This winter I have been in Michigan preparing a house in Ann Arbor for sale. On one occasion I traveled the 45 miles to the heart of Detroit with a friend so he could buy hardwood. What I saw shocked me. The streets were mostly empty of traffic and pedestrians. Litter was everywhere. Businesses were closed, covered with gang graffiti. Empty lots were filled with tires and rubble. Any surviving business were surrounded by high fences and razor wire. A turn down a residential street revealed boarded-up or burned houses, some obviously once stately. The feeling one gets is being in a dystopic sci-fi movie.
When I got home I decided to find how widespread the problem was. I went to google maps to randomly access street views. I saw some buildings in trouble, but many well kept homes too. Then I noticed the date of the photos, 2009. I started comparing the 2009 street views with pictures of “homes” for sale on zillow in 2013. I found that there had been much more destruction in those four years.
The iconic center of destruction is Robinwood Street. Devastation is complete. See the video if you dare.
But it would be wrong to think of Detroit as having areas of devastation surrounded by prosperous neighborhoods, with easily defined boundaries; it’s not like that. The decay seems to be everywhere, just in varying proportions. No part of the city seems immune. Even in towns outside the city limits foreclosures are rampant and houses are boarded up. The problem is hard to get a handle on. We want to ask why, but the simple answer is depopulation. Seven hundred thousand people in a city formerly of 1.8 million. No jobs. Bad schools and emergency services. Corruption. The list goes on.
As with all human affairs, there is still opportunity. Outsider investors are attracted by cheap houses. And I mean cheap. Some less than $1000, and falling. Local jobless residents like to tear out the valuable bits of abandoned homes and sell them for scrap. Homeowners stuck with mortgages for worthless buildings may be tempted to burn them to collect the insurance, however this is hardly an opportunity.
The way forward is not clear. Many residents continue to hang on and some buildings are being renovated. Creative ideas are surfacing for the use of new empty areas, perhaps urban farms. Wildlife is returning; beavers and pheasants have been sighted. A new emergency manager has been appointed by the governor to prevent Detroit from declaring bankruptcy. Detroit has been in decline for years, certainly since the 1970s, so the fact that things are so bad now is no surprise. Accordingly, those who remain are not easily frightened away. They’re tough and ornery. They will continue to hang on as long as they can hustle a living, which may become easier as recovering industries consider the cheap land. Still, one cannot help but mourn the state of decline of Michigan’s largest city, once the fifth largest in the country, once the “arsenal of democracy”, the origin and center of America’s auto industry and Motown music. My parents lived here in the late 40s, my sister and wife were born here and my dad died here.
Will Detroit have a future? Will there be a new Detroit, a Swiss cheese of grassland and pockets of housing and commerce? I hope so. Bravo to Whole Foods for building a new store at John R and Mack downtown, a sorely needed grocery store. Let’s hope they are leading Motown back.
So should you buy a $1,000 house in Detroit? Probably not, but cheers to those who do and good luck to them.
For more amazing pictures go to this article. Also, there’s an independent lens special on PBS on May 27 at 10 PM called Detropia, which shows some positive efforts to turn things around. Check your local listings.