I am a lover of cities - I need urban life. And I'm particularly fascinated by the challenges that "rust belt" cities face and the potential for real urban change that they can lead. I guess my fascination stems from growing up in Windsor, Ontario - the car manufacturing capital of Canada and right across the border from the car capital of the world in Detroit. I now live in Hamilton a steel giant down on its luck. Just like Windsor had its mirror image in Detroit, Hamilton sees itself in Pittsburgh. At least it hopes it does. Pretty much my whole life has been spent living with and rooting for the underdog, the ugly urban stepsister, the manufacturing giants that have been used and abused by more prosperous neighboring cities. Root root root for the home team, they say, and my home teams have 2 of the biggest down on their luck cities in Canada for the past few decades. But that's what makes them so interesting to live in.
Detroit is the ultimate curiosity. After living so close to this former great for most of my life, I kind of consider myself to be a cousin-like citizen of the Motor City. I've been regularly following the great Times Magazine blog on the site called (quite creatively) The Detroit Blog. The writers there have done a great job of capturing the absolute devastation that has occurred but also the hope that the people cling to. David Okrent:
If Detroit had been savaged by a hurricane and submerged by a ravenous flood, we'd know a lot more about it. If drought and carelessness had spread brush fires across the city, we'd see it on the evening news every night. Earthquake, tornadoes, you name it — if natural disaster had devastated the city that was once the living proof of American prosperity, the rest of the country might take notice.
The stats continue to blow my mind away:
- 100,000 foreclosed homes, 30% of the city's total homes
- Population has decreased from 2 million people to 800,000 today, losing 1,200 citizens per month
- Median home prices dropping from $59,700 in 2005 to $8,000 in 2009
- 28.9% unemployment - let me repeat - 28.9% unemployment! Post-Katrina New Orleans reached a peak of 11% unemployment.
If what was once the most prosperous manufacturing city in the nation has been brought to its knees, what does that say about our recent past? And if it can't find a way to get up, what does that say about our future?To some, the answer to the problem Detroit faces is what folks are calling "rightsizing". Detroit is a sprawling city built for 2 million people but only housing 800,000. 4o square miles of land has been left vacant as the mass exodus continues - enough land area to hold 2 Manhattan islands. Many neighborhoods have only a handful of inhabited homes - the rest have been abandoned. Some are calling for city officials to mandate the leveling and uprooting of whole neighborhoods and redistributing the population in an effort to redistribute essential city services in an economically viable way. Even for a citizen of a manufacturing giant in decline like myself, these measures seem inconceivable. But the opportunity to basically start a city from scratch is overwhelmingly intriguing. Imagine the possibilities. Well, I already have begun by developing a film idea that we've been pitching around on this very topic called "Right Size Me: The Shrinking of Detroit". Check out the treatment here. Pretty mind-blowing things going on in Motown.