About That Detroit Renaissance

Don't believe the hype


Having lived in or near Detroit for almost 21 years, I am used to the buzz that erupts periodically about its renaissance being nigh. But the one that is currently making the rounds is truly fantastical.

I arrived in Detroit (after a short stint in Louisiana) from New Delhi, India, where I grew up. Still fresh off the boat, I didn't have the eyes yet to take measure of this new city that I was about to make home. On the one hand, there were signs everywhere that it lay in the cradle of wealth. Its downtown was located on a glittering river draped in a sparkling skyline whose complex of glass-and-steel skyscrapers—although meager by the standards of New York and Chicago—was really impressive to me. The city was meticulously planned with wide roads, covered sewers, and a slew of parks and open spaces.

On the other hand, its roads were empty and dangerous. Restaurants and shops were few and far between. There were hardly any taxis or buses—although there was a toy-like monorail looping around downtown, taking its non-existent passengers from one spot to another. But by far the most puzzling sight was the scores and scores of abandoned homes. There seemed to be nothing wrong with these structures. In fact, many were beautiful stone or brick Tudors and colonials, with bay windows and spacious yards, that middle-class families in my native land would have given their right arms to live in.

With no one minding these homes, it wasn't surprising that vandals had stripped them of everything remotely valuable—faucets, cabinets, pipes, and wiring. What was surprising was that there was no sign that the looters were doing anything constructive with their ill-gotten gains. In India, the entire project of life can be conducted out of ramshackle structures erected on dirty sidewalks from scraps of discarded tarp, pilfered corrugated metal, bamboo poles, and a few logs for fuel scavenged daily from trash heaps. In these filthy, exposed dwellings, families are raised, goods produced and sold (tandoori roti, dal, sabzi), services provided (ironing, shoe repair), and even animals given shelter. They are not ennobling or uplifting. But they are testimony to the powerful human need to survive and flourish, even in the direst circumstances.

It didn't seem plausible that this basic urge had somehow ceased to exist in Detroit. Hence, when Mayor Dennis Archer started talking in the mid-'90s about reviving the city by erecting new stadiums and casinos, his message resonated with Detroiters, including me. What needed explaining, in my mind, was not that someone should try and pull Detroit out of the ashes—but that someone should have waited so long. Archer got the ball rolling—so to speak—on two new stadiums and three new casinos.

His successor, Kwame Kilpatrick—before being thrown into jail last year for using public funds to hush up an affair with his chief of staff—picked up where Archer left off. He vowed to make Detroit a "major force in the new millennium." The linchpin of Kilpatrick's strategy involved shepherding new development into the downtown area on the theory that a thriving downtown would attract visitors whose business would jump-start the local economy. He moved the casinos to prime downtown locations and began restoring historic old hotels, such as the Book Cadillac, to serve casino patrons. To lure companies downtown, he handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in tax subsidies. He cut deals with developers to build lavish new lofts and apartment buildings overlooking the river. And then he started hosting events: the MLB All-Star Game in 2005, the Super Bowl and World Series in 2006, and WrestleMania in 2007.

But the Archer-Kilpatrick redevelopment plans have failed miserably to take root. The expected throngs of visitors never materialized. Except on rare occasions, rooms in the restored hotels go a-begging. The employees of the relocated companies prefer to make the long commute from the suburbs rather than live in the city. The vast bulk of the new apartments, therefore, have never found owners. Meanwhile, the bull-dozing of old businesses to make way for the new empty developments has only accelerated the exodus from the city; Detroit's rate of population loss in recent years is second only to that of post-Katrina New Orleans. There are likely even more abandoned buildings and empty spaces now than before. Meanwhile, one casino is already in bankruptcy.

Amid all of this, talk again has erupted that Detroit is about to make a comeback, thanks, this time, not to the efforts of city leaders—but artists!

This idea was first tendered in a March op-ed in The New York Times by Toby Barlow, a Brooklyn writer who recently moved to Detroit. Barlow claimed that, attracted by cheap real estate, artists were returning to the city. ABC, CNN, and many other national media outlets picked up Barlow's story, dispatching crews to Detroit to interview Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, the couple that Barlow credited for starting it all by buying a run-down bungalow for $1,900 in East Detroit.

In Barlow's telling, even as the couple fitted their house with solar heating and other eco-friendly appurtenances, they scooped up adjacent lots for as little as $100 and resold them to fellow artists for $150. Their efforts caught the attention of a group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam, who have started something called the "Detroit Unreal Estate Agency" which aims to clean up lots and turn them over to artists. Some are even beginning to suggest that Detroit might become the next locus of the "SoHo effect," with artists acting as first-stage gentrifiers, paving the way for the return of doctors and lawyers and other bourgeois professionals.

But this time, I ain't buying the hype.

For starters, as best as I can gather from news reports—and after a day-long drive in East Detroit last weekend—this exciting new renaissance seems confined to less than a block. And it is hard to imagine it growing much more.

Real estate in Detroit is certainly cheap—but living in the city is not. That's because, thanks to a dysfunctional city bureaucracy, residents have to pay dearly—either in time or money—for every basic service, particularly for safety. Even Cope, who writes a regular blog called the Power House Report, seems to acknowledge that. In an April post, he described a burglary at the house of his neighbor John. Despite the presence of a German shepherd, Cope noted, the robbers kicked in the two back doors and made away with some irreplaceable jewelry. Cope spent a day helping his friend replace the door, but seemed dejected afterward. "Somehow the neighborhood seems less friendly this week," he wrote. "Maybe it's just the warming of the weather that brings out the rats, fires, garbage and druggists, prostitutes, weirdos or maybe it's just me."

A childless and bohemian couple might well find it rewarding to endure all of this for the sake of a city they have adopted. But for most ordinary folks with families, children, and regular jobs, living with rats, fires, garbage, druggists, prostitutes, and weirdos is simply too big a price to pay.

But the most bizarre aspect of the talk about this artist-led renaissance is its timing. Right now, the big fear in Detroit is that with the collapse of the auto industry, the city might have entered an irreversible death spiral. It is confronting a $300 million deficit. The cuts in services that will be required to close this gap are so severe that they will all but guarantee another mass exodus, further shrinking the city's tax base. Every socio-economic indicator in Detroit is trending in the wrong direction. Crime has reached new heights. Seven teenagers were shot at in a drive-by attack outside their school while waiting for a bus in June this year. The Detroit Public School system is confronting a fiscal hole almost as big as the city's and has been handed over to an emergency financial manager. About 70 schools have been closed since 2005. Many haven't ordered new textbooks in 19 years and ask kids to bring their own toilet paper. The graduation rate has dropped to 25 percent—and about half of the city's population is illiterate.

No one really knows what it will take to contain Detroit's deepening malaise—much less make it livable. But one thing is certain: It isn't starry-eyed artists who have decided to adopt it as their cause du jour.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at Forbes, where this column first appeared.

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  1. So, if Detroit was reduced to a mere fraction of its former self, would that really be a big deal? I myselk think it is just odd to assume that a political entity is guaranteed life unlike other institutions humans create.

  2. As a mostly lifelong resident of Michigan, it's just disappointing to see the decay of Detroit hasn't gotten any better and is now in fact worse. Even the ability to buy super cheap housing isn't leading to any sort of revival - I'm a real estate investor and I still think buying a $50K house in the suburbs is a safer bet than buying a $5K house in Detroit. As Sihkha points out, in other parts of the world this mass waste of resources wouldn't be tolerated.

  3. Detroit is what you end up with when the political power is concentrated for too long in the hands of a bunch of far left virulent racists.

    If you want the rest of America to slouch in the direction of this nightmarish hellhole, just give Obama, his wife, and their band of communist lunatics everything they want, and we'll get there in no time.

  4. NIGGER! There, I said it!


    Detroit was the first city in support of animal rights.

  6. Jim - having grown up in MI, I agree with your disappointment -- but we all know of many places in the world where govt corruption means no amount of public aid or private investment will improve things, and sadly this is tolerated and even fed by well-meaning do-gooders. The original article's comparison of Detroit to the third world is more apt than the author (perhaps) intended.

  7. Why not relocate New orleans to Detroit?

  8. Kc, I believe that the messed up situation in the third world is also due mostly to bad government. I guess the difference here in the US is that people have the resources to abandon a less desirable situation, vs. trying to survive in it at all costs.

  9. It is puzzling that some people from New Orleans haven't moved up here to take advantage of the cheap housing. However it's not so puzzling when you look at the job situation. There just aren't many jobs in Michigan right now, and even many of the lower paid jobs that are usually easy to get have been taken by out-of-work auto workers.

  10. Jim -- people are still leaving, aren't they? - and I'm only guessing, but I think those that stay are either a) making a highly emotional rather than economic decision (no shortage of that anywhere you look) b) believing they don't have the resources to relocate, or c) working for the government or part of the graft.
    But then I left the state for greener pastures almost 30 years ago, so what do I know about why people stay? (PS my parents/sibs/cousins all stayed, but in other areas of the state.)

  11. Are the suburbs livable? Are they experiencing an exodus themselves, or are people just leaving the city proper to live and play in the suburbs? It would seem that for the city to be that run down, there must be people leaving the area altogether.

  12. Nick - the suburbs used to be great neighborhoods - wonderful ethic neighborhoods, Greek & Polish, just to name two. But with the decline of the auto industry over the past 30 years, these neighhborhoods have been decimated. And for years before that, the crime in Detroit proper meant that even those who worked downtown during the day left when the sun went down. Witness the Renaissance Center, built in the late 70's, what a waste......

  13. insert "kentucky fried movie" reference here.

  14. Jim -- a moment of wonder -- a house for only $50k -- even my first 2 bedroom cape I bought here in Massachusetts 24 years ago was $154k -- sigh........

  15. Meanwhile, one casino is already in bankruptcy.

    That pretty much sums it up right there. This is probably the only place on Earth where a casino cannot make money.

  16. I was born in Detroit and moved back to it in 2001. I love this city and there are some truly wonderful aspects to it.

    Getting away with murder is the norm in Detroit

    The most generous interpretation of 2008 homicide warrants and convictions supplied by local law enforcement officials shows that in more than 70 percent of homicide cases no suspect has been identified, arrested, charged or convicted of a killing.

    Detroit is like anywhere else in that the vast majority of murder victims had some sort of relationship with their killer. Yet 7 of 10 murders go unsolved. The article lists some of the reasons for this failure of government.

    I'll be out of here within a year. One more taxpaying productive citizen bailing out of a dysfunctional city. There will be no "renaissance".

  17. Are the suburbs livable? Are they experiencing an exodus themselves, or are people just leaving the city proper to live and play in the suburbs? It would seem that for the city to be that run down, there must be people leaving the area altogether.

    The 'burbs are fine. For decades the surrounding area has boomed while Detroit hemorrhaged population.

  18. Spartacus beat me to it.

    I didn't know it was possible for a casino to go bankrupt.

  19. I went to law school in the early-mid 90s with a Detroit-area native. He described Detroit as a crater that people lived around.

  20. J sub D,

    I'm sorry to hear that you are leaving Detroit. That's gotta hurt.

  21. Casinos do go bankrupt from time to time. It's almost always due to overhead. The overhead at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi is roughly a million dollars a day.

  22. How much does full-time security cost?

    I sometimes wonder, when real estate gets that cheap, why not buy up a couple blocks, put up a big wall around it and hire a couple armed guards with AR-15s to patrol. There are several very nice neighborhoods around here that are close enough to the bad areas of town that they've hired their own police force.

  23. "was really impressive to me. The city was meticulously planned with wide roads, covered sewers, and a slew of parks and open spaces."
    Covered sewers - if only I could find a chick who was so easily impressed

  24. It just seems that with real estate that cheap there's great opportunity to bring an industry and some people into the place, especially if there are suburbs around that are OK. If I were a rich man, I'd at least look into the potential. Maybe the scale is too large for anyone other than government to handle, but since they're corrupt, I don't know. Seems like such a waste.

  25. I'm a Detroit taxpayer.

    I don't live in the city, but I work here, across the street from that bankrupt casino. (Bankrupt primarily due to making bad bets on construction financing, btw.)

    Detroit's a great example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. It's not necessarily a question of political parties, but Detroit's governmental institutions are run by people selected primarily on the basis of name recognition through at-large elections rather than by districts. This makes challenging a particular incumbent basically impossible and removes the need to be responsive to a particular set of constituents.

    When you've got a single-party government that's beholden to public employee unions and "community organizers," overstaffed and underperforming city services and associated corruption soon follow. See the convictions of our last Mayor and acting City Council President, as well as a slew of indictments against Detroit Public Schools administrators.

    Detroit's blight is unusual in that geography and its growth with the car industry mean that virtually every family that moves leaves behind an empty house. There's very little by way of multi-family housing here, so 10 families mean an empty block on a street rather than an empty floor in an apartment building.

  26. Industry in Michigan = unions. If Michigan ever passes a right-to-work law, it could potentially come back from the dead.

  27. Covered sewers - if only I could find a chick who was so easily impressed

    A rather astounding percentage of the world's population would be impressed by the luxury of covered sewers. A significant percentage of them are women. 🙂

  28. Industry in Michigan = unions. If Michigan ever passes a right-to-work law, it could potentially come back from the dead.

    And much like things that come back from the dead it will smell bad and things will tend to fall off of it.

    Also, it might try to eat you.

  29. I'm 26 and left the 'burbs of Detroit about 4 years ago, and I'll never go back. I remember hearing about several of the fake renaissances myself, but Detroit was always the crater everyone lived around. The suburbs are initially where everyone went to escape Detroit, but now that the auto industry is in the toilet, people like me are leaving Michigan altogether. People vote with their feet, and we've been voting against Detroit bureaucracy and auto unions for years now.

  30. Industry in Michigan = unions

    No, actually, there's a fair amount of non-union manufacturing in Michigan -- the West Michigan office furniture companies (Steelcase, Haworth, Herman Miller), for example, are all non-union (or nearly so -- it looks like Steelcase has one union facility).

    And one thing's for sure -- the percentage of union manufacturing jobs in Michigan has been declining rapidly.

  31. Always wondered why folks would burn down houses in a major city every Halloween... seems like the right idea.
    What a corrupt dump. Too bad they didn't have a hurricane blow in and absolve their city leaders of the mess they created like Nahlins.

  32. Hmmm how about everybody leave and let the place fall back to nature. Why spend so much on the Titanic?

  33. Basically Detroit's history over the last 50 years has been like Atlas Shrugged in microcosm.

  34. Oakland County is the fourth wealthiest county in the United States, or used to be at least, not sure where it ranks now. Detroit is in Wayne country and Oakland country borders Wayne, a crater that people live around indeed.

  35. He described Detroit as a crater that people lived around.

    That's how I used to think of the DC area.


  36. "About 70 schools have been closed since 2005. Many haven't ordered new textbooks in 19 years and ask kids to bring their own toilet paper. The graduation rate has dropped to 25 percent"

    When 75% of the kids drop out and the bureaucracy can't even get it together to supply toilet paper, it's time do declare complete failure of the school system. Who in their right mind would subject their kids to that future, even if people were paid to own those abandoned houses.

    My son and I were in Detroit for a day two years ago. We got lost driving around vast swaths of industrial wasteland that appear to be abandoned for decades. The whole city had a dying feeling about it, even on a beautiful sunny day.

    Time for the bulldozers

  37. I do have hope that Michigan as a state will make a comeback - otherwise I wouldn't be buying houses here. While the rest of the nation was on a housing price binge for the last 5 years, we've been in decline and of course it has gotten worse since the subprime and then regular mortgage fiasco happened, compounded again by the huge drop in auto sales and Chrysler & GM's bankrupcy. That said the cost of living here is relatively low, so over time I would think other industries would start moving here to take advantage of the lower cost of living which generally will translate into lower wages than comparable areas with highly skilled workers.

    A right to work law would be a step in the right direction; the union-friendly labor laws and business-unfriendly taxation is a major reason why all the transplant auto companies locate elsewhere (except for the technical centers). Actual dollar-per-hour wages aren't that much different (typical UAW per hour rate is $48 with benefits, vs. $46 for Toyota and $44 for Honda). If the state ever figures this out they could certainly attract some of the other car makers back here. Plus right now there will be a lot of people willing to undercut those rates.

    As far as Detroit goes, I think the article is spot on. I live half way to Lansing, and property values have been decimated too but not as much as closer to Detroit. Ten years ago I bought my first house in Westland for $67,000, sold it a few years later for $110,000. I can probably buy it back now for about $60,000. Housing in Detroit has been up and down - I know someone who bought a house over 20 years ago for $7000, sold it 15 years later for $7000. However when real estate peaked back around 2000 some houses where going for $80,000. Those same houses can be had for $5,000 now in Detroit. Opportunity is there, but the risk and lack of stability goes with it.

  38. I just finished a tour of duty in MI, our headquarters was located in the D. hated that "dying feeling". things like the Rouge Plant and the old train station don't help. wouldn't live there if you paid me.

    then again, I wouldn't voluntarily live in any city with a population greater than about 30k. maybe I'm just antisocial.

  39. then again, I wouldn't voluntarily live in any city with a population greater than about 30k. maybe I'm just antisocial.

    I'd much rather live in a city of 500k or more, because I'm somewhat anti-social. I grew up in a small town. Everyone knows everyone elses business. Not for me. I like the anonymity.

  40. This is a 1600 word argument from incredulity.

    I was really hoping for some hard-nosed follow-up reporting and analysis on the promise of the progressives and artists attracted by the cheap rent, haw many people actually ended up moving in to town, how much of a movement if any is there to the group, is there staying power?

    The arrival of artists is generally considered to be a sign of coming gentrification. They make neighbourhoods safe for the families and other good people that Shikha Dalmia wants to see move in. The question about whether they will have that effect in this case is a meaningful one and I was hoping for new insights and analysis.

    But instead I get some opinions based on a news story he read once.

  41. Kinda disappointed that no mention of Dave Bing was made - he had little to no support from any of the major unions, yet was still elected, and will probably be re-elected for the 4 year job. Could possibly be a sign of a change of sentiment... or not.

  42. Last night I went to sleep
    in Dee-troit city
    dum dum de dum
    dum dum de dum

  43. In the 70's I worked with a company that made most of the glass for Renaissance Ctr, you know, the project that would re-vigorize Detroit. In the 80's I passed thru D town regularly calling on customers out of the city limits and watched the accelerating slide.

    And now that crooked former mayor got a job down here in Texas the day after he left jail..woe to us in Texas as MI exports its crooks...

  44. There are 3 fundamental problems in Detroit 1) no jobs; 2) public safety; and 3) public schools. Numbers 2 and 3 have been problems for almost 30 years. Number 1 has gone off the track during this decade. I live in Detroit and I got a good chuckle from the article about the artists moving here. There are many dead-end streets in the story of Detroit's many "renaissances." This is just another one.

  45. Detroit increased in size every decade of its existence until the 1967 riots. Since then it has decreased in size every decade until so it now smaller than it was in 1920.

    Detroit's last republican mayor left in 1962.

    do the math

  46. unions + corrupt politicians + taxes = decline

    see: Rust Belt USA

  47. BatChainPuller, Detroit even beginned ot lost population slightly before the 1967 riots, Time Magazine even did an article in 1961. The 1967 riots accelerated the trend and the election of Coleman A. Young was a big "jump the shark" moment. I saw some good texts about what killed Detroit on DetroitYes website and at Human Events site. We can wonder what if Detroit never elected Coleman A. Young or if the 1967 riots didn't happened or if Detroit had hosted the olympics games?

    I spotted on Youtube a good song titled "Detroit 67" by Sam Roberts

  48. I came to Detroit in 2002 to work at Wayne State, knowing nothing about declines, etc. I just knew it was a good job and that Detroit had a good symphony. The symphony's got better. And interestingly, there really is a renaissance around the Wayne State campus. There are four or five new restaurants that have opened in the past six months. Crepes, Japanese/Korean, refurbished greasy spoon, sports bar, sandwich place. A new Chinese restaurant is about to replace a broken-down French place that died a couple of years ago.
    And they're all good.
    Also, a farmer's market runs every Wednesday from 10-3 on campus and does land office business.
    I'm afraid Shikha's right in the long-run, but she should come down to Wayne State some time and have a look at all the good stuff that's happening nonetheless.

  49. Considering that Michigan has been hit as hard as any state by the recent downturn, I'd say things could be worse in Detroit. I noticed over the last 10 years, things have improved in a number of places, decayed in some, but generally a slow and incremental improvement.

    The election of Bing is a bright spot as well and he as much as anyone can put Detroit on the right path, but ultimately, it's going to be the citizens of Detroit who save it( if at all).

  50. I agree with "Detroit Linguist". My daughter is a freshman there this year and living on campus and she loves it and I (and her father) feel extremely comfortable with her down there - their security is top notch! Additionally, Wayne State seems to be ever expanding, Tech Town for one, new housing for students, etc. It is really all very nice! Let's just let WSU take over the city, they are already doing on heck of a job!

  51. so artists hate druggists, prostitutes and weirdos?

    what kind of artists are these - from the national endowment of the arts, george bush's friends?

  52. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets.

  53. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  54. "its roads were empty and dangerous. Restaurants and shops were few and far between. " So, in my opnion, Detroit is inconvenient for living.

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