Thursday, July 25, 2013
There's No Formula for Fixing Detroit, and That's a Good Thing – by Justin Fox
The news of Detroit's bankruptcy has brought countless explanations of what went wrong, some of them pretty interesting. But the main point of a bankruptcy — especially
bankruptcy, which has been looming for decades — is to get a fresh start.
So it's been dismaying to see how little attention has been paid in the past week's news coverage to the fact that central Detroit is already in the midst of fresh start, a revitalization that feels far more organic and durable than past top-down efforts like the construction of the Renaissance Center in the late 1970s and the arrival of casinos in the late 1990s (although the casinos do appear to pay the bulk of the city's bills at the moment). Decrepit buildings in downtown and midtown are being renovated and converted into loft apartments, hotels, restaurants, and offices. Compuware and Quicken Loans have moved their headquarters and thousands of employees from the suburbs to the city. There's an incipient venture-capital and startup scene, and lots of small creative businesses. The area's pro sports teams are almost all back downtown. Young, upwardly mobile people are actually moving to Detroit.
At the moment, this renaissance is almost completely disconnected from what's going on in the rest of the city. A small group of affluent, well-educated Creative Classers (and a larger number of occasional suburban visitors) has occupied an island in a sea of economic despair. One telling factoid: Detroit had been without a major chain supermarket since 2007. Now it has one in midtown, and it's a Whole Foods! (For non-U.S. readers, Whole Foods is a high-end natural foods chain long known by the nickname "Whole Paycheck.")
Outside of this rejuvenating core and a few residential neighborhoods that are still holding strong, Detroit is an underpopulated, crumbling mess. In 1950 the city had more than 1.8 million inhabitants; this year the population will probably slip below 700,000. Providing city services like police protection and garbage pickup across 139 ever-emptier square miles keeps getting more expensive and difficult (Detroit now has much lower population density than famously sprawling Los Angeles — although it's still denser than more recent boomtowns such as Houston and Phoenix). Just since 2000, the city has lost 26% of its people, with the white flight that began Detroit's decline in the 1950s long since overtaken by an exodus of middle-class African-Americans.