Abandoned, east Detroit

Since coming back from Detroit in late September, I have reached out to five Portland area universities if they or their student groups might like a multimedia show on the realities facing Detroit. So far, I have not had any bites. I do not think the topic is of much interest to Portland area residents, as Detroit is nearly 2,000 miles away, and the realities facing a city with tens of thousands of abandoned properties and continued problems with public safety, poverty, and economic revitalization just do not register here. The Rust Belt and its many ills I think matter very little beyond the region that is experiencing continued economic decline for decades. But, I will keep working on this.

It still startles me how little people know and care about the pockets of distress in the United States, even though we still share the same country. This is not true all the time and everywhere, but for those pockets of intense decline and multi-generation poverty, it is as if we write them off as failed mini-states, doomed forever to failure. There seems to be an unwritten decision that just says, you are no longer worth it. And, for many in east Detroit, that looks a bit like what you see here.

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)



  1. Having grown up in Detroit and then having lived in more prosperous/”it” cities, I can say that Detroit’s two biggest problems are 1) crime and 2) a poor city/suburb relationship.

    1. Crime makes reinvestment way harder than it should be. If crime was magically brought under control, tons of new businesses would pop up along the main thoroughfares. There’s huge local demand for a resurgent Detroit, and there is still a lot of money within the metropolitan area. But people are worried about their safety.

    Even next to Slow’s BBQ, an ultra hip restaurant in Detroit, there are signs advising you to park in the paid lots. Or, at least, those signs were still up a year ago (I haven’t checked recently).

    You could go extreme and bring in the National Guard or something and clean up the city, but people would claim their rights are being violated. And in some cases, they’d be right.


    2. For too long, the suburbs have pretty much viewed Detroit as almost an “enemy” city. Again, there’s more than enough money within the metropolis to tear down blighted neighborhoods and to reinvigorate the better neighborhoods. But a lot of locals view putting money into the city as an epic waste.

    Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans moved his company’s offices downtown, and that led to a big downtown revitalization. He bought buildings no one believed in and made the buildings functional again. There’s no reason other businesses couldn’t do that, but they don’t believe in the city.

    From what I’ve seen, law enforcement will never be the #1 answer in Detroit. Detroit already has more police per capita than Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and many other big cities.

    What works the best, from what I’ve seen, is economic reinvestment coupled with strategic law enforcement. Obviously, the Detroit cops view downtown as a critical area, and that’s significantly aided the gentrification there. But all the police in the world wouldn’t have fixed downtown if Gilbert didn’t move his business down there.


    1. That’s quite a few thoughts. This is a 50 year story, with many players, some completely outside of the city: national trends to promote suburbanization, global trade and supply chains that have reorganized manufacturing, historic racism/redlining, deindustrialization, the pattern and purpose of subsidized surburban development and the interstate highway system, white flight (my family was a part of that for reasons that may or may not be related to what happened in the city), and more. You can read the Detroit Free Press’s investigation on Dan Gilbert also. Is his model the model that will save Detroit, or his model of promoting loans that have led to foreclosures also part of the problem? http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/special-reports/2015/07/01/quicken-loans-blight-dilemma/29537285/


      1. Quicken Loans isn’t perfect, I agree, but the company’s investments in Detroit have been absolutely critical in bringing life back to the city.

        I mean, the entire country was rocked by the subprime mortgage crisis. Quicken Loans shouldn’t go without any blame, but you know, that was just the way the economy functioned at the time.

        Also, I’ll say that I think the negative economic effects of deindustrialization are the big red herring in the Rust Belt story. Yes, that was a big blow to cities like Detroit, but it was the social ramification of losing those jobs that really, really hurt Detroit. It created a social divide that led to the destructive city/suburb divide.


  2. You may wish to read Mark Binelli’s excellent book on Detroit if you haven’t already. He discusses the loss of jobs–Detroit’s loss of manufacturing jobs has been about 80% since the mid-1960s. http://us.macmillan.com/detroitcityistheplacetobe/markbinelli. Here’s what he said:

    Unfortunately, pundits and elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum seem to have reached a consensus, most often phrased as “Those jobs”—meaning, the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that have disappeared over the past decades—“are never coming back.” This verdict is delivered as tough love, a harsh truth akin to the unpleasantness of air travel or the inevitability of death something accepted by grown-ups as part of life. Market forces, like the weather, can be studies, perhaps even crudely predicted, but to attempt to buck or control the invisible hand would be hubris. You might as well shake your fist at a tornado. Those jobs are gone; they had to leave; they’re never coming back.


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