DETROIT Feb 18 Imagine a city with open space
larger than the size of Paris, where people are planting
hardwood trees and vegetable gardens, and neighbors have plenty
of room to spread out.
It would sound so idyllic, if only it weren't Detroit.
The open space is largely abandoned land, the lack of
neighbors the result of an inexorable exodus, the planting the
work of residents striving to stop the blight from spreading.
America loves a big comeback, but Detroiters harbor few
illusions. For many here, it's about salvaging what remains of a
Throughout its long decline, Detroit has sought ways to
restore to its former glory a city that was home to 1.8 million
people, pinning its hopes on grandiose plans for the automotive
industry or casinos.
With just 700,000 people left, ambitions are now focused on
making less populated neighborhoods viable and repurposing land,
perhaps for urban farming. Where the cash-strapped city can't
provide, grassroots groups and investors help fill the gaps.
"What everyone wants is new neighbors," said Khalil Ligon,
project manager for the Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP), a
nonprofit focused on some 15 square miles of the city where
55,000 people live. "But where are you going to get them?"
The falling population is one of Detroit's biggest problems.
Detroit Future City, a planning blueprint, assumes just 600,000
residents. Launched by Mayor Dave Bing, the plan aims to revamp
the economy and use empty space. The Kresge Foundation, started
by the Detroit family behind retail giant Kmart, has promised
$150 million toward the project.
"It's certainly the most realistic plan the city has ever
had," said Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan planning
professor in Ann Arbor.
Neighborhood groups are also pitching in. Dave Szymanski,
deputy treasurer for Wayne County, which includes Detroit, says
"we've never seen this much energy at the grassroots level."
Though the lack of jobs remains the root cause of the city's
problems, Detroit's downtown is enjoying something of a business
revival led by mortgage lender Quicken Loans, whose owner and
fellow business leaders are financing all but $25 million of a
$140 million streetcar line.
Still, unemployment is stubbornly high at around 18 percent,
more than twice the rate for the country as a whole.
HOMES, AND HOPES, FORECLOSED
Reinventing a struggling city is a tall order. Finances are
so fragile that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, may
soon appoint an emergency financial manager to take over
Detroit's accounts. Such a manager could in turn recommend that
the city file for bankruptcy, which would be the largest ever
Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the United States.
In a desperate effort to avoid that fate, the Bing
administration has cut spending, laid off city employees, and
cut wages and benefits for the rest. Bing says cash flow is now
stable, but Detroit needs investment by the state to thrive.
"We cannot cut our way of this situation," Bing told
Reuters. "We've got to talk about growth."
Governor Snyder says Detroit's main problem is its finances
and stresses that he wants to focus investment on transportation
and other projects that will help the local economy. "I don't
want to forget the people in the neighborhoods."
Bing's revival plan will end up in the hands of the
emergency manager, should one be appointed. "If the emergency
manager buys into the long-term vision of the plan, it has a
chance. But if their brief is just to cut costs and services, it
doesn't have a chance," said Dewar, the University of Michigan
Already, police services have been cut back in the city,
especially in less populated areas. Some precincts have been
merged and are closed, or are in "virtual mode" overnight -
there's a number to call.
The number of murders per 100,000 people in Detroit in 2012
put the city's murder rate at around 10 times the national
average. Even so, says Bing, persuading people in mostly
deserted areas to move to denser areas, where there is "safety
in numbers," is a challenge.
The population continues in flux because of another acute
problem for Detroit - the foreclosure crisis. As many as 42,000
of Detroit's estimated 380,000 homes could go to auction this
The ongoing decline of poor neighborhoods while downtown
revives points to the sensitive subject of race, in a city that
is 83 percent black and has lived through race riots in the
1940s and 1960s.
Poor services and the possibility that a state-appointed
manager will take over the city have fueled frustration among
African Americans, community leaders say.
"It is one thing to feel ignored, it is another to feel
betrayed," said Pastor D. Alexander Bullock of Rev. Jesse
Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "Once people lose faith in the
process, the only response will be to destroy it."
PLANTING AGAINST POLLUTION
Driving around Detroit's emptier areas, blocks with one
house or a few homes left are a common sight. But they are often
well maintained, with cut grass and potted plants out front: No
matter how many people have left, for those that remain this is
There are also an estimated 2,000 city gardens, which
environmental activist Shea Howell says popped up years before
the idea of urban farming surfaced. "They are operated
extra-legally or illegally, but the city has bigger things to
worry about than going after someone raising a few chickens,"
Kirk Mayes of the Brightmoor Alliance, in one of the city's
poorest areas, says there are 200 community gardens in
As farming is imagined for Detroit's future, abandoned land
would provide fruit and vegetables to the city's inhabitants,
for whom fresh food is often not accessible because grocery
stores are few and far between.
City and county officials have no hard figures on the number
of empty plots and abandoned homes, and estimates vary wildly,
going as high as 100,000. "What's clear is we have space for a
million people who are no longer there," Szymanski said.
Much of that land could revert to scrub land or, as part of
Detroit Future City's vision, become "blue-green" corridors to
reduce pollution and help drainage in a city with an inadequate,
ancient sewer system that cannot handle storm water.
Hantz Farms is a recent addition to the cityscape. Backed by
John Hantz, a local investor, the group won city approval to buy
140 acres of land, or 1,500 parcels, for $600,000. The group
plans to plant 15,000 hardwood trees that will take 40 to 60
years to mature before harvest. The parcels where trees will be
planted are in sparsely populated neighborhoods and will often
not be contiguous. Hantz Farms originally wanted to plant fruit
and vegetables, but local inhabitants worried about rodents.
Local activists opposed the deal, saying it was a land grab
aimed at driving up property values by making land scarce, thus
also driving up property taxes for the woodland's poor neighbors
and forcing people out.
"People have an accurate historical memory that every single
development scheme here has benefited the wealthy and harmed the
poor," said Howell, the environmental activist.
Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, argues the land the
group will buy failed to sell at auction for a few hundred
dollars, "so it's unclear how this is a land grab."
Score said neighbors of the group's test site have been
delighted that they have cleaned up the trash (illegal dumping
is a chronic problem in poor areas) and planted trees.
"Once people see we keep our promise to clean up and plant
trees, they will push for more ambitious plans," he said.
In January, Hantz knocked down a long-abandoned home on one
of its parcels next to Ruth Mucha, 81, which had attracted
squatters. "It's so peaceful now all that trash has gone,"
'STOP THE BLEEDING'
For the city to have any hope of a viable future, it needs
to stop the exodus of people. Ted Phillips is fighting that
battle house to house.
At the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), a local
nonprofit, Phillips works to get loans to people who are on the
verge of losing their homes to foreclosures. He can do it often
with just a few hundred dollars.
Unlike most of the rest of the country, foreclosures in
Detroit are largely not related to mortgage delinquency but
rather to nonpayment of property taxes. In 2011, Wayne County
had to write off $170 million in property taxes owed Detroit.
"It all adds up to a lost city, goddammit," said Phillips.
"Setting aside the need for jobs, schools and services here, we
just have to stop the bleeding."
Phillips says this could be done relatively cheaply using
federal aid, because instead of owing tens of thousands of
dollars on a mortgage, most homeowners owe a few hundred or a
few thousand dollars in property taxes.
Arthur Barnes, 72, ran out of money to pay property taxes on
his small home in southwest Detroit last year. He borrowed $600
from UCHC to help avoid foreclosure and has already paid it
Even with the blight, the rising crime and the loss of
neighbors, Barnes is here to stay.
"I was all right until I got without money," said Barnes,
wiping tears from his eyes. "I felt lost. I'm so happy I get to
keep my home."