Readability

My return to Detroit

By John Ruberry

Last week I had some time off from work and I did what few peo­ple do. Before sun­rise I left home and drove to Detroit for a plea­sure visit.

It was my sec­ond trip to the Motor City. My first Da Tech Guy account, from 2015, is here.

What fol­lows is a progress report with a grade.

First of all, is Detroit back? Well, if you are like most vis­i­tors and you don’t ven­ture beyond down­town, Mid­town, Greek­town, New Cen­ter, or its three casi­nos, you’ll say, “Yep, Detroit is a thriv­ing city, it’s back.”

But most of the the neigh­bor­hoods, Cork­town, Palmer Woods, and Sher­wood For­est are excep­tions, are either run­down and decrepit, or near-​apocalyptic waste­lands, such as Bright­moor. And as for Palmer Woods, just three blocks from its south­east cor­ner, near where I parked my car to snap a pic­ture of a feral dog – 90 min­utes later a store man­ager was mur­dered dur­ing an armed rob­bery.

But even in its rough patches – actu­ally most of Detroit is one expan­sive rough patch – there are notice­able improvements.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_102787” align=“alignleft” width=“287”] The aban­doned GM Fisher Body 21 plant[/caption]

Two years ago I was able to walk into vacated schools and fac­to­ries with only a nag­ging guilt about tres­pass­ing pre­vent­ing me from enter­ing. That didn’t work, I walked in any­way. Harry B. Hutchins Ele­men­tary School, where I spent an hour tak­ing pho­tographs in 2015, is fenced off now. The Packard plant, the world’s largest aban­doned fac­tory, has a small but aggres­sive secu­rity pres­ence. I wan­dered around there undis­turbed for hours dur­ing my pre­vi­ous visit. Fisher Body 21, an old Gen­eral Motors fac­tory, is a glar­ing eye­sore at the inter­sec­tion of the Edsel Ford and Chrysler free­ways. While I was able to stroll into that one, the win­dows in the stair­wells must be bricked-​off. The stair­ways are now as unlit as a cave beneath the dark side of the moon. Only a fool, or some­one wear­ing a miner’s hat with a sup­ply of back-​up bat­ter­ies, would climb them now.

So for urban explor­ers such as myself, Detroit is no longer a free-​range video, pho­tog­ra­phy, and sou­venir col­lec­tion zone.

Two years ago no one with author­ity appeared to give a damn. I credit the atti­tude change to Detroit’s reform mayor, Demo­c­rat Mike Dug­gan – who lives in Palmer Woods by the way. Dug­gan was elected four months after the Motor City’s bank­ruptcy in 2013. Ear­lier this month Dug­gan, who is white, over­whelm­ingly defeated Cole­man Young II, the son of Detroit’s first black mayor. The elder Young’s 20-​year tenure can best be deemed as con­tro­ver­sial. The for­mer com­mu­nist uti­lized race-​based pol­i­tics and dog whis­tle words – city (black) ver­sus sub­urbs (white) – which kept him in office but drove busi­nesses and of course jobs out of Detroit. He was the stew­ard of the city’s descent. While the white pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing for the first time since 1950, Detroit remains a super-​majority African-​American city. Yet Detroit vot­ers rejected the younger Young’s own dog whis­tle call to “Take Back the Moth­er­land.” Good for them.

While there still are vacant build­ings down­town, two of the most obvi­ous ones that I noticed dur­ing my first visit, the 38-​story Book Tower and the for­mer Wayne County Build­ing, are being rehabbed. Both were seen in the pre­ma­ture Detroit-​is-​back Chrysler Super Bowl ad with Eminem from 2011. A mile up Wood­ward Avenue to the north­west is the glean­ing new Lit­tle Cae­sars Arena, the new sta­dium for the Red Wings and the Pis­tons. Detroit’s NBA team has returned to the Motor City after a nearly three-​decade absence. Across the street from the arena are the lux­u­ri­ous Wood­ward Square Apart­ments. With Ford Field, the home of the Lions, and Com­er­ica Park, where the Tigers play, as well as some the­aters and other new or reha­bil­i­tated apart­ments, the result is the new Dis­trict Detroit, an enter­tain­ment and res­i­den­tial area that rivals any in the United States.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_102789” align=“alignleft” width=“267”] Alley in Delray[/caption]

So there is a lot of good going on in Detroit.

As for the bad, let’s dis­cuss those for­saken areas, and it goes beyond the crum­bling and aban­doned hous­ing stock and the crime. Most pedes­tri­ans in “the other Detroit” walk on the streets, because the side­walks are for the most part crumb­ing. Some are over­grown with weeds. Nearly all alleys are impass­able. Even large trees can be found grow­ing in some. Keep in mind that in 1950 not only was Detroit America’s fifth largest city but it enjoyed the high­est stan­dard of liv­ing of any city in the world. Munic­i­pal alley garbage pick-​up ended decades ago and many garages of oth­er­wise well kept-​up homes are col­laps­ing. Why main­tain a garage when you can’t access it from your alley? And besides, there are plenty of vacant lots, with a bit of elbow grease, that can be con­verted into grassy park­ing lots. Rub­bish can be found every­where. Ille­gal dump­ing–much of it done by sub­ur­ban­ites–is a seri­ous prob­lem in Detroit. Side streets have many pot­holes and even more cracks. On the other hand, Dug­gan has made good on his promise to install more street lights.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_102790” align=“alignright” width=“300”] Urban prairie in Brightmoor[/caption]

And that post-​apocalyptic neigh­bor­hood of Bright­moor? A few sec­tions that were once packed with res­i­dents have devolved into the kind of empti­ness that you expect to see from a coun­try road, a phe­nom­e­non known as an urban prairie.

Crit­ics from the left will lash out at me as I take mea­sure of Detroit’s unpleas­ant under­side and yell, “What about racism?” Yes, for decades Detroit’s blacks suf­fered from insti­tu­tional racism. So did black Atlantans. The year after Detroit elected Cole­man Young, Atlanta, whose blacks endured Jim Crow laws, fol­lowed suit and elected its first black mayor. Atlanta became the city that was “too busy to hate.” In 1996 Atlanta hosted the Sum­mer Olympics, which is some­thing pre-​Young Detroit unsuc­cess­fully bid on an unprece­dented nine times.

Back to the good: Most Detroi­ters are gen­er­ally friendly peo­ple, strangers say “hello” to each other. That’s a com­mend­able behav­ior I’ve never seen in any big city.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_102792” align=“alignleft” width=“259”] Side­walk in Petosky-Otsego[/caption]

Back to the bad: Detroi­ters are the rud­est and most reck­less dri­vers I’ve encoun­tered out­side of New York City. And remem­ber, Detroit’s streets are in ter­ri­ble shape, so such road effron­tery is espe­cially hazardous.

Detroit is not “back.” but it is com­ing back. But some unfin­ished busi­ness remains that could send the one­time Arse­nal of Democ­racy back in the wrong direc­tion. While the deadly 1967 riot and the con­trac­tion of the Big Three auto mak­ers, as well as fis­cal malfea­sance, cor­rup­tion, and numb­ing lev­els of crime are largely respon­si­ble for Detroit’s demise, the munic­i­pal income tax, a com­muter tax, and loads of bur­den­some reg­u­la­tions also played a role. Those taxes, largely idio­syn­cratic to Detroit among big cities, still remain, along with those regs. And Detroit’s prop­erty tax sys­tem, accord­ing to the Detroit News, is “fun­da­men­tally flawed” and was “par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing in the cycle of decline and renewal Detroit has undergone.”

New Detroit” has emerged from the start­ing block but the Motor City is wear­ing ankle weights.

My grade for the city is “incomplete.”

John Ruberry reg­u­larly blogs at Marathon Pun­dit.

By John Ruberry

Last week I had some time off from work and I did what few people do. Before sunrise I left home and drove to Detroit for a pleasure visit.

It was my second trip to the Motor City. My first Da Tech Guy account, from 2015, is here.

What follows is a progress report with a grade.

First of all, is Detroit back? Well, if you are like most visitors and you don’t venture beyond downtown, Midtown, Greektown, New Center, or its three casinos, you’ll say, “Yep, Detroit is a thriving city, it’s back.”

But most of the the neighborhoods, Corktown, Palmer Woods, and Sherwood Forest are exceptions, are either rundown and decrepit, or near-apocalyptic wastelands, such as Brightmoor. And as for Palmer Woods, just three blocks from its southeast corner, near where I parked my car to snap a picture of a feral dog–90 minutes later a store manager was murdered during an armed robbery.

But even in its rough patches–actually most of Detroit is one expansive rough patch–there are noticeable improvements.

The abandoned GM Fisher Body 21 plant

Two years ago I was able to walk into vacated schools and factories with only a nagging guilt about trespassing preventing me from entering. That didn’t work, I walked in anyway. Harry B. Hutchins Elementary School, where I spent an hour taking photographs in 2015, is fenced off now. The Packard plant, the world’s largest abandoned factory, has a small but aggressive security presence. I wandered around there undisturbed for hours during my previous visit. Fisher Body 21, an old General Motors factory, is a glaring eyesore at the intersection of the Edsel Ford and Chrysler freeways. While I was able to stroll into that one, the windows in the stairwells must be bricked-off. The stairways are now as unlit as a cave beneath the dark side of the moon. Only a fool, or someone wearing a miner’s hat with a supply of back-up batteries, would climb them now.

So for urban explorers such as myself, Detroit is no longer a free-range video, photography, and souvenir collection zone.

Two years ago no one with authority appeared to give a damn. I credit the attitude change to Detroit’s reform mayor, Democrat Mike Duggan–who lives in Palmer Woods by the way. Duggan was elected four months after the Motor City’s bankruptcy in 2013. Earlier this month Duggan, who is white, overwhelmingly defeated Coleman Young II, the son of Detroit’s first black mayor. The elder Young’s 20-year tenure can best be deemed as controversial. The former communist utilized race-based politics and dog whistle words–city (black) versus suburbs (white)–which kept him in office but drove businesses and of course jobs out of Detroit. He was the steward of the city’s descent. While the white population is growing for the first time since 1950, Detroit remains a super-majority African-American city. Yet Detroit voters rejected the younger Young’s own dog whistle call to “Take Back the Motherland.” Good for them.

While there still are vacant buildings downtown, two of the most obvious ones that I noticed during my first visit, the 38-story Book Tower and the former Wayne County Building, are being rehabbed. Both were seen in the premature Detroit-is-back Chrysler Super Bowl ad with Eminem from 2011. A mile up Woodward Avenue to the northwest is the gleaning new Little Caesars Arena, the new stadium for the Red Wings and the Pistons. Detroit’s NBA team has returned to the Motor City after a nearly three-decade absence. Across the street from the arena are the luxurious Woodward Square Apartments. With Ford Field, the home of the Lions, and Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, as well as some theaters and other new or rehabilitated apartments, the result is the new District Detroit, an entertainment and residential area that rivals any in the United States.

Alley in Delray

So there is a lot of good going on in Detroit.

As for the bad, let’s discuss those forsaken areas, and it goes beyond the crumbling and abandoned housing stock and the crime. Most pedestrians in “the other Detroit” walk on the streets, because the sidewalks are for the most part crumbing. Some are overgrown with weeds. Nearly all alleys are impassable. Even large trees can be found growing in some. Keep in mind that in 1950 not only was Detroit America’s fifth largest city but it enjoyed the highest standard of living of any city in the world. Municipal alley garbage pick-up ended decades ago and many garages of otherwise well kept-up homes are collapsing. Why maintain a garage when you can’t access it from your alley? And besides, there are plenty of vacant lots, with a bit of elbow grease, that can be converted into grassy parking lots. Rubbish can be found everywhere. Illegal dumping–much of it done by suburbanites–is a serious problem in Detroit. Side streets have many potholes and even more cracks. On the other hand, Duggan has made good on his promise to install more street lights.

Urban prairie in Brightmoor

And that post-apocalyptic neighborhood of Brightmoor? A few sections that were once packed with residents have devolved into the kind of emptiness that you expect to see from a country road, a phenomenon known as an urban prairie.

Critics from the left will lash out at me as I take measure of Detroit’s unpleasant underside and yell, “What about racism?” Yes, for decades Detroit’s blacks suffered from institutional racism. So did black Atlantans. The year after Detroit elected Coleman Young, Atlanta, whose blacks endured Jim Crow laws, followed suit and elected its first black mayor. Atlanta became the city that was “too busy to hate.” In 1996 Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics, which is something pre-Young Detroit unsuccessfully bid on an unprecedented nine times.

Back to the good: Most Detroiters are generally friendly people, strangers say “hello” to each other. That’s a commendable behavior I’ve never seen in any big city.

Sidewalk in Petosky-Otsego

Back to the bad: Detroiters are the rudest and most reckless drivers I’ve encountered outside of New York City. And remember, Detroit’s streets are in terrible shape, so such road effrontery is especially hazardous.

Detroit is not “back.” but it is coming back. But some unfinished business remains that could send the onetime Arsenal of Democracy back in the wrong direction. While the deadly 1967 riot and the contraction of the Big Three auto makers, as well as fiscal malfeasance, corruption, and numbing levels of crime are largely responsible for Detroit’s demise, the municipal income tax, a commuter tax, and loads of burdensome regulations also played a role. Those taxes, largely idiosyncratic to Detroit among big cities, still remain, along with those regs. And Detroit’s property tax system, according to the Detroit News, is “fundamentally flawed” and was “particularly devastating in the cycle of decline and renewal Detroit has undergone.”

“New Detroit” has emerged from the starting block but the Motor City is wearing ankle weights.

My grade for the city is “incomplete.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.