By Drew Philp, Author of A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City
With spring blooming in Detroit, the wildflowers are about to return to the Motor City.
Ten years ago, I bought an abandoned house in the East side of Detroit. The neighborhood, Poletown, was so empty it was nearly rural, and the house had been abandoned for at least ten years: It had no windows, no plumbing, and no electricity, sat on a crumbling foundation, and was filled with 10,000 pounds of trash, including the better part of a Dodge Caravan cut into chunks with a reciprocating saw.
With the help of my neighbors — Detroit, as I would come to find, wasn’t as abandoned as I’d been led to believe — I built the wan structure into my home.
People don’t often associate wildflowers with “the city that put the world on wheels,” and they likely don’t associate Detroit with “radical neighborliness” either. I can assure you, this too grows in Detroit. While building my house over the last decade, I’ve found radical neighborliness underlying nearly anything positive in the community. In the absence of little constructive outside attention over the last 30 years, a radical sense of what it means to be a neighbor bloomed in Detroit.
But there’s one area in which it is glaringly absent. As you may have heard, Detroit is changing: growing, shifting, “coming back,” or “having a renaissance,” even — which is true. What isn’t true is that this renaissance is making it to most Detroiters, or even many of them. One in seven households in the city has had their water shut off, in what the United Nations has called a “violation of human rights.” And one in three — think about this — one in three homes has been foreclosed over the last few years. One in three is not a renaissance.
Chief among the reasons for this uneven, unconscionable perhaps, progress is lack of effective public transportation.
In Motown, nearly one in four households does not own a car, and those that do pay the highest insurance premiums in the United States. Detroit is also the largest, and perhaps the only, major metropolitan area without comprehensive regional public transportation. The transportation within the city is also, frankly, abysmal, with Slate calling it “America’s worst transit system.”
The number one reason for this is quite obvious, yet still a dirty secret: Detroit is the most racially segregated metro area in the country. Other cities in the Rust Belt are not far behind. While proposals for comprehensive public transport have been floated more than 20 times over the last couple of decades in the Motor City, they have failed each time owing largely to an often unspoken racial animosity.
The economic costs are obvious — despite an incentive package reported to be in the billions of dollars, Detroit was passed over by Amazon to locate its new campus here, owing at least in part to lack of transportation — but the social costs are harder to calculate.
For example, many parts of Detroit and cities like it are “food deserts,” areas without access to healthy food, obviously compounded by transit. Detroit is, year to year, often the most obese city in the United States. The lack of transit also contributes to unemployment — with some estimates reaching as high as 50 percent when counting those that have stopped looking for work.
These maladies, in part rooted in lack of transit, eventually compound into increased medical bills, and lack of access to jobs, which quickly spiral into staggering numbers like a city the size of Buffalo, New York being evicted from Detroit.
But there is hope: With the renewed interest in places like Detroit and a newfound optimism, we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to fix the mistakes of the past. We have an unprecedented chance to bring this new renaissance to more of our citizens. That starts, I think, with planning our transportation systems with a radical sense of what it means to be a neighbor.
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