michigan pride

Reading about the two articles on Hantz’s view of Detroit, I was transported back to my visits to that city which were back in the depths of the recession: 2010 and 2011. The article portays it as entirely a city in decline. I do concur. but I would think there’s a argument for not allowing conversion of deserted buildings and public land into agricultural tree parks by any one single enterprise. THe issue is not a decline of Detroit but a case of no people.

The first time I had a chance to visit Detroit, it was on a weekend to visit the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), and the second time was a trip to check out downtown. Admittedly both trips were downtown and not to the shadier parts of town (which there no doubt are) and my trips were also during early Fall – to Woodward Ave in Detroit.   Woodward is basically the main thoroughfare through to the city in a N-S direction. Comerica Park (where the Detroit Tigers MLB team play) and Wayne State University are both along it, and there are medium rise buildings all along its length which heads into downtown – and where many of the big 3 car manufacturers HQs are. With that in mind, Woodward is not an significant sidestreet and there really should have been more people, more cars.

However, the feeling I had on both occasions was that of an empty city. It was like walking through a scene from the movie ‘I Am Legend’ or similar apocalyptic films, where a city’s population is completely gone: There was really that few people around. Detroit with wide streets and delapidated buildings appears in many ways, a prime location for that sort of movie. With the lack of people around, and a lack of activity on the street the vandalism rate and amount of crime is rather high. Two memories stay with me clearly: behind the DIA I was approached in broad daylight by a meth addict who rather forcefully tried to trick me into donating to some obscure charity. She had the appearance of a meth addict – wizened, crazy features, terrible posture and teeth decaying. She talked like it too. Whilst I was almost prepared to donate a $5 to the lady (i was a little bit blind to some of these things), my girlfriend who was with me at the time and scared out of wits – urgently pointed out that she was definitely a fake – the lady had no ID tag, her donation pages were cheap photocopies, and she was absent of all things – a donation tin. Extricating myself from there, things almost got nasty, and she actually followed us halfway to our car. Luckily this was broad daylight and there were a few other people around. But i was alerted to the lack of safety in Detroit.

Juxtapose that with the nearby townships to Detroit. Both times I was staying in Ann Arbor (where the University of Michigan is) which is about 40 miles away but may as well have been in a different country for how different it is to Detroit. Life fills the Ann Arbor area, it is extremely walkable in the downtown area, and this town is a magnet for economic activity not least due to the UofM. Undoubtedly, helped though more with the feel of a large town than  I also visited some of the other towns surrounding Detroit – Troy, MI and Bloomfield, MI and these places are also hives of activity though not necessarily that walkable

Detroit is nothing like a tourist destination, and their economy has been wracked by many of it’s industries declining in relevance and economic viability- unlike Ann Arbor which has had the UofM to be its bellwether against economic decline. Plans like Hantz farms help with making Detroit more livable – by removing/turning blighted areas into essentially tree parks, at a later point some have said hardwood timber farms. However there are better solutions. Critics have raised a valid concern that not everyone can purchase a public asset at such firesale prices and benefit from it. Why not let ordinary citizens purchase some of this land? That is what is missing from Hantz’s plan – which has been portrayed as a land grab at fire sale prices.

Could the federal government help with some sort of subsidy? Or could the land remain in the public trust (as has been mentioned in some of the articles) but be converted into something better by receiving some sort of tax increment financing? Of course, the issue is a financial one – see http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2013/02/21/detroit-tops-2013-list-of-americas-most-miserable-cities/ . Detroit is in massive need of funds and can’t actually do much by itself without having some serious money to put to the problem.  Given that the City has no money to pay and would hence need some sort of loan from the federal government – any bond raised for tax increment financing by Detroit is as good as being a junk bond.

The population exodus (detroit lost 160,000 residents last year) is a major issue. Why not grant land to the people? Incentivise those who are on the margins of considering Detroit by creating flexible zoning ordinances to allow urban farming not just by one big enterprise but by several smaller ones? Perhaps a crowdsourced syndicate of people interested in buying the land could benefit here? An extreme solution would be a system of land grants – controversial but has been done – though not since over 100 years ago. That would certainly be a boost to the population.

Several times I had the chance to partake in a conversion with Michigan residents – particularly college students in Ann Arbor who visit Detroit once in a while. One thing struck me: Michigan Pride. Watching the Superbowl a few years ago with them, the Chrysler 200C ad set in Detroit came to the fore: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKL254Y_jtc , the crowd cheered louder for that ad than the teams they were supporting.

Detroit has more to offer than just slums and abandoned streets. It has Michigan residents who care about the once great Motor City and want to do something about it, why not let them partake in its future golden era.

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