I don’t think anyone is surprised that things are bad in Detroit, but after hearing this segment I got to thinking about a lot of the small things we take for granted in modern civilization…like street lighting. Have you ever been in an urban environment without them? It’s pretty fucking eerie. The town in Iraq I was in didn’t have them and it was very unnerving until you got used to it. People had fires sometimes outside their homes, lights from their houses or in some areas they’d string lights up on their own if it was a place of business. I remember one section of street with North American-style street lighting for about half of a block on the edge of town and it was even more unnerving to see that. I still have no idea what was special about that 100 feet or so. It made me feel like I was walking down my parent’s cul-de-sac or something.
Detroit’s municipal government has been having financial issues for quite some time and I’ve seen a lot of stories of examples of how these issues have been surfacing there over the past few years. I think the situation in Detroit is interesting because it’s a scenario of what happens when a large American city can’t kick the can down the road anymore. The City of Detroit has lost out on a ton of tax revenues due to people jumping ship and a declining local economy. Not a lot of people are falling all over themselves to pick up Detroit’s municipal bonds either, so they can’t just get a loan and figure it out later anymore….and there will probably come a day when the rest of the country can’t just get a loan and figure it out later anymore too.
Another thing that’s unfortunate for Detroit is that it’s not just that they can’t afford the light bill, it’s that a lot of the street lamps aren’t working because they’re old and in dire need of updates. Neglect of course makes these things worse. It’s easier and cheaper to maintain something than to completely replace it…but if you don’t have the money for maintenance and repairs, what can you do?
If I had just come from another planet and someone showed me this documentary and told me it was scenes of a major city in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on this planet, I wouldn’t believe it.
Detropia is a 2012 documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on the decline of the city of Detroit. Some of the imagery is almost surreal, considering Detroit was at one point a showcase city for America with a vibrant middle class, well-kept neighborhoods and a ton of cultural amenities. The city shown in this documentary is something completely different.
This documentary has no narration from the directors and the only experts they consult on this documentary are the residents of the city itself – no urban design PhDs or talking heads, just everyday people in Detroit, who come up big with a lot of frank and gut-level commentary. Another technical plus of this documentary is that there’s very little juxtaposition of stock footage from prosperous and promising times in this one – sometimes it seems like if you’ve seen one documentary like this, you’ve seen them all due to the frequent use of stock footage.
There’s one scene that stood out of a house being torn down with a swingset in the backyard. The swingset was almost overgrown with golden native prairie grasses, swaying in the wind. It looked like what you would expect an abandoned homestead somewhere in the prairie states would look like, not something in the midst of one of America’s largest cities.
Another scene that stood out to me was one on the stoop of a house in a run down neighborhood with a group of black 20-somethings. The municipal government had just brought up the idea of attempting to move residents and consolidate them in order to be able to better provide services as right now the city itself is geographically large and spread out, making efficiency difficult. The plan was to turn over unused land into urban agriculture. These guys were talking about the idea and were in complete disbelief over the prospect of turning the city over into gardens. While urban agriculture makes sense to a lot of people outside of Detroit, it’s probably pretty hard to accept a prospect like that if you’re actually in Detroit and have no connection to food production. I can see how it can be seen as admitting defeat. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective. I do think that urban agriculture along with decentralization is probably Detroit’s best option though (see: Detroit: Too Big to Not Fail)
An example of the frankness of the residents was a scene involving a bar owner and ex-teacher going to the big auto show in Detroit (I forgot what it’s called, but it’s the major one). He talks to a Chinese manufacturer of an electronic car that will retail for about $20,000. Then he talks to some guys manning the booth for a major American manufacturer with an electronic car going for somewhere north of $40,000. He asks them why the Chinese can do it for $20,000 left and you can see the guys get uncomfortable. They say it’s an apples to oranges comparison . The bar owner pushes it further and winds up with the bullshit answer “because we have more features” (which is probably true, but probably not $20,000 worth). The bar owner then brings up the fact that these guys are saying the same things they said about Japanese automobiles when they first hit the American market and they ended the conversation there. The discomfort was obvious…
At one point in the documentary they interview a group of guys that were in the business of collecting scrap metal. They said the police had stopped them earlier and just wanted to make sure that they weren’t stealing anything and told them that if they got any complaints from the neighbors, they’d have to send them off, other than that they had free range at the abandoned houses. They said they were in this business because they couldn’t find jobs elsewhere and it was the only way they could honestly make money. They said they got 11 cents a pound for scrap steel and $2.50 for copper. One guy made a poignant comment about how the scrap metal was often sent back to China so they could “make shit with it and sell it back to us”. Then there was text stating that most of our scrap metal in the US is sold to China.
This is currently on streaming Netflix, so it’s worth watching if you’re into these subjects. I don’t think that there’s any new ground covered in the way of documenting Detroit’s decay but it’s full of harrowing footage and homespun wisdom on the topic.
I doubt anyone is surprised to hear that Detroit is in deep shit right now. That’s been common knowledge for quite some time now, despite the perennial “Detroit is experiencing a renaissance” articles in the media. To be fair, occasionally I do hear about some good things happening in Detroit at the neighborhood level from time to time, especially in the way of urban farming and restoring abandoned buildings.
So basically what’s happening now is that they’re finally acknowledging that the situation in Detroit is out of hand. The city has about $14 billion in unfunded liabilities (pensions, health care benefits, etc) and about $2.3 – $2.6 billion in annual revenues, which doesn’t cover their current expenses, let alone the debts and liabilities. It looks like the state is going to step in and suspend the powers of the Detroit City Council and the Mayor in order to try to get things straightened out. Detroit as we know it today is a failed city. It’s a tough pill to swallow that these kinds of places exist in the omnipotent United States of America, but that’s reality.
The rest of Michigan isn’t doing so hot, but I assume that a lot of the state is doing better than Detroit and Flint. The state is about 125 million in debt, representing a little over $12,000 per resident. This article from The Economist points out that this move is going to make a lot of people angry – there’s a big cultural and political divide between Detroit and the rest of Michigan and I’m sure the anger is going to go in all different directions over this. People from Detroit (who tend to be black and democrat) aren’t going to like the state government (currently republican) calling the shots ethe rest of the state (which is mostly white and a little more conservative-leaning) isn’t going to be thrilled with bailing Detroit out while things are tight for them as well.
In The 2012 Election and the Elephant Outside The Room I mentioned that in a short period of time I think there will be some real talk of states wanting to split up one way or another. Detroit and Michigan might be the most likely candidate at this point, although Northern California has been whispering about parting ways with Southern California for years.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Detroit in the next few years as there probably won’t be able to pull off any magic tricks and fix Detroit’s problems. There are some different dynamics at play, but when the subject of municipal and state debts come up, it’s often pointed out that many of the states that are in trouble right now have economies the size of European countries. Michigan’s economy is bigger than that of Greece. If a major city goes down and brings the state down with them, what happens then? We don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll see in the next few years.
I’ve never even been to Detroit, so I feel kind of silly saying what’s best for Detroit, but it really sounds like Detroit’s future isn’t in “Detroit”, but rather in a series of smaller communities. By all reports a good portion of the city is already vacant. If you go to yahoo or google maps and look at Detroit, there’s a lot of open spaces in the residential areas of Detroit’s inner city. When/if the city government fails, it makes sense for communities within Detroit to pick up the pieces and go at it without them. Honestly, it would be difficult to run a municipality any worse than Detroit’s leadership already has. That’s probably the best way to get out from underneath the unsustainable debt of that city.
Whenever I come across articles about Detroit, I always read them. It kind of fascinates me. It sounds like everything is already in place to start devolving into a series of smaller communities already. Occasionally you read about “urban pioneers” from the suburbs revitalizing one little pocket of the city, an ethnic group establishing a viable section of the city or a small inner-city area getting together and cleaning house. Everyone might be better off starting from scratch instead of trying to keep the whole shit-show going. Nothing lasts forever, especially municipalities.
It is cool to see examples of dilapidated buildings getting restored or communities within Detroit find some reason to wake up in the morning. As I understand it, in the 50’s Detroit was basically America’s model city with a very prosperous middle class, a ton of cultural amenities, great architecture and so forth. Returning to those days probably isn’t in the cards, but it is possible to create vibrant communities within that patch of land.
People that like history usually have a few events or periods that they’re really into. One of mine is the fall of Constantinople. Reading about Constantinople before the Turkish siege sounds a lot like Detroit – most of the prosperity was gone one way or another, they were deeply in debt, crime and depravity ran wild and large tracts of the once-great city reverted into farm plots, vineyards, orchards and open space. The city had the feeling of a series of small villages instead of one grand city. When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II finally made it past Constantinople’s gates he was a little let down with what he actually saw in the city as it was a far cry from it’s glorious legacy.
At any rate, I’ll continue to watch the news from Detroit. The city’s plight is nothing new, but at some point they’re going to hit a breaking point (or magically solve their problems) and there could be greater implications for the rest of the country when/if that happens.