Foundations, mayor, face daunting task to secure Detroit’s future, remake neighborhoodsBy Corey Williams, AP
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Daunting task ahead to secure Detroit’s future
DETROIT — Dennis Talbert turns onto Heyden Street toward the safety and security of his modest wood bungalow at the far end of the block. But first he must pass through a wasteland.
Twenty weed-infested and trash-strewn lots, Nine vacant houses. A pile of discarded car tires. A six-foot mountain of clothing, moldering furniture and other refuse. Curbs littered with soiled baby diapers, soda bottles, potato chip bags.
This is Brightmoor, one of the most blighted neighborhoods in a blighted city. But Talbert, president of an organization that provides technical support to faith-based and community agencies, sees hope in a place that seems so hopeless to the rest of the world.
“You have a lot of vacant facilities. You have a lot of burned out facilities,” Talbert said. “But you have these pockets where people have been for a long time and take care of their property. They love their property, and they consider Brightmoor home and they’re never going to move.”
Mayor Dave Bing, too, sees promise in places like Brightmoor. With $20 million in federal funds, he is pushing forward with a plan to resuscitate dying neighborhoods by tearing down 10,000 dangerous, vacant houses. Meanwhile, the Kauffman, Skillman, Kresge, Hudson-Webber and other foundations are throwing millions more into job creation, a public schools rescue and various quality of life programs.
The job of rescuing and remaking Detroit is monumental, fraught with many past failures and few successes. It comes at time when the nation’s 11th-largest city needs victories — large and small.
Families are fleeing. A 139-square-mile city that was built for two million people could dip below 800,000 when 2010 Census numbers are collected. Unemployment, poverty, illiteracy — and murder — all are high.
The public schools are challenged academically and financially. A state-appointed financial manager has ordered the closing of up to 44 schools in June to help cut a $219 million deficit and address rapidly declining enrollment.
Yet Bing has managed to keep Detroit a few steps ahead of bankruptcy. He presented the City Council with a budget that reduces a deficit of more than $300 million to $85 million. He also has eliminated vacant city jobs, laid off workers and is threatening more layoffs while battling with the city’s largest union over pay cuts and other concessions.
With the former Detroit Piston point guard at the helm, trust in City Hall slowly is returning after a 2008 text-messaging sex scandal derailed the political career of then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, though a federal public corruption probe that snared a councilwoman continues to dog the city.
Kilpatrick and other mayors of the past bet on riverfront development or glitzy downtown casinos to turn around Detroit. But Bing expects to invest in the places where people live.
“When I imagine Detroit’s future, I see a city with vibrant neighborhoods, with retail and grocery stores, a city that’s home to thriving small businesses, better mass transit and community parks and green space,” he said in March, in his State of the City address. “But it will take all of us to make that happen and it’s a process that will not happen overnight.”
But will it happen at all? Or is it too late?
Detroit has many beautiful, stable blocks of stately colonial and Tudor-style homes, neat brick ranches and bungalows. Yards are tended, property is well-maintained; “for sale” signs, foreclosure notices and sheriff’s sales signs are few.
But there also are about 33,000 vacant houses and 90,000 empty lots spread across town.
Tens of thousands of other homes are inhabited, but falling apart due to age and neglect. Bing said in his budget presentation to council that the homes of 50,000 families are in foreclosure.
About 860 vacant houses were demolished in 2009. Bing has promised to tear down 3,000 this year and another 3,000 in 2011. By the time his four-year term ends, he expects to have completed 10,000 demolitions.
The work started in earnest in April. Some worry the inventory of empty houses is just too large.
“I don’t know what we’d do if 10 years from now we still have 10,000 vacant homes and no one is moving into them. They’re just going to deteriorate as well,” said Kimberly James, the city’s Building & Safety Engineering deputy director.
Blight occurs quickly in the city where the battle is against time and thieves. A home can be stripped of metal pipes, copper wires, appliances, toilets, tubs, sinks — anything that can be resold — within hours after people move out.
“Every day we wait, once it becomes vacant, that’s when it becomes a real issue for us,” Buildings & Safety Engineering Director Karla Henderson said.
The damage makes them nearly impossible to sell. And the longer a house stands empty, the greater the chance it will fall victim to arson. Some neighborhoods are dotted with burned out shells of houses that couldn’t be torn down because the city didn’t have the money.
The problem is acute in Brightmoor, where homes were built quickly and cheaply more than a half-century ago for Southern immigrants seeking work in Detroit’s car plants.
“A lot of it is on slabs, no basements. It wasn’t built to last very long and it ain’t lasting,” demographer Kurt Metzger said. “Unfortunately, it’s just kind of sitting there falling apart.”
By the 1950s, Detroit neighborhoods were busy, filled with 1.8 million people. The lure of larger homes and bigger yards prompted the first real white flight to the suburbs in that decade and the 1960s.
It became a mad dash after a 1967 race riot left entire blocks burning. Owners of scores of clothing, furniture, jewelry and other shops that survived the conflagration relocated outside the city limits and took their tax money with them.
Coleman A. Young, elected as the city’s first black mayor, looked toward a dormant and little-used riverfront for Detroit’s rebirth. The shimmering glass and steel Renaissance Center project was ushered in under Young’s watch. Its gleaming towers opened between 1976 and 1981.
But any downtown revival still was a generation away. While new stadiums, casinos, and hotels have helped inject new life into the city’s center, neighborhoods have continued to wither, a large chunk of the black middle class following the earlier flow of whites out of the city.
“People moved out,” said Dennis Talbert. “Their children grew up and left. When the seniors could no longer maintain their homes, their children had them move out, or they died. They had no interest in the house. They could not sell the house. That was the beginning of what we would call the great blight.”
Only 17 homes within a block and a half of Talbert’s house on Heyden appear occupied. It’s worse on adjacent Kentfield where there are 20 abandoned houses and 15 empty lots on about 40 plats.
Even if Bing’s goal of 10,000 demolitions is met, the mayor acknowledges there’s no money to tear down dozens of larger buildings and former factories. Unless owners come up with funding, structures such the 17-story Michigan Central Depot train station, 3.5-million-square-foot Packard car plant, and a former nursing care facility complex that covers an entire city block would cost a combined $25 million to tear down.
The litany of Detroit’s problems is lengthy. Close to a third of working-age adults in Detroit are without jobs. The poverty rate is more than 33 percent and the median household income is estimated at about $28,000. Only about 3,000 people living in the city earned $150,000 or more per year in 2008, according to Census figures.
Big-box retailers are few and no major supermarket chains operate in the city.
“We look at Detroit almost like other people look at developing countries and war-torn nations — to recover an entire economy,” said Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Kauffman is working with 10 national and local foundations that have committed $100 million to create jobs and spur entrepreneurship in and around Detroit. Meanwhile, the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation is teaming up with other charitable organizations on a $200 million plan to revamp education by starting 70 new schools. The Kresge Foundation, based in suburban Troy, is donating $35 million toward a light rail project.
The Skillman and Kresge foundations funded a new organization, Data Driven Detroit, to collect and warehouse data about the city and metropolitan area. It collaborated last year with other organizations and counted vacant houses and abandoned lots.
That data is considered invaluable to Bing and his strategy to shrink Detroit and stabilize struggling neighborhoods by moving people from mostly empty blocks to stronger housing stock closer to the city’s center.
“The harsh reality is that some areas are no longer viable neighborhoods with the population loss and financial situation our city faces,” Bing said during last month’s speech.
But the solutions aren’t simple.
There’s the empty Brewster-Douglass housing project, former home to Motown icon Diana Ross and fellow members of the Supremes. Its four, 14-floor high-rises, two six-story buildings and 14 townhouses are spread across more than 14 acres down town. Only 280 families remained when the Detroit Housing Commission shut the complex for good two years ago, said Eugene Jones, the agency’s director.
Demolition would cost $6 million. The commission wants to sell the land, but so far has found no one willing to make the investment.
“We failed our city and we never came up with a plan that would reinvigorate these neighborhoods,” Jones said. “At some time you have to do something.”
There’s Chene, a once-prominent commercial street traversing north from the city’s east riverfront. Outside of long-closed storefronts and clusters of vacant lots, not much is left.
And there’s Pierce Street, where shoes, clothing, fast-food wrappers and empty bottles — vodka, gin — lay in heaps just inside glass-less window frames. Scattered throughout the darkened sanctuary of a nearby empty church are used condoms, cigarette butts and piles of pigeon droppings.
When a vacant sundry shop burned in January, 48-year-old Tina Barclay noted that many other buildings in the area had met similar ends.
“And one more isn’t going to make it any better,” she said bitterly. “It will take four to five years before it gets torn down. It’s a disgrace.”
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