If You Bulldoze It, Will They Come? Detroit, Buffalo, and Other Cities Think About Razing Vacant Buildings


Via Alan Vanneman comes a link to this NY Times story about cities bulldozing blight rather than trying to rehab it. A snippet:

Large-scale destruction is well known in Detroit, but it is also underway in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo and others at a total cost of more than $250 million. Officials are tearing down tens of thousands of vacant buildings, many habitable, as they seek to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and blight, and increase environmental sustainability….

[M]ore than half of the nation's 20 largest cities in 1950 have lost at least one-third of their populations. And since 2000, a number of cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Buffalo, have lost around 10 percent; Cleveland has lost more than 17 percent; and more than 25 percent of residents have left Detroit, whose bankruptcy declaration this summer has heightened anxiety in other postindustrial cities….

At least one city that has taken a pioneering approach to confronting diminution has found that accepting shrinkage does not mean problems go away. Youngstown, Ohio, once a bustling steel city of 170,000 but now with only 66,000 people, has sought to head off collapse by tearing down thousands of vacant houses — 3,000 so far and 10 more each week.

Read the whole thing.

As someone who has lived in and spent time in shrinking cities such as Buffalo and Cleveland, I understand the appeal—and quite possibly the effectiveness—of clearing out huge swaths of vacated land (that assumes, of course, that eminent domain powers are not abused).

But if working on Reason Saves Cleveland taught me one thing, it's that there's no simple solution to urban decline. Some of it is simply historical—the Northeast is not going to dominate American business and culture that way it did 100 years ago and cities such as Cleveland or Buffalo or Detroit will never regain their earlier populations or the density at which they lived. Read more on that topic here.

But it's also clear that private and public sector boosters are always more interested in laying big bets on giant development deals that won't transform a city or region even if they happen to work out perfectly. What makes and keeps places livable and attractive are the smaller-ticket items, such as quality of basic services such as roads, law enforcement, business climate, schools, taxes, and regulations. These aren't sexy items but they are the things that actually keep cities thriving.

Watch Reason TV's #AnarchyinDetroit playlist to learn how residents are taking their bankrupt city back, block by block:

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  1. No one will buy that for a dollar.

    1. Of course, since the market value of properties in Detroit is $0 or less, the city can afford to pay market rates for seized properties.

  2. I still say we need urban homesteading.

    1. It’s been tried. Some of these cities are so unliveable that people refuse free real estate.

      1. Yeah, let me pay $10000 in taxes annually for a place that’s likely to get burnt to the ground and/or seized by hobos on a daily basis.

        1. You organize the hobos as a raiding force to attack the other steaders (and the municipal government) with.

          1. You organize the hobos

            Fucking statist!

            1. So it’s the organization and not the violent raiding that you take issue with?

              1. So it’s the organization and not the violent raiding that you take issue with?

                Violent Raiding is to be expected in libertopian Somalia!

  3. Nick misspelled Vanneman’s first name.

    1. Who is Alan Vanneman and why does Reason have this bizarre love/hate relationships with him?

      1. He’s a liberal friend of Nick Gillespie. He’s come on the boards a few times, but since his politics are a standard issue liberal, it didn’t go well.

        1. Ah, that explains it. He’s the only liberal commenter that gets a rise out of Nick and Matt on these boards, but yet they post his stuff.

          1. It is just a hat tip…he didn’t write the article.

  4. Keep in mind that the suburbs of many of these dying Rust Belt cities are doing just fine.

    The inner core cities in these places are often old dumps where few people other than smug hipsters actually want to live anymore.

    Also, the old model that required corporate headquarters and the financial and legal industries to be concentrated in a high-rise downtown area no longer applies to the same degree.

    Add this to the huge tax eater populations in these cities, and it makes it almost impossible to lure productive citizens back to the inner cities in these metro areas. The only way it will change is if the government gets out of the way and lets private interests do what they want with these abandoned neighborhoods.

    1. Add into that a regulatory culture that is batshit insane, and you have some pretty compelling reasons to avoid the place.

      One article (I couldn’t find it after a quick search) stated that former Mayor Bing was trying to close (through regulation) 300 small businesses a month. All while the city’s tax base was shriveling like a dick in an ice bath.

      1. It was here:…..fault.aspx

    2. Keep in mind that the suburbs of many of these dying Rust Belt cities are doing just fine.

      Maybe instead of taking down these house they should let the suburbs take control.

      ie simply shrink the city limits and let the County administer it.

  5. I used to call it “Urban Removal” back in the seventies.

  6. Two problems with rehab in these cities

    1. The government make it difficult and expensive with various laws especially lead and other hazmat rules.

    2. The people in the surrounding area make it difficult due to crime.

    So to make the area worth living in they have to destroy the existing housing which gets rid of the cost of rehab and clears out the neighbors who create crime.

    1. The first building to raze is city hall with all the politicians in it.

      1. Why bother bulldozing? Just nuke it from orbit. Just to be safe.

        1. The fallout makes the land less usable afterwards.

          1. Even better: a reminder that will stand for ages to come.

  7. Why is it necessary to revive our dying cities? The effort would be a colossal waste of resources.

    1. To keep the liberals whose voting habits caused the whole mess from roaming free across the land and fucking up other places?

      1. Wouldn’t a giant wall work better?

    2. Why is it necessary to revive our dying cities?

      It isn’t.

  8. I’m too lazy to read any of this, so I’ll ask.

    Has anybody considered consulting the actual property owners about this, or will they just declare these parcels to be public property?

    1. Declaring it to be public property means that the city has to eat the costs – I’m sure they simply declare the site blighted, not safe to inhabit and then demolish the building and send the owner the bill for the work.

  9. Want to save big cities like Detroit?

    Abolish their governments.

    Nature will take care of the rest.

  10. Sounds like some serious business.

  11. Most of the houses that are getting torn down in Detroit have been abandoned by the owners and ended up owned by the city, and then not even selling for the taxes due. The city has no clue what to do with them all, and no real way to deal with that many.

    Lots of them have asbestos or fear of asbestos, too, so not much incentive to buy a bunch of houses to rehab — you’ll just have to pay more.

    1. Good thing the local politicians have taxed themselves out of a tax base.

    2. Now they have all this green space that other cities envy. Nothing seems to make them happy.

      That asbestos problem is another problem created by the feds. I wonder if they finally ran out of people who never installed any of it to sue the pants off of?

  12. Boston lost about 21% of its population since its high in 1950, but I don’t think the city is worse off for it. I guess I’m just wondering why cities like Cleveland or Buffalo seem so much worse off.

    1. Freezing wasteland shitholes that nobody wants to live in since they can move around quickly and cheaply with these new things called planes and automobiles?

      1. Ya winters in Boston are no picnic either. I don’t think weather explains all or even much of it.

        1. I think boston has a higher density, so the missing people don’t leave empty plots behind.

          It’s just a guess.

          1. You might be right.

            Population 1950: 914k
            Land Area:77sqmi

            Density 1950: 11,870 people/sqmi
            Density 2012: 5,153 people/sqmi

            Population 1950: 801k
            Land Area: 48sqmi

            Density 1950: 16,687 people/sqmi
            Density 2012: 13,259 people/sqmi

            Population 1950: 1,849k
            Land Area: 138sqmi

            Density 1950: 13,398 people/sqmi
            Density 2012: 5,032 people/sqmi

            So Cleveland’s density is down 57%, Boston’s 21%, and Detroit’s a whooping 63%.

            The area figures are from the present so its possible the 1950s land area was different, though probably not by a large amount. Also the figures are from wikipedia so take it with a grain of salt.

        2. People still want to live in Boston?

          I figured they were just either too dumb to leave or stuck there.

  13. Why again is it necessary to turn around dying cities?

    The world is littered with the ruins of dead cities. Why the fuck is the randomly picked location of Baltimore so important that we need to preserve a shithole there?

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