Is Motor City “Running on Empty” Or Are Reports of Detroit’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated?

February 23, 2011  |  

by Steven Barboza

Has Detroit reached its tipping point? Is the implosion of the American auto industry a kind of man-made Katrina for the Motor City?  Or will Detroit rise up from its ash heap of urban devastation and round a corner as adroitly and smoothly as a newfangled gas-electric hybrid?

Whether this city, once our most prosperous manufacturing hub and the fourth largest city in the nation (now it’s the 11th), ultimately will make a comeback is anybody’s guess.  But to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain: Reports of its death are an exaggeration.

Detroit is still headquarters of the nation’s auto industry, the largest single manufacturing and retail business in the country. City leaders just need a better roadmap.

“To put it bluntly, Detroit has to become relevant,” said Robin Doyle, an urban planning professor at Wayne State University. “Detroit is a major city within a major region that has lost its relevance because it lost its centrality.  The city has to be made more attractive to visitors, to investment and development. That’s what the city is trying to do.  It’s struggling, but it is trying to move in that direction.”

A major problem, as Boyle has pointed out, is that Detroit remains quintessentially a 20th century model of industry in a world that has marched into the 21st century. People aren’t buying Detroit products like they used to.

As a result, much of the city has become a mausoleum, with abandoned auto plants, burned-out homes and forlorn residents.

“There are many areas of Detroit that have maybe one, two or three households on a block,” Boyle said. “The houses themselves may be in reasonable condition, but the neighborhoods have disappeared.”

Detroit has fallen apart at its seams. The murder rate has soared.  The unemployment rate skyrocketed to 28.9% at one point (today it is at 21%). The city can’t afford to provide services to many neighborhoods.  And at one point, listings of tax foreclosures in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, went on for 137 pages in the Detroit Free Press. The school system is ailing with the state of Michigan approving the closure of half of the districts schools, leaving Detroit with only 72 public schools by 2014.

Residents want to pack up and leave – and they have. The city’s population has fallen from a high of more than 1.85 million in 1950 to 912,000 in 2008.

As the city shrank, so did property values.  Residential units that went for $98,000 on average are now a steal at $12,400.  And still, no one wants them, so an estimated 102,000 housing units stand vacant, nearly 28% of the city’s total.

Detroit’s once bright life has deteriorated so badly that a reporter who grew up there admitted that his first inclination upon returning was to weep.

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