It’s no secret that Detroit is a victim of economic and structural shifts. It’s a city that suffers a reputation of poor safety, abandoned buildings, and a past more relevant than its future. Whereas many of these views are supported by facts, there are plenty of fresh changes occurring in the Motor City. Some of these things are remarkable and fascinating, like the growing scale of urban gardens all over the city or the fantastic business opportunities being offered.
Although progress is underway, Detroit isn’t frolicking yet. Governmental corruption still threatens the city despite plenty of subsidies and encouragement for green and eco-friendly business investments. Varying reports indicate between 33,000 and 72,000 (depending on source and definition) abandoned homes throughout the city’s 142 square miles awaiting demolition. Some reports indicate that upon 40 of these square miles sit vacant plots. Unfortunately, many of these houses provide great settings for various types of crime.
Dave Bing: Steel, Pistons and a New Direction
The previous city mayor, Dave Bing, was sworn into office in May of 2009 and was seen as instrumental in several areas, including restoring respect to the mayoral role in the wake of scandals involving his predecessor. He was succeeded by Mike Duggan at the opening of 2014. Both are Democrats – in fact, over the last 52 years, Detroit has elected solely Democratic mayors.
Bing was not only a former NBA basketball player with the Detroit Pistons, he was also the 1984 founder of Bing Steel, a massive steel and manufacturing conglomerate. Upon entering office, the task before him was immense, and he left office at the end of 2013 having made significant progress towards the improvement of Detroit. Unfortunately, the situation facing Detroit is still grim, and mayor Duggan has taken up the reins.
Mayor Mike Duggan Takes the Reins
Mike Duggan was elected largely due to his background dealing with grim financial situations, including several companies in bankruptcy. One of Bing’s key policies — and one that Duggan so far has continued — is the demolition of 10,000 homes within Detroit city limits. These homes are abandoned, and highly dangerous. Many local witnesses confirm that crimes are committed in abandoned houses in their neighborhoods with alarming regularity. City streets where only one of twenty homes are occupied are not abnormal across Detroit. A homeowner reports that over a weekend, lines of people spanning the physical and occupational spectrum formed outside one such abandoned home down the street. As the line plodded slowly along, tense people would enter, and exit later looking tired; slack. The occurrence lasted for the full duration of the weekend, and then the house returned to its idle condition. Other residents report rapes and thefts, with many residents not letting children walk home from school.
Situations like these are not uncommon in outlying Detroit today, and both Bing and Duggan understand that. Abandoned homes, especially in suburban or sparsely-populated neighborhoods, are prone to becoming “crack homes” – homes used in the production and/or distribution of illicit drugs. Duggan is more interested in helping populate refurbished abandoned homes, and doesn’t believe the only solution involves tearing homes down. He also rejects the plan proposed in 2010 to demolish a quarter of the city. This plan would have reduced the strained demand on city infrastructures like garbage, water, and street lights (half of Detroit’s 88,000 streetlights do not shine).
Crack Homes and Legislature
Crack homes are a problem wherever they’re found. Historically, crack homes are most prominent in districts of Philadelphia and New York City ravaged by fires, arson, and the like. These regions are close to downtown: central, dangerous, yet profitable. In the past decade, more of crack housing has shifted towards suburban settings, to move out of law enforcement’s line of sight in an attempt to blend in. Detroit has a unique combination of both of these factors. Detroit’s abandoned suburban homes are prolific; there’s just so many of them. Demolition workers destroying homes on the city’s “to-go” list carry weapons with them as they go about their daily jobs.
Beyond this, not even the various laws passed in America dealing with crack homes are sufficient to address Detroit’s current situation: though the government does have the right to seize crack homes and deal with them accordingly, there are quite simply too many. The city’s list of homes to demolish is a shuffling smorgasbord of grim problems. Part of the problem is in the city’s history and legacy: Detroit was constructed almost entirely around the fabric of the automobile, and is highly suburban. Not only that, so much of the suburbs were constructed for manufacturing workers who had a predictable income and came in search of independence (many from the South fleeing Jim Crow laws), a very high proportion of Detroit’s residences are single-family homes. They line up in neat rows along so many of Detroit’s city blocks, one after the other, quaint Victorian and American Queen Anne. Most of them have been thoroughly stripped of all valuables: possessions, water heaters, copper wiring.
The Future of Detroit
In many ways, Detroit is symbolic of America in general: a proud history, a promising future, and a very uncertain present. And, as Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre show in their fantastic series of photos, there is something beautiful in even the most blighted of areas.
Detroit was declared bankrupt in late 2013. Despite all these factors, Detroiters are exceptionally passionate about their city. Photographers travel from all over the world to observe Detroit’s “ruin porn”, the art of urban decay. Businesses are moving back in, and investment agencies are capitalizing on the tremendously low home value. Though the present may be quite rough, the future can still be bright for Detroit.