Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile.
Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.
Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green.
“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”
Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly.
For much of the 20th century, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse–the city that put the nation on wheels. Factory workers lived in neighborhoods of simple single- and two-story homes and walked to work. But then the plants began to close one by one. The riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed.
Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.
It is not known who might get the cleared land, but with prospects for recruiting industry slim, planners are considering agricultural uses. The city might offer larger tracts for sale or lease, or turn over smaller pieces to community organizations to use.
Maggie DeSantis, a board member of Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said she worries that shutting down neighborhoods without having new uses ready is a “recipe for disaster” that will invite crime and illegal dumping. The group recently proposed such things as the creation of suburban-style neighborhoods and nature parks.