, moves his neighbors to believe in this city, especially in its time of need. “It motivates people,” he says. “It motivates the lady next door to cut her grass, it motivates the mailman to deliver the mail.” Brooks is a man of faith, and faith for him begins at home. He paraphrases a verse from 2 Chronicles: “I’ll hear from heaven, I’ll forgive their sins and heal their land. Well, He’s talking about Detroit.”
This block — and thousands like it — are evolving into what has been called urban prairie, the human landscape dissolving back into nature. Pheasant, fox, and raccoon populations have surged to fill an ecological niche abandoned by people. For the first time in nearly a century, and with much fanfare in the media, beavers have returned to build their lodges in the Detroit River, an ironic nod to nature’s industriousness in an area abandoned by industry. No corner of the city has been spared, and tens of thousands of structures stand in ruin, from the simple wooden bungalows of early autoworkers to the darkened neo-Renaissance skyscrapers of downtown Detroit. The vast Packard auto plant, derelict for more than 50 years, has a floor area the size of 60 football fields. So much structural steel has been cut from it by scrappers that the fire department no longer fights blazes there, fearing collapse. Illegal dumping is epidemic, with 300 sanitation employees patrolling 1,800 miles of streets.
For the people who have remained in the city, the statistics are no less grim. Detroit is America’s poorest large city, with a third of its citizens living in poverty. The violent-crime rate is the country’s second highest. Infant mortality is more than twice the national average. More than a third of students drop out of high school. The official unemployment rate is 30 percent, but if one counts those no longer looking for work, the figure approaches 50 percent. In the Motor City, almost one-third of the population has no access to a private vehicle.
It has not always been thus: growing exponentially with the auto industry’s rise, Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city by 1950, reaching a postwar peak of 1.85 million. It has since suffered an inexorable exodus, losing 60 percent of its population, the first American city to rise above and fall below a million people. Oakland County, the overwhelmingly white suburb immediately north of Detroit’s 8 Mile Road, is among the wealthiest of its size in the country and has tripled in population since 1950. The region’s urban core has been utterly hollowed out.
Efforts underway to fix the Motor City, including a new light rail along Woodward Avenue and “right-sizing” of the population based on neighborhood planning. Stability and growth in healthy neighborhoods could be encouraged; in areas of unrecoverable blight, habitat could be restored and long-buried streams and rivers could be “daylighted,” regaining their original flow to manage runoff and create recreation space.
A new land bank could make use of some of the 42,300 city-owned parcels of land, spurring job development, green space, and urban agriculture. A city without a single national grocery chain has more than 600 community gardens, so why not turn a food desert into an example of food self-sufficiency? Rather than being a cautionary tale of hubris and decay, Detroit could shed the carapace of its history and be a model of sustainability and progress for other postindustrial cities.
For some Detroiters, making productive use of the city’s empty places has become a calling, a means to heal their own land. In a collection of vacant lots on Georgia Street, Mark “Cub” Covington has created a bucolic community farm, nestled between the municipal airport and the Edsel Ford Freeway. They built raised garden beds and planted a small fruit orchard with plums, pears, peaches, apples, and cherries. People from across the neighborhood come for free produce in the summer (no small benefit in a city where the death rate from heart disease is 48 percent higher than the national average). Covington has a talent for networking, and donations started trickling in, so he set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Today the Georgia Street Community Collective looks after 18 lots in the neighborhood. There is also a greenhouse, a chicken coop, and a goat named Cozy. A derelict house and corner store are being renovated into a community space and a computer education center.
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