The Future of Detroit: How to Shrink a City

Detroit once thrived on bigness, but now it has to leave that idea behind. The secret of Rust Belt urban revival: smaller is better. If you want a healthy, bustling city, huddled masses are a good thing

  • Olivo Barbieri for TIME

    Betty Corley is happy where she is. Corley and her sister Claudette own a tidy two-story house with a well-tended garden on Dubois Street on Detroit's east side, where they've lived their entire lives. Betty has an easy five-minute drive to her job at a mental-health center on Woodward Avenue. "Nobody ever bothers us," she says, "and we don't bother anybody."

    Certainly not the neighbors — because on Betty Corley's block, there aren't any. Whereas 26 houses once stood on this stretch of Dubois Street, today only Corley's remains. The rest have been burned or bulldozed into oblivion. Corley pays a local man $80 a month to mow six empty lots on either side of her house, but that's one of the few signs of a human presence in this part of town. Other lots have a more natural look, their tall grasses and scattered bushes providing a habitat for pheasant, rabbits and raccoons. There is almost no traffic — a good thing, as many of the stoplights on the cross streets aren't working — and an eerie quiet seeps through the neighborhood. Police response to 911 calls can charitably be called languid.

    But if city officials ask Corley to relocate, as political winds blowing through Detroit indicate they soon might, she's not budging. If this desperately poor city is no longer able to provide services to the neighborhood — trash pickup, fire protection — "we'll just have to deal with it," she says.

    Just as she had to deal with the discovery of a man's burned torso in the underbrush across the street a few months ago. Betty Corley says she won't move away, but other isolated homeowners don't share her loyalty. Cynthia Ciesiolka, who lives on the next block with her four grandchildren, says if the city offered her $5 and a place to live, she'd be gone tomorrow.

    That wind of change that's gathering force in Detroit emanates from the offices of Mayor Dave Bing, who knows that dwindling tax revenues (and bloated pension obligations) have devastated the city's capacity to provide services to all those lonely blocks. It comes from other Michigan politicians and philanthropists who recognize that a city that has lost half its population in the past half-century — and has seen its signature industry be downsized just as severely — cannot cling any longer to a nostalgic vision that Wayne State University law professor John Mogk calls "fantasy thinking." And it comes from the suburban headquarters of the Kresge Foundation, which is providing the money for a massive planning effort for Detroit's future that Kresge president and CEO Rip Rapson calls "more complex and more difficult than anything any city in America has ever done. If Detroit continues on a straight-line path, it goes over the cliff. We don't have enough time to do course correction."

    Now Detroit has to change in ways that contradict the expansive vision it was built on. In a word, Detroit has to shrink. It needs to become smaller, greener, thriftier. (Detroit recently learned this lesson about cars as well.) The city has to abandon those overgrown parts of itself that are hopelessly blighted and refocus its resources on those parts that can be saved. And it has to do it in the face of resistance both political and personal. Whether Detroit can pull this off will determine whether it survives. The door is closing on the city — and on Betty Corley. What has to be done is a challenge to the nature of the contract between government and its citizens. The taking of land to build a highway is one thing, but what about effectively abandoning neighborhoods by suspending services? A war could be fought over such ideas. And in Detroit, one is brewing.

    Detroit's crisis is unique only in its scale. Many other aging cities of the Northeast and Midwest — Cleveland; Hartford, Conn.; and Buffalo, N.Y., to name a few — are similarly suspended between confusing polarities: the self-image of their former greatness, and the reality of their current predicament; the future obligations established during times of plenty, and the lack of revenue to fund them during a time of scarcity; loyalty to the democratic principle of self-determination, and the desperate need for truly radical action.

    So how do you remake a crippled city and perhaps see it prosper? How do you put your arms around an area checkered with desolation, blight, struggling neighborhoods and scattered pockets of relative vitality? Maybe you begin by defining the characteristics of city life that for centuries have made it an appealing way of living — and then adopt strategies to bring them to life. Here's what TIME has found to be the best ideas put forward in the hundreds of interviews our writers and editors have conducted over the course of our yearlong project, Assignment Detroit:

    Density Is Destiny
    A thick, populated urban texture of people connecting with one another on a daily basis is the very quality that defines urban life. Its absence is the essence of Detroit's predicament. At 139 sq. mi., with a population of roughly 800,000 — about 40% of its postwar peak — the city is simply too damn big. Forty years ago, the greatest distance a Detroit Police Department cruiser had to cover to get from its precinct station to a crime scene was less than three miles; today, there are homes in the city more than 7.5 miles from the nearest station. In 1970 the department employed 5,000 officers; now fewer than 3,000 have to cover just as much territory, even as crime rates have climbed. One particular Detroit fire company has to travel four miles from its quarters to reach the farthest point in its first-alarm district. Extend similar math to every other municipal service — trash collection, road maintenance, street lighting — and you are left with a bundle of equations that will not balance.

    Detroit has to employ a form of triage that could imperil the political future of even the boldest elected officials: a choice to abandon failed neighborhoods so still-functioning neighborhoods can thrive. The potential of just that kind of strategy has already been demonstrated on the city's southwest side in Mexicantown, a working-class neighborhood with a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly retail district, hardly any abandoned homes and a recent history of well-deployed government grants secured by local politicians and then productively exploited by local businesspeople.

    Note: An archive of Assignment Detroit stories is available at . The Detroit Blog is available at

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