Today, the 3,000 demolitions that Detroit Mayor Dave Bing promised in last week’s State of the City Address will begin. The
list of homes to be demolished was just released today–so much for photographic documentation.
I am still coming to terms with the level of vacancy in Detroit. St. Louis, where I moved from, also has a very high percentage of vacant buildings and land. The last address where I lived before moving to Michigan was the only building left standing on its block. The first time (of two) that I lived there, we didn’t even bother with having curtains because our neighbors were that few and far between.
Detroit is double the size of St. Louis, and it just keeps going and going. Its many neighborhoods range from the stereotypical one-house-or-less-per-block to densely populated streets of tidy single family houses. One of the key factors that distinguishes Detroit vacancy from that of my hometown is that most buildings here are frame structures, made of wood, whereas St. Louis is almost entirely a brick city. A 19th century masonry building can stand for years without occupants, without a roof, even without four walls. I lived in such a building while its back wall was completely removed and rebuilt, and it remained perfectly sound with just three walls. A couple bought the long-abandoned three-walled house a block north of me and rehabbed it, and they now live there. It has four walls, lights, and windows, and it is very sparkly.
Wooden buildings aren’t always so lucky–abandonment can be hard on them, and wood doesn’t fare as well in a fire as brick can. An abandoned frame house often just needs to go.
Still I wonder if there isn’t some other option, a rehabilitation program. I attended Model D’s watch party for the State of the City Address last week at the Majestic. One Detroit resident who offered his feedback after the speech suggested that if a demolition were to cost $10k, perhaps there ought to be a way that $10k could be given to someone who needed a home to spruce up a vacant house that was on the cusp of being livable. In this way, we would conserve resources that are in danger of falling down the slippery slope of decay. It wouldn’t eliminate existing problem houses, but it would stop a lot of new ones from being created. This proposal for stewardship felt especially poignant coming from a Detroit resident who said he had his possessions in storage, and was in the process of deciding whether to stay or go.
I think a mix of such a pull-a-house-back-from-the-brink program and demolition would be the best prescription. Demolition does need to happen. There are a good many houses that are just plain physically unsound in Detroit, and they need to go. And then there are other kinds of nuisances–in a city with a police presence stretched as thin as ours, the ability of a single vacant house to become a menace for a block is a serious problem. Residents need to be as able to defend their own blocks as possible, because they often don’t have the level of police support that people in other municipalities can count on.
This is a city perpetually frustrated by a lack of follow-through, be it from broken promises or the smallness of available resources compared to the size of the city’s needs, and swift concrete action like this is a good thing.
But still, it’d be nice if this were interspersed with some form of preservation. Stewardship is an important way to keep a city healthy, too. Keeping a house in decent condition and a resident in Detroit might not be as dramatic a gesture as wiping away an eyesore, but the net result of ultimately having one less problem property would be the same.
I suppose I’m nailbiting in part because I wonder about the coming plans for downsizing the city, about which little of concrete detail has been said at this point. Swift, decisive action can sometimes be a good thing, but here’s to hoping the main event is more about careful process and conserving what we can.
(Noted: I am brand new in town, and I’d love to hear what you think about the big demo list. I know I still have a lot to learn.)