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About That Detroit Renaissance

What chance is there for an artist-led revival in the midst of civic hemorrhage?

Shikha Dalmia
September 9, 2009

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%--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 biweekly Forbes columnist.


Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst


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