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April 29th, 2010
10:00 AM ET

Detroit plans to save city by demolishing vacant neighborhoods

Editor's Note: Hit hard by the recession, the once-proud city of Detroit is now a shell of its former self – literally. Parts of Detroit resemble a war zone and the mayor has a radical plan to save the decaying motor city, by shrinking it. Our Jim Acosta has the report.

By Jim Acosta, CNN

(CNN) – This was one of those stories that had me and my producer agonizing over the material left on the cutting room floor. Mostly images that we couldn’t squeeze into our story.

Take our drive with Data Driven Detroit’s Kurt Metzger. He’s the guy who led a team of land surveyors around the city measuring Detroit’s urban blight block by block.

During the drive, we saw recently built Habitat for Humanity homes surrounded by vacant houses. We saw an almost brand new playground in another failed neighborhood. The fence around the pristine play set had fallen and the grass was overgrown. No kids in sight. Our cameras didn’t exaggerate Detroit’s decay. If anything, they couldn’t capture it all.

The old Wayne County office building, a historic landmark, in downtown Detroit has fallen on hard times. The county moved its workers out of the building. Now, only a fraction of the structure is used as a preschool. The rest of the building stands vacant.

Vacancy is a plague on much of the city’s urban core. We wish we had more time to tell the story of Detroit’s once grand train station. It, too, is a sad and empty site. Many of the station’s windows are smashed. It ought to be saved.

There’s also much more that can be said about one of the voices in our piece, the Reverend Dr. Horace Sheffield. If you ever need a history guide through inner-city Detroit, he’s the guy. His father, also a reverend, was a pioneering civil rights leader in the city who marched with Martin Luther King.

The younger Sheffield had plenty of ideas for turning the city around. He’d like to see a summit of church and city leaders search for solutions other than the radical demolition plan put forward by the mayor.

Speaking of the mayor, Dave Bing declined our multiple requests for an interview. His staff said he was simply too busy. It’s too bad. We wanted to press Mayor Bing on how he would have accomplished his goal of demolishing 10,000 dangerous residential structures by the end of his term. This plan will result in the removal of scores of residents. It’s hard to imagine all of them wanting to go. So the painful process of eminent domain, at some point, will likely be part of the plan’s end game.

And finally, apologies to the folks at Hantz Farms. Our interview with the company’s president, Mike Score, didn’t make it into the piece. Hantz hopes to take much of the open space that’s left after Detroit’s mass demolition and turn it into the largest urban farm in the world.

Best of luck to them and everybody in Detroit. The people couldn’t have been nicer during our stay. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again… it’s hard not to root for Detroit.

Filed under: Economy • U.S.
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Gina, from Detroit.

    My names Gina, im 19 years old and Ive lived in the city of Detroit,east detroit, and now im in the outskirted suburb called Clinton Township.. I saw these comments about how we've conflicted all the problems on ourself, or how Ontarios better and i have to disagree. We the people do what we have to do to take care of our family and maybe ourselves thanks to our the mayors that take everything that we need to better our city. Theres plenty of other cities with the same problem. Yes we got hit hard in the recession, believe that, but were also the last to get any help from anyone else. Yeah the History channel has used use as an example but i dont think anyone knows what there doing or if there is anything that we can do to really rebuild the city until the entire United States is doing better, honestly i dont know what demolishing the vacant houses will do. It makes sense when a lot of people dont want to live there that they wouldnt want to work there, but its going to take a lot of time and a lot of money until anything productive will happen. Until then we'll survive. Detroit, be it good or bad.. its still our home.
    so BACK OFF.

    May 8, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  2. henry roberts

    Jim Acostas is a failure as a journalist.
    A Muslim Extremist is caught trying to cause an explosion in Times Sq. , and Jim tries to blame his hatred on a fore-clousure.
    What junk media! Has CNN any idea why they are a JOKE?

    May 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  3. john doe

    Remember, We all have troubles but if they are willing to help you people by tearing down these buildings then you must offer to do he work and together you can and will make a difference!!! And don't forget the community gardens idea, we all love to eat!!! USA is the way!!!

    May 1, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  4. Tim Besco

    I grew up in Detroit during the "white flight" era. There once used to be a proud neighborhood organization that desperately tried to keep the community thriving – but eventually succumbed to the lack of support from the remaining families.

    The truth is, greed and corruption killed the city. From Mayor Young to Mayor Archer and then to Mayor Kilpatrick – Detroit had some of the worst crooks running the city. The Detroit Public Schools were run by even worse thieves, as they plundered millions of tax dollars over two decades.

    A sad example of the lack of leadership and ineptitude is the train station you mentioned in your piece. It stood vacant for most of the past 30 years and had little protection from vandals, thieves, drug addicts, vermin and decay. Year after year, copper and brass fixtures were pilfered and sold for scrap – before the station was secured. Other once proud Detroit landmarks, like Tiger Stadium, the Hudson's main Department Store, and the Packard factory were also victims of the same fate.

    You know your city is in bad shape when the History Channel uses you as an example of what a city is like "After People".

    The idea to bulldoze neighborhoods is on the right track, but it is somewhat misguided. Forcing people to move out of homes that are still livable is ridiculous. Leave them alone – and if they want to move they will. Especially when they see that there is nothing around them left (just like it was in the 60's and 70's) people will make the decision to move.

    I once joked with friends that were familiar with the old Detroit tradition of "Devil's Night" – where people's garages, and sometimes vacant homes would be burned to the ground by young arsonists – that if Detroit wanted to revive itself they should start up Devil's Night again and burn down the city. Now, it doesn't look like that may be a half-bad idea anymore.

    May 1, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  5. haniblecter

    Amen Elenore.

    This is how cities in the southwest survived, annex surrounding communities to help the city core. Unfortunately (and this is tough to say) Michigan has some of the strongest local govt institutions int he country. Annexing anything is nigh impossible.

    Whatever is done, it'll require the 'burbs to pitch in and realize that we are all Detroiters, regardless of county.

    April 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Howard

    This is the dilemma that all cites in the US face and there are no easy answers that would fit into sound bites. The problem began when government thought they could sustain thousands of people on subsidies and not have any jobs for them. alternative economies of drug dealing prostitution and other activities fill the void, and gangs begin to rule the streets. Police are powerless to disarm them. Any one who has a job or the wear with all to move did, leaving hangers on and neighborhoods to descend into ruin. Drastic steps have to be taken. The reverse happened in the 60's when white ethnic neighborhoods were up rooted to make way for public housing and thousands of poor black share croppers were imported from the south. Unskilled, so a government system of welfare grew up around them, but there was not enough income in the community to maintain the health of the city.
    So now what goes around comes around and the inner urban population or whats left of it, is being up rooted to try to save the city itself. If you were a reporter in the 60's your story would be about up rooted ethnic whites.
    In the last few years Newark NJ tore down it's worst public housing buildings to try to bring the city back t life.
    Sometimes social engineering solves one problem at the time and creates another years later

    April 30, 2010 at 9:52 am |
  7. nancy

    Personally, I cannot understanding anyone "wanting" to live in Detroit. that town is a mess, more ways than one.

    April 30, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  8. wade

    Sad, but needed.

    April 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
  9. elenore

    The farm idea is stupid.I live in Metro Detroit.There is basically a new bigger city built around Detroit the suburbs almost 4 million of us live here.We have built the community our Grandparents destroyed.We are expanding into farmlands on edges of Detroit Metro and turning city proper into farmlands isn't that stupid.Detroit is now 3 counties Macomb,Wayne,and Oakland.Make them officially one city let border Detroit cities annex land and let Detroit continue development from the Downtown let's meet in the middle and rebuild our city.This is our home,families,and community.We are all Detroiters and need a real plan for development together.I know Detroit is 300 years old ,we can do it.

    April 29, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  10. roneagle72

    This is exactly what should have been done here in New Orleans, following Katrina. Wholesale demolisions even of blight that has existed here long before Katrina.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  11. DARIC

    I think they should apply this model to Saginaw and Flint as well. It is hard to bring in jobs to places that people wouldn't want to live in, let alone work in...

    April 29, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  12. sagebrush

    I lived and worked in Detroit until one day I came to my senses and left.
    All of Detroit's wounds are self inflicted. It used to be a great city in the 50's and early 60's, but a succesion of self serving Mayors and other city officials helped it bleed to death.
    Detroit was killed by it's own inhabitants.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  13. hf

    We know why det-ROiT is the way it is, Mayor Barry and all the ones after him, and corrupt people that live and run the city, gangs, live in Windsor Ontario across the river from those type of people, 30 years ago, was a great city was rotting but people were nice, not anymore, don't go to detroit, and keep the under-age little-hoods out of Windsor also, border town, almost as bad as mexico.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  14. tidho

    This is a good plan.

    People aren't coming back to industrial cities without jobs there. The heavy union influence, corrupt Democrat Party governments, and the undereducated urban voters blindly voting for them guarentee it.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  15. bigdaa

    Detroit, how is that Hope and Change working out for you? Not so good? I could have told you that in 2008.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  16. birdy

    any plans to demolish hayward, california? you could drop an atom bomb there and i doubt anyone would care.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  17. Sheryl Ray

    Don't Demolishing any thing! I Will Buy & Fix Up!

    April 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm |