Blight: Detroit’s Image Problem

Urban blight is an issue that has serious effects the future. In order for true change to made against blight, especially here in Detroit, the public must become more politically and socially aware. Anyone can go and say they understand the problem, even a child is able to say that something should be done. But who is out there doing something? For the most part no one is. It is easy to blame the recession and governmental corruption for all the problems in Detroit, but truthfully so many factors contributed Detroit’s decline. Citizens chose to give up when city life began to get tough, they packed up and drove away. People from the suburbs often complain about having to live near a corrupt, dirty, fallen city, but I am certain next to none have actually tried to invoke any change in the city. So for all of those people complaining about city problems, its time to take action, this is for everyone, especially the youth who are sick of hearing about how dangerous Detroit  is and who want to make a difference. This is for the people who wish to be aware about just what urban blight is and how it has eaten away at our city. The city of Detroit brings the effects of de-industrialization, civic disengagement, urban sprawl and flight into sharp relief. For everyone who believes in the future you must first reflect on the past, take an objective look at the present and think long hard about the future, because for any change to be made we must all take action.

Within the last month Mayor Bing gave the State of the City address none of the proposals were really anything new and truthfully, at this point the idea do not mean much because a more serious course of action has been taken by state. As of April 1st Detroit’s city council had been given a deadline to approve a deal backed by Mayor Bing with Rick Snyder. If the city council does not approve of the deal the Snyder can legally appoint an “emergency manager”. The public and city unions are pressuring the council to reject the deal with the state, but in doing so the council will likely lose its power if Snyder ends up appointing an emergency manager (Isidore). One draft, which Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis felt was largely acceptable, left a number of council members were disappointed, particularly with lack of cash assistance the city would receive from the state. Because with the way things are going, Detroit is on track to run out of money to operate in sometime May (Landon). Again, we see here that the problem of combat blight isn’t so much about a lack of action, but a result of many bureaucratic agencies acting against each other. They all view blight differently and believe in different courses of action. It is clear that in order for any true progress to be made, the people and all levels of government must cooperate in order to change the city for the common good. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as of April 5th the city accepted the deal with the state and Detroit is slated to undergo a number of revitalization projects for the foreseeable future.

The United States once stood proudly as the leading example of democracy, economic stability and growth. Now, it stands as a reminder to the rest of the world, the effects of deindustrialization and consequences of when the government stops working in the interests of its citizens. By these standards no city is a better example than Detroit, a city once driven by industry, with one of the most rapidly growing economies in the 1900s. The city is now riddled with vacant lots, homeowners have fled to suburbs, educational systems have declined as a result of a dwindling tax base and blight continues to eat away at the city remains urban blight results from a failing economy, a lack of human responsibility and ineffective policies, the solution lies in the depends not only on institutional change, but also individual agency.

An issue in combating blight is the uncertainty of how it should be defined and distinguished. Classifying a region as “blighted” is difficult because there exists no precise way to measure it. Blight may be perceived in a different way depending on the individual and situation, “…no systematic analysis has been made by geographers of differential perception of visual pollution on a large scale…There are two basic reasons why we might expect perceptions to vary…first is differential exposure. The second is differences in “taste””(Bales 372). People who grow up around abandoned homes and businesses do not know any differently, and to them blighted areas may seem normal. In other cases individuals may not see the problem with having graffiti and dilapidated buildings here and there.  Lewis and Meinig, of the American Association of Geographers, are working to establish a sound methodological base to transform the study of blight within “the purview of science” (Bales 373). The better our understanding of blight, its causes and how to characterize it, the closer society will be to affectively combating it. As such, this research contributes to an understanding of urban blight as a socioeconomic problem that has a multitude of causes and effects. It also suggests that it may be possible to approach the problem of blight in “the purview of science” but it is a challenge to diagnose this in many respects.

Though the term “urban blight” appears vague, its expansiveness allows it to encompass the escalating number of severe problems presently plaguing American cities. Vacant and abandoned properties occupy one-tenth of the total developed land in “seriously distressed” (Brachman) urban areas; in some Midwestern capitals, rates have skyrocketed: Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis endure vacancies of nearly 20% (Brachman). In the wake of the mortgage crisis, three million homeowners suffer foreclosure annually, transforming one of every thirteen properties in some areas from manicured homes into abandoned eyesores (United States, Addressing). In Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, El Paso, Memphis, and Miami, over one-quarter of residents subsist below the poverty line (Mix), and this struggle afflicts the city as a whole.

Nationally, the level of blight has increased across the country. Especially here is Michigan, which was hit the hardest by the decline of the automotive industry. Citizens fled cities  and moved to the suburbs, where the remaining jobs settled. Detroit was once one of the most profitable cities in America, decades later, due to unequal income distribution, racial tensions and declining automotive industry, it has been stripped of it former glory and abandoned buildings remain. These developments have paralyzed American metropolises, allowing lethal plagues of blight to infiltrate streets once flowing with capital. With declining tax bases, cities suffer limitations on urban services and improvement projects. City-funded services like sanitation, landscaping, and beautification efforts decline, neighborhoods increasingly fall into distress, and residents utilize unoccupied properties as repositories for trash and illegal activity. Alongside the hopelessness inflicted by unrelieved years in decaying neighborhoods, situational factors effectively institutionalize blight into the fabric of modern urban society.

On a regional level, cities throughout Michigan including Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Pontiac experience extreme urban blight, with intensive efforts required to reverse this trend, as affliction rates have remained steady over time (Bond). Michigan was known for its centrality in the auto industry, with key factories located throughout the state. With the severe industrial downturn, thousands of people have suffered unemployment. Needing to provide for their families, former autoworkers have had to leave the city in favor of areas with open job markets, generally in rapidly expanding suburban areas (Roelofs). While suburbs experience growth, cities have been contracting socially and geographically while acquiring a suburban stigma: to residents in the outer districts, the city has become a dangerous den of depravity, a place to be avoided if possible.

Often forgotten, however, is the fact that buildings fail to disappear along with the population, but instead remain abandoned and neglected – a serious safety and lifestyle hazard to remaining city occupants. Tenantless buildings throughout Michigan serve as source of concern and shame, as they decrease property values and promote a negative image of the state as a whole (Bond). Dilapidated, abandoned homes “create the perception that the neighborhood [lacks] a future” (Bond), even though, in actuality, the problem could be rectified with proper funding and equipment for demolition; the real estate could then be used for community projects. Undesirable areas in Michigan also “attract vandalism, scavengers, and people…[un]interested in the neighborhood” (Bond) that therefore possess no qualms about inflicting irreversible damage to once-redeemable structures. Should these lots continue to sit vacant, Michigan’s property values will likewise decrease, and the businesses able to stimulate the economy will relocate to more vitalized regions.

In the same vein, Detroit, being a place where de-industrialization, communal apathy, and urban sprawl have come to life, serves as a prime example of industry’s ability at its peak, to bring prosperity and security to a region, and to take entire cities with it as it falls. The city once shone as the leader of the automotive industry, an urban landscape alive with businesses and workers. Now, instead of bustling sidewalks and thriving businesses, the lonely streets of Detroit lay lined with abandoned buildings. Kevin Boyle writes, “Detroit has long been a city of extremes. In the first half of the twentieth century, it became modernity’s great tool room, its vast industrial complex the envy of the world. Since the late 1960s it has become the nation’s symbol of urban decay” (Boyle 109). Detroit has fallen into a state of ruin, as blight progressively consumes the city. In the history of the United States, no city has experienced such fantastic growth and equally drastic decay as Detroit, the nation’s most tragic, most American city.

With the arrival of the media spotlight, Detroit’s woes have been nationally illuminated. In 2001 the one third of Detroit residents lived below the poverty level, the highest among the U.S major cities (Boyle 110). The depth of the crisis beleaguering the housing market became clear in mid-2008, when a single-family two-story East Side home sold for only $1, whereas just two years earlier, the same house would likely have been valued at $65,000 (Watson and Moore). Since that time, the number of abandoned homes has risen astronomically; in March 2010, Detroit encompassed over 40 square miles of vacant property, and the number has undoubtedly continued to rise (“Detroit”). Businesses routinely shut their doors and companies ship jobs overseas, leaving many workers displaced as education levels and property values hit an all-time low – such is the harsh reality staring down the citizens of Detroit. Prosperity has packed its bags and found a new home, while poverty has arrived for an extended visit.

Social and economic collapse does not occur without cause, which leaves many people scrabbling to identify the factors catalyzing Detroit’s turning point. In the city, racial tensions have exacted a significant toll, as has educational decline, and other social forces such as inequalities in profit distribution and the rise of an unskilled, readily replaceable workforce. Cognizant of these issues yet trapped in its own cumulative causation web, Detroit struggles to find the resources and manpower needed to revitalize the city.

Detroit has a major problem of population loss – the city has continually declined in population, especially within the past ten years, suffering the most severe loss of all major American cities. Now considered only a midsize metropolitan area, Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the United States, home to nearly two million people (Gray). In a city built to house millions of residents, mass depopulation of the past fifty years has proven devastating, resulting in abandoned, decaying homes.

Detroit’s blight issues intensified further in the wake of the 1967 riots; up until that time, racial tensions had been slowly mounting in the city, and the riots served to ignite the “white flight” to the suburbs, again hastening the city’s decline (Herron). In the subsequent years of the Coleman Young administration, political tensions and feelings of alienation drove a significant portion of the middle and upper class populations out of Detroit, causing a severe setback in the revitalization of the city (Gray). Today, with just three quarters of a million people, Detroit is plagued by the relics of a dying society: entire neighborhoods stand as gaping zones of destroyed and forsaken houses, further exacerbating the crisis of plummeting home values. Abandonment and blight, accompanied by arson and vandalism, rule the city.

It is with all of this in mind that one comes close to understanding the complexities of blight, its causes, effects and the issue in finding an effective way to deal with the problem. The struggle against blight is one that Detroit has yet to be overcome. The City efforts are lacking the necessary funds and planning, states efforts are being fought against by city residents, no one is winning and therefore, nothing is being solved. A major issue with establishing effective policies regarding blight lies in the fact that to get anything done in a bureaucratic society everyone has to jump through hoops. Luckily, some citizens have realized this and taken matters into their own hands. Small scale efforts, have begun to help get things done and actually make a difference in Detroit communities. It is thanks to the individual efforts of Detroit citizens that hope remains.

Urban blight is clearly a threat to the well-being of this city and its citizens. It leads to a negative perception of the city and takes on a toll on the mindsets of city occupants. The key to creating change in the city is making the public realize how important it is become more politically and socially aware. Yes a lot of the problems are due to the recession and yes government corruption further contributes to these problems in Detroit, but what has anyone really done to try and fix it? Everyone loves to point out how messed up things are, well then maybe it is time we all do something about it.  So for everyone who is sick of hearing about how messed up the city is let’s work together and try to change it. Citizens need to start taking action if they want to see change and more emphasis should be put on educating the youth about relief efforts.

Although defining  blight is a topic controversy, the greater debate lies in how the problem can be solved. A number of individuals feel that the only way to truly eliminate blight is from the top down. These individuals wish to see a change in the policies used to deal with blight. Opponents of this, believe change must begin from the bottom up, because to them the only way to effectively change blight in communities is by getting people in these and surrounding communities to care enough to evoke change themselves. The way they see it, the government was designed for the people and if the people truly want change and make an effort towards change then the government has to follow suit. This debate unfortunately, divides individuals into two groups those who want to see institutional change and those who want to see stronger community involvement. It’s this difference in opinion that has slowed the fight against blight.

Despite various efforts to eradicate blight, it continues to plague countless cities across the nation. The struggle against blight is one that Detroit has yet to overcome. Eminent domain was/is one policy tried but failed to show any significant results. Smaller scale efforts, however, have achieved better results.  In October 1988, West Side Detroiter John George decided to fight the decay slowly pervading his city. Initially dedicated to guarding neighborhoods against arson and vandalism, George’s project expanded to other revitalization efforts in the Detroit community. His realization that abandoned houses were being used as havens for drugs prompted efforts to board up vacant properties (“About”), leading to successful eradication of neighborhood drug trades. After recruiting volunteers, George founded Motor City Blight Busters, with a mission to stabilize, revitalize, and repopulate the city of Detroit.

Since its inception, Blight Busters has demolished over 300 decaying homes, in addition to beautifying and constructing close to 750 other buildings (Spencer). Volunteers devote hours to tearing down the city’s broken homes, creating urban gardens in the cleared space to add aesthetic beauty to the area and raise home values. Recent initiatives include the Artist Village, a community center for the arts, and the Motor City Java House, a community-oriented café (“Ongoing”). Each individual Blight Busters project constitutes another cobblestone in the path the city paves for its future. Detroit needs more citizens like this, people willing to put in the time and effort to improve the city. Blight arises from society’s inability to adapt to the changing times, and the only way to combat it by going out and fulfilling our societal responsibilities. Whether it is by volunteering or creating effective policies both are key components to making a change and in conjunction with one another they are vital steps towards defeating blight.

Funding is an obvious necessity that the city must acquire. At this point however, it is doubtful whether or not such funding can come from the state. In other words it may be time to stop depending on the government and public funds to help revitalize communities. Private partnerships, benefactors and private Grants are a few alternatives to solve the cities financial problems. Unfortunately, finding businesses willing to invest in the city is a challenge within itself.

As the city continues to decline despite honest efforts to revitalize Detroit, the city and its citizens are faces with a serious question. What can be done with the miles of empty vacant lots? “Some suggest the city embrace much larger interventions — large-scale urban agriculture or huge fields of solar panels. But city government — underfunded, understaffed and risk-averse — has hesitated to approve any of the larger proposals. Even so, many Detroiters have been quietly remaking the cityscape on their own, even without official blessing” (Gallagher). It is clear that city some occupants have taken the initiative and begun to put the abandoned lots in Detroit to good use on their own accord. However, a number of these urban gardens, and other repurposed land developments are unofficial and therefore undocumented by the city. John George of Blight Busters made this statement in response to a similar statement, “As long as we don’t start bringing in lambs and horses and cows, I don’t think anyone would have an issue with that” (Gallagher). George definitely has a point, if the land is going to left to rot, there should be no reason to not give it to individuals who hope to create something beneficial for the community with it. This of course is simply one possible (local) way to help utilize the abandoned properties in Detroit. A number of other city models exist throughout the world and they are worth looking into as they may also help us find the best mode of securing our city and saving it from further blight.

Detroit and other U.S cities are not the only ones facing the issue of blight, a number of cities across the world have had to face a similar issues in terms of repurposing formally industrial land. One country that has seen a similar intercity decline after deindustrialization is England. However, their efforts, though at times similar to our own, have been proven to be more of a success. In the UK, private developers handle a majority of the redevelopment of formally industrial regions,

“One study estimates that private developers initiate 75 percent of all redevelopment projects in the UK. To help spur additional private sector investment, developers can take advantage of tax credits for remediation costs…This program should be familiar with American practitioners, as it resembles the federal “Brownsfields Tax Incentive” originally adopted in 1997 and found in Section 198 of the Internal Revenue Code…These national government goals in brownfields redevelopment are supported by strong local government role in environmental cleanup and urban planning. Local government identifies contaminated lands, determines responsibility for site cleanup, establishes remediation requirements and maintains the public registry of related orders. Through their planning and permitting powers, local government can coordinate cleanup with future land uses, thereby ensuring that remediated properties are suitable for the contemplated site use…” (“Executive”).

Clearly the UK is doing things a bit differently then here is the U.S, especially Detroit. In the city of Detroit the issue of handled largely by city government, in a far more inefficient manner. City government has a tough time identifying areas at risk of being blighted and struggle to handle it in the most efficient way. Eminent domain as mentioned before was a method by which the city acquired blighted land from owners and redistributed it to owners who the believed will make proper use of it, but these procedures were difficult to regulate and in many cases the power was abused for personal agendas. With power comes corruption. “The stated goal of the urban renewal program was to provide a means for public/private partnerships in urban development. But renewal programs were controlled by a small number of real estate interests and politicians who used the power of eminent domain to reorganize urban land” (Pritchett 5). One of most famous cases of eminent domain was here in Detroit it involved the construction of the General Motors plant. The plant was to be built on the racially diverse, working class neighborhood of Poletown (which all agreed was not blighted) members of the neighborhood opposed the idea but the city government and labor unions all supported the project. It cost the city 200 million dollars to acquire and prepare the property, only for it to be sold to General Motors for 8 million. In ideal cases regulatory policies are intended to protect the rights of the public by limiting the power of a select few, but in the case of Detroit it is further displaced. Theoretically speaking the idea of taking property from owner that do nothing productive with the property sounds like a good idea. However, if driven by private interests it can create more of a deficit than a renewal. The city government needs to take a little more responsibility and if necessary officials need to be replaced if they can not uphold the utmost integrity and objectivity. Using the UK as an example, it is clear that a possible solution for eliminating  would be a precise process in identifying blight, analyzing what is needed for the recovery and allowing for private sector investment. All of these actions involve changes on a policy level, which unfortunately at this time may not yet be within our scope of power. However, as students of Wayne State and citizens of Detroit we can focus our attention on evoking more community involvement among the youth and working in partnership with non-profit organizations to improve Detroit.

First off, as a part of Detroit Wayne State needs to educate all its students on how to help the city, so my proposal for the school is to introduce a new course (similar to the PS 1010 offered through the honors college) to the curriculum, “Step Up: Detroit” would be a class offered to all Wayne State students, it would qualify for honors credit and fulfill any service learning requirement. Students would select a section based on a city issue they want to learn about such as blight, healthcare, greening, nutrition etc., and collaborate with different non-profit organizations within the city. For the first month and a half students would learn about their problem and for the rest of the semester they would work weekly with their organizations, and meet monthly as a class. At the end of the semester classes will give presentations on their topic, what they learned from the service experience and a needs assessment, to a different class. The class would offer students a long-term first hand experience in city relief efforts, the opportunity to learn from one another and most importantly help the Detroit community. Making small steps now will lay the necessary foundation for the future, which is to the key to successfully changing the city. The American economy and society is constantly changing, as should policies. Policies are meant to meet the needs of the people, therefore, they must be flexible and if they no longer work they need to be removed. Our best chance at anticipating the future is by educating and empowering the youth of today.

The second course of action would be the elimination of bureaucratic control over funds given to non-profit organizations by the federal government. John George, the founder of Motor City Blight Busters here in Detroit, when asked about why he does not take government funding had this to say, “Well I shouldn’t say that we never do or wouldn’t,  but we try not too because there’s too many strings attached. Basically they want you to spend five dollars on something I could do for a buck and a half, you know  just a lot of taxpayers money being wasted. Also the other thing is there are too many middlemen sometimes the money goes to the state they take their cut, then it goes the city they take their cut and then it goes the county they take their cut  and by the time it gets to the non-profit group doing all the work there is nothing left. Personally and professionally if the federal government wanted to give money to Blight Busters we’d be interested in doing that but we’ve got to cut out all the red tape, all the middlemen, all the wasted money”  (George). It is clear that bureaucracy is major setback in the fight against blight, however, at this point the feasibility of Wayne State students evoking policy change on a larger scale is very slim. The idea of working from the top down is a option that is simply not available to us at this time.

On the other hand working from the bottom up allows all of us students here at Wayne State to have significant power, within a limited scope. An institution like Wayne State is the perfect place to start a movement towards a creating a more active and engaging youth here in Detroit. If enough students come together then a group can be created that would focus on the needs of Detroit, it could network with other groups within Wayne State, and through peoplemovers (a site similar to Facebook, but for non-profit organizations) they group could build relationships with some of Detroit’s major non-profit organizations. Finally, once the group has grown and relationships between Wayne State University and surrounding NGOs has further strengthened students can petition to have “Step Up: Detroit” added as course available to all Wayne State focusing on intercity problems, providing all students the opportunity and the much needed experience of working with non-profit groups to solve not only the issue of blight but a number of issues that this city currently faces. Institution change on the city level may not be within our power but working to improve Wayne State’s relationship and involvement with the rest of the city will ultimately bring about the change we want to see in the city.

Work Cited

“About Blight Busters.” Blight Busters. Blight Busters, 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

“Executive Summary International Brownsfields Redevelopment .” N.p., 12 Mar. 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <https://connect.wayne.edu/service/home/~/International_Brownfields_Summary.pdf?auth=co&loc=en_US&id=62300&part=5&gt;.

Bales, Kevin. “Determinants in the Perceptions of Visual Blight.” Human Ecology 13.3 Sept. (1985): 371-387. JSTOR. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

Bond, Vince. “Michigan Communities Seek Federal Help to Target Urban Blight.” Online posting. Capital News Service. Michigan State University, 14 Nov. 2009. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Boyle, Kevin. “The Ruins of Detroit: Exploring the Urban Crisis in the Motor City.” Michigan Historical Review 27.1 (2001): 109-27. Web. 2 Mar. 2012.

Brachman, Lavea. “Vacant and Abandoned Property: Remedies for Acquisition and Redevelopment.” Land Lines. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Oct. 2005. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Breger, G E. “The Concept and Cause of Urban Blight.” Land Economics 43.4 Nov. (1967): 369-76. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.

Gallagher, John. “With their city shrinking, many Detroiters use empty lots to grow gardens.” Detroit Free Press 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://www.freep.com/article/20120409/BUSINESS06/204090356/With-their-city-shrinking-many-Detroiters-use-empty-lots-to-grow-gardens&gt;.

George, John. Personal Interview. 16 April 2012.

Gray, Steven. “Vanishing City: The Story Behind Detroit’s Shocking Population Decline.” Time NewsFeed. Time Magazine, 24 Mar. 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Herron, Jerry. “How Did We Get to Northland?” HON 1000. Wayne State University, Detroit. 15

Nov. 2011. Lecture.

Isidore, Chris. “Detroit faces state takeover threat.” CNN 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <http://money.cnn.com/2012/04/04/news/economy/detroit-state-takeover/?source=cnn_bin&gt;.

Landon, Simon. “Detroit Consent Agreement Vote Could Come From City Council.” Huffpost Detroit 2 Apr. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/02/detroit-consent-agreement_n_1396164.html&gt;.

Mix, Wende. The Geography of Urban Poverty. Publication. Buffalo State College, 2008. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Ongoing Blight Buster Events.” Blight Busters. Blight Busters, 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Pritchett, Wendell E. “The “Public Menace” of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain.” Yale Law & Policy Review 21.1 (2003): 1-52. Web. 2 Mar. 2012.

Roelofs, Ted. “Grand Rapids, West Michigan Suburbs Both Lead Nation in Growth of Residents in Poverty.” The Grand Rapids Press 20 Jan. 2010. M Live. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Tavernise, Sabrina. “Minorities Lead Growth in Biggest Cities.” The New York Times. 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

United States. Bureau of Justice Assistance. Center for Court Innovation. Addressing Foreclosed and Abandoned Properties. By Roxann Pals. Bureau of Justice Assistance, Apr. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Watson, Debra, and Anne Moore. “Housing Crisis Accelerates Blight in Detroit Neighborhoods.” World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International, 21 Oct. 2008. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Wilson, Carter. Public Policy: Continuity and Change. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005. 12. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

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