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Detroit, the New Urban Prairie: Forty (Plus) Square Miles of Nothing

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There is nothing like opening the Sunday paper (yes, I still receive and read the physical Detroit News/Free Press, cheap newsprint, messy ink and all), initially giddy over Easter sales, only to have my glee cut short by something far more depressing. Sunday I learned that our anchoring, supposedly major metropolitan city to the south–Detroit–is comprised of 40 square miles of vacant land. That’s nearly 1/3 the total area.

Forty square miles. That’s a lot of empty space. Supposedly, the city of Paris would fit in this space. Or the city of Miami, or Miami Beach. Or Manhattan (New York, not Kansas). Or a good chunk of Boston.

Come to think of it, the entire city of San Francisco can fit inside this vacant space.

This widespread nouveau urban prairie is the result of the city’s aggressive bulldozing efforts where it comes to razing dilapidated, burnt out, former crack houses that the city gobbled up through tax foreclosures and the general abandonment of buildings. Let’s face it: The view’s much better when it’s a sea of weeds instead of blighted homes.

Now, instead of miles of houses, Detroit is home to a growing fox and deer population. This observation is strictly anecdotal. My urban backyard contains more wildlife than I like. Deer included.

That’s the plus side. The negative is that there are more demolition permits than there are building permits. With miles of urban, unproductive prairie, comes a diminishing tax base. With a diminishing tax base, there are fewer services. Some areas of town already house less than ten residents per square mile. Talk about little houses on the prairie.

As a result, the city has for years been suffering from a financial crisis, and there has been a constant pull and tug between the state wanting to send in an emergency manager, and city officials, who take great umbrance at the offer of help.

The 40 square empty miles of land is a scary proposition for me, a person who actually owns real estate in Detroit. We pay taxes; they’re high, and we already can’t get services. The roads are terrible, the sewer system needs to be replaced, and don’t even ask me about trying to push paperwork through City Hall, where much of the mindset rests on what kind of perks you can provide. Some come armed with C notes and a bottle of Jack Daniels. (Not me; I’m cheap and righteously indignant.) The joke is don’t call the cops unless someone has died. Of course, oftentimes someone has died, and the cops still don’t come.

Over the years, people have brainstormed utilizing this wealth of 40 square miles of vacant land. Bright ideas have included urban farms and wind and solar farms. But even past mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stated that if 10,000 new homes were built every year for the next 15 years, “We couldn’t fill up our city.”

Sad.

I have to think the proclamation of an estimated 40 square miles of vacant land is pitched to the low side. For one thing, thanks to a weak economy, people have been leaving Detroit in droves. Except for the commercial areas downtown, Detroit feels like a ghost town. I personally do not believe the 2010 Census when they tell me there are 700,000 people living in Detroit. The exodus began in the early 2000s and the tide has never been stemmed. The few that remain can’t get out.

A quick Internet search finds articles in 2005 estimating 36 square miles of vacant land. The first mention of 40 square miles was in 2008 and 2009. The City Farmer used 40 square mile figure in 2010.

If the estimate was 40 square miles of nothing in 2008, I’d have to believe the real number is staggeringly larger than that in 2012. But, as with everything, they underreport the bad and exaggerate the good.

If only someone could fill that 40 square-plus miles of emptiness with industry, entertainment, restaurants, housing, jobs, and tax-paying people, Detroit might enjoy a major boom.

If not, the likelihood is the urban prairie will grow.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Sounds like this is not the city where Robocop could do his job. Wow!