Assessing Blight

Detroit, my long-ago home town, “is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them,” says Paul Clemins in the New York Times.

Numerous recent books, films, and photo essays have tried to shape and inform those opinions, and I’ve covered a number of them on this website, from the ruin porn phenomenon, to the Heidelberg Project, to the threat to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The plot-thread of of this once-great city was allowed to unravel until the American automotive dream drove right out of town. City lots filled with abandoned homes, the wrecked shells of once-beautiful buildings, suitable for nothing more than desolate parking lots.

A story by Monica Davey in the Times this week describes yet another effort to get a handle on the devastation. A central office is collecting information and photos of every abandoned and dilapidated building in the city, recorded by teams outfitted with computer tablets. The comprehensive database they are compiling will be ready this spring and is expected to help city leaders decide what to try to save and what to demolish.

Former Mayor Dave Bing suggested shrinking the city to a core that could be maintained, instead of continuing to provide city services to blocks with only one or two standing, habitable houses. But even people residing on empty streets that look like farmland—and in some areas actually are being farmed—don’t want to give up their homes. Some officials say demolishing the worst buildings might cost $1 billion, while a public-private effort called the Detroit Blight Authority has begun an aggressive demolition campaign, clearing lots that will become . . . . ? Enough human drama here for scores more books and films.

On the list of LA Times finalists for 2013’s best current issues books is Detroit native and journalist Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It tells the history of a city, but more important, the stories of the people struggling in it. In his review, Clemins says, “Many city supporters [and a nascent creative class is among them] will object to the ‘autopsy’ in the subtitle, though it’s not the suggestion of civic death that rankles. Rather, it’s the suggestion of the surgically precise.” As the teams of surveyors roaming the streets who are in a sense conducting that autopsy can attest, decay is a messy business.