Last night, I posted a quick bit about my trip to Detroit this weekend.
As usual, doing something important fast had consequences. Two Facebook fans, one born in Detroit and one who now lives in the suburbs, commented that Detroit has many good things going for it and should not be considered a lost cause. They are absolutely right: there are many positive things to say about Detroit and the people there are clearly not all addicted to drugs, indigent, or looking to break into your car. I apologize to the ladies and indeed, mean no offense by my commentary. It is fair to note, however, that the lady born there did not stay and the lady in the suburbs does not live in the city.
Before I begin this rather in-depth post, keep in mind that I am not an investigative reporter; I have no press credentials. I am but a naturally curious person who went to Detroit and has a blog. If you want source material for the stats I give and a list of the numerous articles I’ve been reading about Detroit — those showing reasons/data for growth and those denying any such thing — email me and I’ll share that immediately. Also, there’s no way in a PaperGirl post to cover the vast Detroit Thing. Don’t read this like it’s the news and don’t stop here if you have any interest in the topic. There’s a whole lot more, good and less good, about Detroit, MI.
Okay. The Census Bureau counted 1.84 million people in Detroit in 1950. In 2010, there were under 714,000.That’s a 60% decline in 60 years. Estimates from the Bureau put population at 700,000, so it’s still dropping. Big changes in the design of the US auto industry began all this, though it’s more complicated than that. But Detroit was Motor City, making basically All The Cars for a long time. Making All The Cars made Detroit the fourth largest city in the country during that 1950-ish period. (BTW: Motown music was born in Detroit; “Mo” = motor, “Town” = Detroit.) As the 60s and 70s came along, you had gas crises, racial unrest, foreign auto makers getting toeholds in the market, and labor getting shifted overseas to improve the bottom line.
Then the recession happened in the 80s. But according to the police officer I met and talked to for a good while, it was in the 90s things went from bad to nightmarish for the city he was born and raised in. Casinos were allowed to be built and helped only the corrupt officials who let them in; more addiction and poverty followed the casino construction. Perhaps sadder still is that school district segregation had a huge part to play in the KO punch of the 90s: neighborhoods were redlined, people moved out for better school districts. This was a racially- and socioeconomically-driven tide. The more people who left, the fewer companies wanted to invest in the city. The fewer investors, the fewer jobs, etc., etc. On the heels of the 90s, you get the 2000s: Iraq, financial crisis, etc. Oh, Detroit. Oh, honey.
By 2013, the city had to file for bankruptcy, a move that marked the largest municipal bankruptcy case in our nation’s history. Detroit was $18 billion in debt. Crooked officials, a problem almost too big to solve, and a lack of people to take a whack at it created that debt. Now, because the bankruptcy happened, Detroit actually is in better shape than it was: bankruptcy is designed to help a person — or an entire city — get right. It’s way better to pay your debts, though.
I’ve read for a couple years now that Detroit is growing and it’s getting “really cool,” which for a lifestyle magazine means that white hipsters are moving there. A one-page feature in, say, Chicago Magazine, picturing a guy with a mustache who has a food truck in Detroit is enough to make a lot of folks relax and think Superman saved the day. Superman does not run a food truck, though. This hype about Detroit becoming the next Brooklyn isn’t the case just yet. Detroit deliverance, from what I am understanding and from what I saw myself, is going to take years of deep thinking, actual doing, and leadership from people who are not stealing from the mouths of hungry Detroit-born babies.
Because when you have a small number of people living in a big city, you don’t have enough people paying taxes to cover the costs of living in a big city. Snow plowing, trash removal, street lights, public transit, etc.: these things require tax money. But if no one lives there to pay those taxes and no one who does live there can afford to pay those taxes, snow stays. Trash stays a long time. Lights literally go out. And no one wants to move into that city because the property taxes are insanely high. Huh? Yes, because the city is desperate for money. So the services are terrible and they cost a fortune.
There are gorgeous houses in downtown Detroit and just outside of it. I looked at many of them and part of my brain was freaking out, considering the possibilities. I could get a Victorian mansion for 50k or so. But most of the houses in these areas are in ruins. My ideal fixer-upper has been sitting empty since 2008. Animals live there. And pretend for a minute that I don’t work from home: if I moved to Detroit, into a “wait for it” Barbie dream house, where would I work? There are jobs in Detroit but many are in the suburbs, so I’d need a car. Not a big deal, except that car theft is so high in Detroit auto insurance premiums are the highest in the nation, hitting as high as $5000 a year.
There are 70,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit and 66,000 vacant lots. Forty-percent or more of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. In 2013, the violent crime rate in Detroit was the highest in the nation and five times higher than the national average. Roughly 40% of the street lights don’t work. These statistics go on and on. So I can’t move to Detroit right now. Not as a single woman. Not as a commuter who has to fly and out of my home city several times a month. Not as an Extreme Home Makeover story, not yet.
Look, I don’t wrap this up, I’ll be up all night and you’ll decide to read the rest of this later and likely forget to because it’s depressing to read about something once lively and energetic going on life support. As my Facebook friends pointed out, this is not the whole story of Detroit and it would take a post twice as long as this and twice as long again to detail one iota of the rich history and pride Detroitians (?) have and should have in their town.
I won’t end with some bromide about how I know Detroit will rise from the ashes, or that I hope it will. Everyone hopes that. I don’t have any conclusions or predictions. I saw Detroit and Detroit messed with me. That’s all I can say, except this one other thing: we actually witnessed a man actually breaking into a house. Two minutes after that, we saw a house gutted by fire. Two minutes after that, I saw a prostitute walk toward a man in a car at a gas station. It was all too much. The decay was killing me. I began to cry.
“Don’t cry,” said my friend. He had been most silent most of the drive, too. “It’s also beautiful,” he said. I was shocked. How could he say such a thing? “It’s hard to see, I know. It’s hard to look at all this and see how death has beauty, but you have to try. It’s part of life. Death is part of life.”