Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Notes On Our Visit to Detroit

I spent this Memorial Day weekend in Detroit, Michigan, with the FutureWife, Siobhan, and our three dogs. We drove out to the Motor City on Thursday after work here in DC, and got there sleep-deprived Friday morning. After a much-needed nap, we ventured out into the city.

Now, many readers would question the choice of Detroit as a locale in which a young couple would celebrate Memorial Day weekend. There are several reasons, ranging from "we've never been there" to "Siobhan's agency could transfer her there one day" to "it's not DC or Dewey Beach." It was that second listed reason that got us searching on real estate websites, looking to see what the housing market looks like in Detroit. If pictures are worth a thousand words, surely the photos of Detroit's housing supply staring back at us through the web browser were on a heavy discount. We saw Tudors, Colonials, Contemporaries, waterfront mansions - all for less than the price of a Maryland boxy townhome in the ex-urbs. As the FutureWife and I both love big old houses, Detroit looked through Zillow, Trulia and HUD.gov as our paradise.

As for that second point, I can tell you this - their housing market looks like somebody forgot to add extra numbers. Houses should be 200 thousand dollars, not, 200.

My FutureWife and I were there Memorial Day weekend, attracted to the dirt-low housing prices and amazing deals. 6 bed, 5 bath Tudors, 5000 square feet - 200k. 7 bed, 4 bath, home theater, indoor pool, 3 car garage, 120k. It was, from the safety of my suburban Maryland home through the lens of Zillow.com, a haven. My smallish house in Rockvillle, 3 beds, 1.5 bath, 2 miles from the Metro, is, even after the housing crisis, 400k. 400k in Detroit buys you TWO mansions! And, as my FutureWife's employer could transfer her to Detroit, we had to check it out in person. If she would be transferred there in 2012, we wanted to see what it looked like. There's only so much that Time Magazine pictorials and Urbanist.com photo spreads and words of warning from ex-pat Michigan folks could do - we needed to see if there was something worth buying if we moved to Detroit.

there is a weird sense of beauty in urban blight and decay when viewed through the work of a skilled photographer or film maker, true. It is a God-damned horrible thing to see in person, simply block after block of abandonment. Waste. Decline. To see people living in half a duplex where the other half has no windows due to fire damage from 1992. To see schools left to rot in the Midwestern winters because there's not enough kids in the surrounding neighborhoods to keep them running. To see churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, massive evangelical christian mega-churches to sit abandoned, falling down. Torn. Like even God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha and Confucius all got together and decided to leave town. When faith leaves, despair enters.

Detroit doesn't need a bulldozer; it needs a fleet of them. The sheer mass of decaying structures is absolutely unfathomable to anybody who has not seen it. I lived in Baltimore when Baltimore was at its slummiest, druggiest squalor, a city that once held 1.2 million people having maybe 700k. I grew up near DC when you could buy the abandoned warehouses that lined 9th st NW for $20, just to get it off the city's ledger sheet. Baltimore had Dollar House Days - buy an abandoned house for a BUCK and it's yours! Neither DC at its 400 murder a year peak in the 80s or Baltimore at its "The Wire''-esque 90s was EVER as bad as Detroit is now. The sheer square miles of ..... rot.... it needs to go. Period. It needs a Blitzkrieg of Caterpillars and a Luftwaffe of John Deeres. I am a native of Annapolis, Maryland, and the preservation of historical structures is important to that town. It makes it unique, gives it a character. Detroit, to be fair, has hundreds of impressive structures - the Michigan Rail Depot, the gorgeous Art-Deco-era skyscrapers, theaters, the memories of better days. The neighborhoods of Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Indian Village - those homes, built between 1910 and 1950, were made for captains of industry and their growing families. In fact, when Mitt Romney's dad was governor of Michigan, they lived in a beautiful home in Palmer Woods, and young Mitt grew up there. Palmer Woods has about 277 houses in it's neighborhood of English-countryside inspired Tudors, Colonials and historically-vital Contemporary homes. There's a Frank Lloyd Wright. Albert Khan. Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the World Trade Center in New York, has a home in this enclave. It looks like Chevy Chase, Maryland, or Bridgeport, Connecticut. It is a stunning neighborhood, and would be a boon to any city. However, at least 15 houses in Palmer Woods are for sale, and at least that many are abandoned, and only the neighbors get together to mow the lawns and tend to the shrubs, just to give the appearance of vitality. One home, a 4000 square foot Tudor, was listed on Zillow.com as being 140k, while other similar homes in the neighborhood go for 200 to 400. I remembered how charming the house looked like from the web site's pictures - it was a home you could be proud of, to raise a good strong family in - and when I walked up to the slightly-creaky back gate, I saw a series of smashed-in windows and a solarium filled with old empty bags of cat and dog food. The old oak floors were beautiful, but had torn women's' clothing on it, and were lined with excrement, both human and animal. The majestic fireplace still stands, the stained and leaded glass windows remain, the absolutely stunning ceiling with exposed timbers giving an Alpine echo remain, but the kitchen had been stripped of all appliances and plumbing, sold on the streets for a quick buck. I was hit with the most profound sense of sadness I have ever felt - I was inconsolable, frankly, for nearly 15 minutes. I don't know if I was contacted by a spirit of a former resident or the house itself, but I went from "Hmmm...a coat of paint and new windows and some bleach and you got yourself a deal!" to "I.....am....hurting....everywhere" in seconds.

The finishing detail - a sticker from the Palmer Woods Homeowners' Association was placed on a back window. It said, in brief, that this property had appeared to be abandoned, and that steps would be taken with the city to secure new ownership as possible. The sticker had a date on it. It said 2006.

The human excrement was not that old.

Once you leave the tree-lined streets of Palmer Woods, you re-enter Detroit as it stands today. A rotting hulk of a church project stands across the street from Palmer Woods, sharing a parking lot with a McDonalds that had friendly employees and a not-terribly subtle hooker and her pimp looking for potential customers. At 2:00pm. On a Saturday. In what would have been a church parking lot.

What is incomprehensible, still, after a week and a half of, quite frankly, my brain OBSESSING about Detroit, is the sheer vastness of the city's decay mixed with its rather impressive wealth. The downtown core, featuring the GM headquarters' building designed to look like a cam shaft from above, is rebuilding quite nicely. The Tigers' stadium is quite lovely. The Lions' new field, sponsored by Ford, is impressive, and somehow keeps a hint of Detroit's art deco past in a modern facade. The skyscrapers that were abandoned in 2006 are being gutted and restored. For a big city based around the car, the downtown core is rather walkable. Greektown is pretty cool, and the massive casinos show there's a bit of glamor left in Motown. The Hockeytown bar, next to Chris Chelios' sportsbar, next to the legendary Fox Theater, mere steps to the sports' stadia...these are all things that every US city *should* have, but doesn't. So, don't let all the Abandonment Porn photos from 2007 scare you - downtown Detroit is a rather vibrant place nowadays, and should get better.

What is ridiculous is that a mere block or two from this fun core are houses that haven't been lived in for *decades.* Detroit is, as Susan mentioned above, a city in need of a culture change. Part of that culture is that this is a place that went, within the span of 5 years, from almost 2 million in the city and growing like a weed to 1.6 million and not ever getting closer to that number again. I personally was very touched by how friendly the average Detroit person was - folks at the restaurants, the ballpark, walking around, looking at homes - but the Detroit of the Roaring 20s was a very racially violent and segregated area, and it wasn't much better through the 1950s. When the race riots started during the turbulent `60s, that spelled the end of a growing Detroit. People and businesses left the city for the more stable (and, frankly, more segregated suburbs). Combine the racial problems with the decline of the Big Three automakers with the rise of better made products from Japan and Germany, and the gas crisis on the early 1970s... that's a bad combination to mix in a city that is still dependent on the auto industry. Every major highway or public structure is named after a city benefactor - Dodge. Ford. Chrysler. Cadillac. The city is far-too connected to the automotive industry, and the unions that for YEARS convinced their members that better days were right ahead. The city prospered under the rise of the Big Three, and essentially let them do whatever they wanted as long as it brought in more taxes and prestige. The once-thriving Poletown - the not-exactly politically correct name for the Polish community - had the entire north end wiped off the map to put in a giant GM plant. The Boston-Edison Neighborhood, once one of the first Black American upper-income neighborhoods, was torn in two so a highway could be built to get wealthy GM and Ford execs out of downtown and up to their weekend retreats in the northwest that much faster. This is a script that is written and repeated in dozens of neighborhoods all over town - stores and shops and churches and schools removed to make room for new factories and roads. Ultimately, what built Detroit contributed to its demise.

However, it's important to note - it isn't just a handful of buildings decaying in an otherwise vibrant city. It's not just 30 or 40 historically-significant structures failing and in need of restoration. It's thousands upon thousands upon thousands in a city with a few thousand after that that need to be knocked down. And I do mean that - knocked. down. Torn down. Destroyed. Removed. Because the only thing worse than seeing a once-beautiful home in need of repair is seeing the three dozen on that same block that are worse, and knowing that it is too late for two dozen of them. The foundations are cracked; the floors have rotted; the wind, rain and snow have weakened every joint and joist. The damage from fires - either set by junkies or the homeless to keep warm, or by desperate homeowners who watched the value of their homes drop by 70% over a decade and just needed the insurance money - is so great that you actually get surprised when you see a block - ANY BLOCK - without a fire-damaged home.

There is no block, not even in the once Beverly Hills / Potomac / Bridgeport-esque Grosse Pointe, that does not have an abandoned home. $2 million dollars once bought you a home in Grosse Point. It can now buy you 10 if you don't need to be directly on the lake, and possibly 15 if you are a shrewd buyer....or, have good credit.

My fiancee' made a great point about Detroit -there's no middle. No buffer. No... warnings. You enter the city limits, and it's like "DAMN" - there's less traffic in the city. There are very few busses. Pedestrians just cross any ole' time at any ole' place because there's not that many cars to deal with. There are very few grocery stores in the city limits, and they're not exactly Wegman's quality either, that's for sure. The Indian Village neighborhood had about 15 houses we wanted to check out - in fact, I showed Jan Louis one home via Zillow.com that had just incredible detailed woodwork and ceilings, and he was impressed at the caliber of the work. The surrounding homes looked equally impressive. Except, in person...they were empty, too, and had been for a while. And the home with this just awesome ceiling and indoor firepit was also home to a dry-rotten patio and deck that hadn't been maintained since... well, I was a lot younger and skinnier back then, let's put it that way. But the next street over, not even 200 feet, was the Decay. The Abandonment. Homes that had caught on fire in 1980 and nobody bothered to knock over the rotted remains. There was no buffer between the once-great neighborhood and the now-bad neighborhood. No middle, only a common thread of empty.

What it took Detroit - and I wish I was joking - nearly 50 years to realize is that it has become a gigantic eyesore. The city was hesitant to knock anything down because - again, I wish I was joking - they honestly thought they might need it again one day. Some mythical, magical day when people stopped buying Hondas, Toyotas and Volkswagons and bought Fords and Chryslers. Let's put it this way - how many of you have heard of Packards? A few? Yeah, Packard stopped making cars back when my mom was a kid, and my mom is in her 60s. The factory that used to make Packards *still exists* though there hasn't been a car made there since the days when I Love Lucy was still on the air - original broadcasts! It's not a tourist site, or a museum, just a massive rotting husk of America's once-impressive manufacturing core. But, Detroit honestly thought that one day, America might enter another great war and would need those old assembly lines to make tanks and jeeps. It is this mindset that kept them from knocking down decaying and empty houses during the population drain because, again, they honestly thought better days were JUST around the corner, and buyers would quickly jump at the chance to live in Detroit.

Detroit has not exactly had the best civic leadership over the past half-century, and recent mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is no exception. Google his name, and you'll quickly learn about his exploits and corruption. He did have a very good, salient point as an African-American Democrat in union-dominated Detroit: that Italian-American Republican Rudy Guiliani in formerly union-dominated New York City had the right idea in turning NYC around. Start paying attention to smaller crimes and code violations and you'll avoid bigger crimes and bigger code violations down the line. The Broken Window Theory that Guiliani fought in NYC was simple - that if you ignore a fine for a broken window, then more broken windows will follow. Fix that broken window early and punish the person who either broke it, or who allowed it to stay broke, and it will get fixed. Kilpatrick wanted to knock down hundreds of abandoned homes each year just go give people in the city a sense of order again. Of course...he also wanted to make sure everybody in his administration got PAID and got busted for it and will now watch Detroit try to rebuild from the comfort of a jail cell. But his successor, former Detroit Piston star Dave Bing, has followed on Kilpatrick's better quality of trying to remove the eyesores and decay. Better to have open space and nature reclaim the fields than to let a modern-day ghost town continue on. His goal - 3000 abandoned, decaying homes to be knocked down this year, with another 3000 next year, and the next two years of his term as well. 12,000 homes. Gone. Sadly, in Detroit, that's not just progress, but also a mere drop in the bucket. However, in a city that basically fiddled while the town quite literally burned, this is a good start. Bing is a good man. Doesn't take a salary. Is open-minded. Wants to save his adopted city. I feel bad for him, because he may have - even more so than President Obama - the most difficult job in the world. Fixing a broken, battered city with next to no tax base. As bad as the Federal Government's problems look, it's important to note that while our 14 trillion dollar deficit is staggering, it's also still less than 100% of our annual GDP. We've been through worse financial stressors - World War II and the Manhattan Project came A LOT closer to bankrupting our country than most people will ever realize - and the Feds have the ability to cut spending on a few Defense and Medicare projects, raise taxes a point or so, and balance the budget sheet. Detroit has no such flexibility - the city has already said that 20% of the roads will no longer be maintained, and that police, trash and fire services will not cover that 20% as well.

what, in the grand scheme of things, is 1 billion dollars? Well, to Detroit, it would allow them to remove nearly 7000 abandoned homes, storefronts, warehouses and factories a year for a good dozen or so years. One billion is also 40% of the cost of ONE B-2 Stealth Bomber, the development, construction and maintenance , a weapon that basically has next-to-no mission anymore. We have 21 of them. A first-strike weapon designed to take out hardened Soviet facilities. How about $9 billion to build the USS Gerald Ford, an aircraft carrier that would be the first Ford-class vessel to replace the still-quite functional Nimitz-class carriers? That's just the build-out. Doesn't include maintaining the ship, putting jets and sailors on the ship. Doesn't even include a complementary continental breakfast or HBO.

So, while yes - Detroit needs a culture change away from the union mindset and that the Big Three will save them, and that the city needs to help itself - let's not forget something. Detroit's factories and workers built the tanks, the jeeps and the personnel carriers that essentially won us two World Wars. That city made the automobile cheap enough and standardized enough that nearly any citizen, regardless of education or class, could afford and learn how to drive one. That city gave us a distinctive musical heritage - the Motown sound - that is uniquely American, much like another city, New Orleans; it too a victim of a man-made disaster, gave us Jazz. Yet, New Orleans, a city that I will kindly point out - is BELOW FRICKIN' SEA LEVEL - had to be rebuilt after Katrina struck and the levees fell. It is a fact that New Orleans is sinking, and will, in the next thirty years, will require the greatest civil engineering feat in American history to even *begin* to not sink, let alone rise up a foot or two. I'm sorry, but it's true - there's a good chance that New Orleans won't make it to 2050, 2060. Or sooner.

You want to take the same chance with Detroit?


Jan Louis said...

....Maybe Napalm would work......

Jan Louis said...

Maybe Napalm would do the trick....