Abandoned Communities: Detroit & New Orleans

themotorlesscity.comNew Orleans        There is no question that Detroit has been an economically troubled city for some time now.  Apocryphal, urban legends have grown around this great city of quail and bird counts returning to some areas because they have essentially gone “back to wilderness” due to abandonment and lack of population.  Now news of planning reports done for new Mayor and former NBA player, Dave Bing, argue for withdrawing all city services from some sections of Detroit to concentrate resources and push populations into areas that city planners still believe that they can save.
I’m skeptical of such plans partially because of the lessons learned painfully in the battles around post-Katrina New Orleans, where world class, hot shot planners in league with land and business developers (as always!) tried to argue that entire districts of New Orleans should be allowed to somehow return to cypress swamps and green zones.  We stopped it from happening in New Orleans, partially through the democratic engagement of people who wanted to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods and had the opportunity of an election for district based council and the mayor to force their will and partially because in the United States property rights maybe even stronger than democratic values.
It is very difficult, even for sharpie business men and developers, to make the case that someone does not have the right to live on their own property.  Under “equal protection” constitutional guarantees it is also very difficult to imagine legally how cities like New Orleans then or Detroit now could simply abandon citizens and taxpayers by withdrawing all services to favor other citizens and taxpayers.  Detroit officials already seemed trapped by these realities even as they are trying to imagine something different.  They were at pains to try and argue that they were not going to “shrink” the city, but were committed to maintaining their boundaries at the same 139 square miles.  In fact the only way I can imagine Detroit legally getting around this problem is if they redrew the boundaries of the city, thereby disclaiming responsibility for the very ground itself and the people in it.  If they are not willing to do that, this is all just another exercise in doomsday-politics, and the truth is that Detroit also has a district council system, so politicians on the wrong side of the service ban will also be fighting for their futures as well.  In short in all likelihood this is another planning mirage that is simple DOA – dead on arrival.
Nonetheless the problems are real with declining tax revenues and wholesale abandonment of properties that cost an immense amount to tear down (Buffalo is a good example of a city with a removal program that can’t afford to remove) or rebuild which is the problem in both Detroit with its 50,000 properties needing rehab and New Orleans with our more than 60,000.  Furthermore for all the big talk about the “jack lantern” effect of sustaining citizen households in abandoned communities, there is never a real incentive or financing that has existed to buy the old properties and pay for the move to another area and the house there.  In New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina developers, big shots, and some environmentalists were Cassandras calling for a movement to “higher ground” and the 1850 footprint of the city, but in the wake of the storm higher ground was now phenomenally more expensive and no one ever had a plan on how the moving van would be paid much less the mortgage for the high rises or new homes on the “city on the hill.”
What is the real vision behind the Detroit abandoned communities plans?  It’s not Blade Runner but more dystopian, perhaps a combination of Mad Max with Mel Gibson planted in an urban landscape living behind a 14-foot tall Sarah Palin-Alaska spite fence and Denzel Washington in Training Day.  This would be the new definition of an “urban frontier,” where a homeowner is holding on to their house in the Detroit plan with no police or fire protection, no street lights or garbage pickup or road repairs or for that matter snow removal.
It’s one thing to live in cities where a lot of this is sketchy, but at least we are all pretending that it could get better or that we can make things better.  When a city simply throws in the towel, it’s neither a plan for the present nor hope for the future, but a full scale abandonment of responsibility and duty to citizens.   A city is not a real estate description but a collective community of shared experience and expectations.  Walk away from that and there’s nothing left at all.

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