November 11, 2019

The Destruction of Detroit

Detroit is one of the few cities in the United States that prides itself in the number of houses that it tears down. It took over 300 years to build the city and it will take about four more years to knock it down. The records are sketchy as this process has been going for years. It is estimated that approximately 70,000 structures have been demolished.

One house, a bungalow on a street named JoAnn was built in 1926 and took the better part of one year to build. Covering 1300 square feet it had a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a light filled parlor facing the street. Brand new it was priced at less than $4,000 dollars. The wrecking crew will take 36 minutes to destroy it. Thirteen local wrecking crews work all day in Detroit to keep up with the demand.

In 1950, with nearly 2 million people living within the boundaries of Detroit, Detroit was the fifth largest city in America. But also starting in the 1950s, the city fell into decline, factories closed, jobs vanished and in the wake of the 1967 riots, race relations collapsed and the city became increasingly segregated. By 1980, the population had dwindled to 1.2 million residents. Blight started leaving much of the housing suited for crackheads and squatters. Today less than 700,000 people call Detroit home and nearly 25% of the city’s houses are vacant.

The notion of “bringing Detroit back” has always focused on a few square miles of partially occupied office buildings, sports stadiums and casinos. Meanwhile, the neighborhoods, the places where people actually live, have been neglected and almost uniformly removed from public awareness.

In the 1950s and 1960s, freeway construction as part of urban renewal, cut through the most densely populated black neighborhoods of Detroit. The demolition of buildings caused by the freeways, split and reduced thriving neighborhoods. For example, 2,800 buildings were removed for the Edsel Ford Expressway (I-94) alone.

After the riots of 1967, thousands of small businesses closed permanently or relocated to safer neighborhoods. The riot put Detroit on a fast track to economic desolation. The white exodus from Detroit had been steady prior to the riot, but it became frantic afterwards. In 1968, the exodus hit 80,000 people followed in 1969 by 46,000 people.

Poverty, drugs, urban decay and crime all contribute to keeping Detroit in an economic hole. Byproducts of this decay result in the decline in the number of students in the Detroit School System declining from 200,000 in the year 2002 to 46,000 in 2016.  During the period from 2000 to 2014, 300 thousand people left the City of Detroit. The Archdiocese of Detroit has taken a significant hit starting in 1989. Thirty-one inner city parishes were closed then and by February of 2012 the number had declined to just 59 open parishes, down from 79 in the year 2000. Michigan lost 48% of all its manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. In the city of Detroit alone, it is estimated that 50% of the population is functionally illiterate. Unemployment is broken down between the unemployed currently looking for work at 18% and those out of work and no longer looking for work at near 30%. In other words, almost half the people in the city of working age, do not have a job.

The lost tax base is difficult to measure but if each house torn down had paid an average tax of $3,000 dollars in annual taxes, the lost revenue is estimated at $210 million dollars. When the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, it asked the court for protection on $18.5 billion dollars in debt and other liabilities. The sad reality is that the City of Detroit is still sinking in debt, and, if nothing is done to change the situation, Detroit could face bankruptcy again in a decade. Current estimates place the City of Detroit’s unfunded pension liability at over $3 billion dollars. Sadly, urban farming will not replace the lost tax revenue. There is no easy answer but every day, the 13 local wrecking crews demolish approximately 260 houses or over three quarters of a million dollars in lost tax revenue.

So sad.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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Written by Donald Wittmer
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