There was no war here. Nor a natural disaster. The lake did not flood the town as it did in New Orleans. The German army did not march in methodically burning houses like in Warsaw. No bombs were dropped. But you’d be excused to think something terrible must have happened. The place looks like the infamous lower 9th ward in the aftermath of Katrina.
Houses are left deserted, boarded or burned. Furniture is rotting on a sidewalk. Roads are beyond repair. Abandoned cars are parked on driveways leading to nowhere. It’s not quite a ghost town: manicured lawns neighbor weed-overgrown ruins. A few residents appear out of nowhere and one starts waving in our direction. In all other places in US we would approach him and start conversation. Here we turn and speed away. If America has a failed city this is it. No wonder journalists flock here to shoot photos of ruin porn much to the annoyance of locals.
It’s not like we did not see abandoned towns on this trip. And most of American cities has places that you would not want to visit. What’s different here is the scale. It’s remotely possible that our host, Damian’s high school friend, is trying to scare us: we did not quite believe his stories from the night before. Somehow I doubt it though. No one can be that good at deceiving people.
I can see the traces of prosperity that graced Detroit for a better part of the twentieth century. The decline started in the 50s when population begun to move out of the center and, differently than in other cities, never returned. The most recent attempts of urban revival don’t seem to yield effects. I am not surprised - who would want to live in a luxury loft next to a boarded store.
Even the dead flee the city: families moving to the suburbs disinter their loved ones and move them to cemeteries closer to home so they can avoid driving to Detroit.
I try to understand the causes of the decline. I want to know if it’s something unique to Detroit. Or is it a harbinger of the fate to be shared by other cities? Is the renaissance of trendy downtown merely staving off the inevitable decline?
More than 80% of the city inhabitants are black. But it is surrounded by predominantly white suburbs. Has the racial makeup of the area contributed to its decline?
In 2007 65 to 70 percent of homicides in Detroit were drug related. Is American war on drugs and jailing for minor offenses responsible for the demise?
Detroit has been an American automotive capital for a long time: Chrysler, Ford, GM all have their plants and headquarters here. Are the fortunes of the car industry driving the destiny of the city?
While the most recent real estate bubble fueled the latest revival effort, the recession that followed its burst may have sealed the fate of the city. The wave of foreclosures, started by subprime loans and continuing as unemployment mounts, increases the number of abandoned houses.
Regardless of the causes the city is wrecked. The residents of the more prosperous suburbs around it don’t feel very secure. Many are immigrants who have worked hard to build successful lives in the new country. They don’t want to see their efforts ruined by the cancerous city encroaching on their backyards. They don’t understand how the local population with all the advantages of being born in a free wealthy country could ruin the city and why they can’t rehabilitate it.
Before we start exporting the American way abroad, why not try it out here. If we can make Detroit work, our credibility in Iraq and Afghanistan may receive a much needed boost.