There is an emptiness about Detroit that you feel everywhere in this sprawling 139-square-mile city. Weeds grow in empty lots, creating neighborhoods of lonely, locked and isolated houses. The dark window frames of 78,000 derelict buildings stare down like indifferent eyes. The sidewalks are empty, especially at night, in a city where violent crime is epidemic and half the streetlights don’t work. The city’s population has declined from 1.8 million in 1950 to less than 700,000 today – a quarter of the residents have left since 2000. Over half the property owners are tax-delinquent, two-thirds of the murders are unsolved, 20 percent of the housing stock is vacant. Detroit has suffered an extreme form of the inner-city decline that has afflicted all urban America: post-WWII white flight transformed a melting pot of ethnic groups in 1950 to a city 80-percent black and overwhelmingly poor. Racial redlining bred de facto segregation. Government corruption is rampant – former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick began a 28-year prison sentence last month – as are crime and drugs. The hollowing out of American manufacturing staggered the greatest manufacturing city in America.
Detroit was also a victim of its success. The modern city was built by and for the automobile industry, whose cars took people off the sidewalks and sped them out of their neighborhoods in insulated bubbles. Detroit’s grand boulevards and ubiquitous freeways cut through and killed struggling communities.
Yet, as in all deserts, if you look closely you will find Detroit teeming with life, which I will try to describe next time.