Detroit Exodus : An Urban Desert in the Motor City

Times Staff Writer

Ring-necked pheasants are back in Detroit.

In the tall weeds among the thousands of abandoned buildings and vacant lots in this city, along vast corridors of once-bustling streets--now reduced to urban wilderness--pheasants from the rural brush are flourishing.

Nature seems to be reclaiming sections of this city that man is abandoning.

“The habitat is there for the pheasants because there is so much vacant land in the city, and because their natural predators in the wild, hawks and owls, aren’t around,” said Michigan state wildlife expert Pete Squibb.


“But it’s really surprising that they are in a big city,” added Squibb. “I guess what amazes me the most is how much vacant land there is there.”

There is more every day.

‘Block After Block’

“I can’t quite fathom the level of devastation that’s going on. There is just block after block where nothing is remaining,” said George Cantor, a Detroit News columnist. Cantor, a Detroit native who now lives in the suburbs, writes frequently about the way the city used to be, the way so many ex-Detroiters remember it from their childhoods. Recently, he wrote of searching for his great-grandparents’ old home; it was gone:


“In the area where I grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the commercial shopping strip I went to as a kid is gone, the apartment building I lived in and the buildings around it are all gone, and there is absolutely nothing remaining.

“They are all just empty fields.”

The Motor City is slowly disappearing.

The debris of this city’s vibrant past--vacant, burned-out homes, decaying, abandoned buildings, long-empty factories--is being bulldozed away under a massive city demolition and land clearance program designed to deal with a free-fall plunge in population.

Abandoned Buildings

Today, in fact, while Californians battle over how to slow the state’s runaway urbanization and congestion, Detroit is faced with exactly the opposite problem: large-scale deurbanization.

“All you have to do is . . . look around and you can see how serious the abandoned building problem is,” said Hal Wolman, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. “When you have the kind of rapid population loss that Detroit has had you are inevitably going to end up with lots of buildings with no one living in them.”

In virtually every other major American city a back-to-the-city movement has helped revitalize once-decayed neighborhoods, but that movement has largely bypassed Detroit.


Its people are simply leaving.

With one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden inner cities in the nation, Detroit has watched for decades as its residents and businessmen have voted with their feet--moving out to the booming, safe suburbs.

While the greater metropolitan region continues to grow, fueled by the resurgence of American manufacturing, the population of the city itself is still plunging. A decline that first began slowly in the 1950s and early 1960s, as newly affluent workers sought a respite from Detroit’s congestion, turned into a panicked exodus after the bloody race riot of 1967, leading to what became perhaps the most dramatic case of white flight ever suffered by any large American city.

As recently as 1940, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in America, and it seemed destined to surpass Philadelphia to become the nation’s third, behind New York and Chicago.

But, from a peak population of 1,849,568 in 1950, its population dropped a stunning 41% to 1,086,220 in 1986, the latest year for which a U.S. Census Bureau estimate is available.

And the population losses appear to be continuing today, largely unabated by the recovery of the domestic auto industry. Between 1980 and 1986, Detroit lost about 115,000 people, including 40,000 who left between 1984 and 1986, when the auto industry was enjoying a sharp upturn. The city’s 9.7% population loss since 1980 is the largest suffered by any major American city in this decade, according to Census Bureau analyst Don Starsinic.

Under a Million

Some observers now fear that Detroit, still the nation’s sixth-largest city, could slip under a million by the time of the 1990 census or soon after, becoming the first American city ever to go over and then fall back under the million population mark.


Even the Catholic Church is starting to move out, following its parishioners to the suburbs. In a move unprecedented in U.S. Catholic history, the archdiocese of Detroit announced late last month that it plans to close 43 inner-city churches, representing a third of Detroit’s Catholic parishes.

Dazed Detroit officials have been left to sweep up after former citizens, businessmen, slumlords and land speculators who have all too often simply walked away from their properties.

The city’s response has been to crank up the bulldozers.

“When that many people move out, that leaves a lot of housing units for which there is no demand,” said Bob Berg, spokesman for Mayor Coleman A. Young. “And the choice is either you let them sit there and deteriorate or tear them down.”

So, day in and day out, private contractors hired by Detroit are razing old homes, old warehouses, old factories, at a feverish pitch all over the city. At two sessions each week, the City Council meets to give final approval for property condemnation and demolition orders, handling 60 or more properties at each session, 120 a week.

The bulldozers are now demolishing buildings--mostly burned-out or dilapidated single-family homes--at a rate of 2,000 a year, a pace they have maintained for at least the past five years, according to Creighton Lederer, director of Detroit’s Building and Safety Engineering Department, which is responsible for targeting buildings for demolition.

By contrast, that was about the same number of single family homes that were built in the City of Los Angeles last year; meanwhile, only two building permits for single family homes were issued last year in all of Detroit.

Lederer said that Detroit’s pace of demolition is likely to be maintained indefinitely; his department already has a list of another 5,000 dangerously unsafe buildings that must be torn down. In some parts of the city, observed one official, “we don’t seem to ever run out of inventory” of buildings to level.

Solid Neighborhoods

To be sure, there are still a number of solid neighborhoods in the city, where fine, large homes at inexpensive prices are luring middle-class buyers. A few beautiful old townhouses and small mansions, once home to the fledgling auto aristocracy of the 1920s, are also being restored.

“Detroit offers excellent housing values,” said Charles M. Tucker Jr., president of the Detroit Board of Realtors. “I’m very high on Detroit’s neighborhood revitalization.”

And, at the same time, the city’s downtown and nearby riverfront are benefiting from an influx of both public and private development. The city’s convention center is being expanded, while nearby a skyscraper is under construction by a Denver developer that is planning another next door. New apartment towers, condominiums, retail and office space, marinas and even a luxury hotel have all been completed or are in the works along the downtown riverfront.

But in the city’s outer neighborhoods, Mayor Young’s policy of demolition and land clearance remains the dominant development force, and it is becoming increasingly controversial.

In recent weeks, reports have appeared that Young’s Administration paid more than $42 million for three old, machinery-filled warehouses and 15 acres of land, as part of a 640-acre land clearance project designed to make room for a new Chrysler assembly plant on the city’s far east side. City officials insist that they paid the high price only to meet a Chrysler deadline on the project, but a federal grand jury is now investigating the transaction. The city’s top lawyer was jailed this month for ignoring a court order won by a local newspaper to release documents related to the land deal. Although the Chrysler project is independent of the city’s more piecemeal demolition efforts in other neighborhoods, the huge overpayments have led to new criticism of Young’s land clearance policies.

“Can you imagine what we could have done with that $40 million in the neighborhoods?” asked the Rev. James Holley, a black minister and Young foe. “There is no balance to this madness.”

Some community leaders now argue that Young favors demolition over rehabilitation, and sometimes even encourages abandonment, in order to “bank” city-owned vacant land for future use in large industrial projects like the Chrysler plant.

“The Administration’s view is that the city is shrinking, and that you should let the population shrink and then clear out the old structures and make room for development,” complained David Dasher, development director for the Michigan Avenue Community Organization, a neighborhood group.

City officials deny such charges. “That’s bull!” said Berg. “Anyone who says the mayor has encouraged abandonment knows nothing. The primary reason people have left is that jobs have left, and the mayor hasn’t closed any plants.”

14-Year Tenure

Yet Young’s critics within the black community note that he has been in office for 14 years now, and say he can no longer pass the buck for the city’s crisis. They add that Young’s oft-repeated charge that the outflow of people and jobs is the result of white racism only leads to further image problems and more losses. “We can no longer blame what happens in this city on whites, because blacks control everything,” charged Tom Barrow, a black businessman who unsuccessfully ran for mayor against Young in 1985.

In the midst of the controversy, however, the bulldozers keep moving. Now, the only real restriction on the city’s demolition and land clearance program is the amount of money the city has to pay contractors. It currently earmarks about $10 million, mostly from federal block grant funds, each year for demolition, and often must ask for more, city councilman Mel Ravitz noted. Last year, the city spent a total of $11 million, said Berg.

The land clearance policy, which was initiated about 20 years ago, has drastically accelerated in the 1980s, completely altering the face of the city and dramatically shrinking the housing stock. At the time of the 1950 census, there were 512,414 occupied housing units in Detroit; by 1980, there were 433,488.

The city government, which takes ownership of the land after demolishing abandoned buildings on it, is now the largest landholder in Detroit. It owns a total of 60,000 vacant lots, according to Berg.

Little is being built on all that land despite the desperate need for decent housing among the city’s poorest residents.

“It is a crisis,” said Charles Anderson, president of the Detroit Urban League. “Ironically, we are tearing down abandoned homes at a time when we have more and more homeless families.”

Detroit city officials lay much of the blame for the lack of development on the city’s financial institutions. Local banks were widely criticized this summer for failing to provide funds that might lead to new development in predominantly black neighborhoods. In the wake of a major series in the Detroit Free Press on redlining by the city’s financial institutions, state regulators have recently required several banks and savings and loans to increase their local lending, and city leaders believe that could turn some neighborhoods around.

“The increase in lending funds available will go a great way to help revitalize the city,” said the Board of Realtors’ Tucker.

However, housing values are still so low and crime so prevalent that there appears to be only a small group of affluent homeowners and other investors willing to buy up and rehabilitate property in the city, despite bargain basement housing prices that would make any Californian drool. The average selling price of a house in Detroit was $31,048 in 1987, according to the Detroit Board of Realtors. Many houses are available for $5,000 to $10,000 in cash.

But with little new money coming in and too many people going out, the result has all too often been the creation of mini-ghost neighborhoods throughout Detroit.

Old city street directories reveal the change. On one square block bounded by 15th and 16th and Selden and Magnolia streets on Detroit’s near west side, for example, records show that 48 homes were standing and filled with families in 1920. Today, the square block is nothing but an empty grassy knoll, with one lone house standing on the far side of 16th Street.

Back to Nature

The surplus of empty land has spawned a remarkable back-to-nature movement, which has, in effect, turned some sections of the city back to farmland. The city’s “farm-a-lot” program allows approved neighbors to grow crops on nearby city-owned land where homes previously stood. City officials say 100,000 Detroiters are now involved in the program. “Some of these people get real serious with their crops, they take stuff to the state fair, and some have even won blue ribbons,” said Berg.

A generation or two ago, when the American car was king and Detroit the kingmaker, all this would have been unthinkable. Detroit, wrote Anne O’Hare McCormick in the New York Times in 1934, had gained worldwide stature and influence almost overnight through its standing as the preeminent maker of “democratized luxuries.”

“Paris dictates a season’s silhouette,” wrote McCormick, “but Detroit manufactures a pattern of life, bolder than Moscow in transforming human habits and communizing the output of the machine.”

By stamping out cheap mobility for millions, the city’s assembly lines were helping to create the modern middle class, and in the process, were turning the city into a mecca for countless immigrants.

Detroit was a boom town, and hundreds of thousands came from all over the world. They crowded into what Detroiters called “the shops,” the incredible jumble of auto assembly and parts factories, tool and die plants and foundries and steel mills that bumped up against each other along the city’s broad thoroughfares, the greatest concentration of manufacturing capacity on earth.

But today, much of that Detroit is long gone.

First, factories and jobs started moving to the suburbs; businesses seeking to expand were, paradoxically, finding it difficult to get enough cheap land in the city. In 1950, Detroit had 348,986 manufacturing jobs; by 1980 only 153,300. Tens of thousands more have been eliminated in the past eight years.

Workers followed their jobs, seeking bigger houses, more greenery.

Finally, after the 1967 race riot, the movement of jobs and people turned into a frightened exodus.

The history and geography of the city made it easy for hundreds of thousands to leave. Since it had been a boom town so recently, most of its people were relative newcomers with few deep ties to the city, and didn’t mind moving. The pancake-flat terrain of the entire Detroit area, coupled with new freeways to the suburbs, also meant that there were no obstacles to outward movement.

In addition, the auto company headquarters were scattered. Ford was in the suburb of Dearborn, Chrysler in nearby Highland Park and General Motors was several miles north of downtown. As a result, there was never a large base of office workers who needed to be close to downtown.

Those circumstances led the middle class to continue a steady march away from the city, leaving behind what has been described as “concentric rings of failed neighborhoods.”

Hints in the ‘40s

The potential for urban blight under such conditions was obvious to observers as early as the 1940s.

“There were no natural objects here to which the most important activities of a city could be anchored forever,” wrote Arthur Pound in “Detroit, Dynamic City,” his prescient 1940 history of the city.

“Fussy citizens can always move farther out on several hundred square miles of nearly level plain,” Pound added. “Where daily commuting and shifts of location are undeterred by natural obstacles, as in level Detroit, there is little incentive to reuse those decaying neighborhoods that the townsfolk resignedly call blighted areas.”

Still, there is a sense of sadness in the suburban Detroit diaspora among those who once knew another, more muscular city. As the bulldozers rumble on, their past is being irrevocably shoveled under.

Says Cantor: “It’s depressing for people to try to take their children back to show them where they grew up, and see nothing left.”