When General Motors went into bankruptcy, it had too many brands, too many factories and too many dealers. So GM did what most companies with too much capacity do--it cut to the core, saving only what was viable. Today GM is a smaller but much healthier company.
Can a city follow the same path? That's essentially the controversial plan of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a basketball Hall of Famer who ran his own automotive supply company for three decades before his election in May 2009. He wants to strengthen Detroit's viable neighborhoods and raze or recycle the rest of the city--some 40 square miles in all, or 30% of its land--for new industries, sprawling residential lots, public parks and urban farms. But that means trying to entice the remaining residents of the failed neighborhoods to relocate. The carrot? He's fixing up some of the 50,000 foreclosed homes owned by the city in more stable areas--and offering each for a nominal sum to those willing to relocate there.
The mayor vows that people will not be forced from their homes as the city is reshaped. But he's counting on the lure of safer streets, convenient shopping and modern services to convince residents in dying areas to move. By concentrating limited resources in areas with the highest population density, he's hopeful Detroit can be saved. Still, this is no easy task. "I am not naive," says the soft-spoken 66-year-old Bing. "We are asking people who have lived here for generations to change. But if we don't change we'll fail, and I don't want to be part of that failure."
Geographically Detroit is a huge city; the urban footprints of Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston could fit inside its limits. But m any neighborhoods are virtual ghost towns. The city has lost 60% of its population since 1950, when it was home to 1.85 million people.
On the 13300 block of Flanders Street, for instance, there's an eerie emptiness to the neighborhood. Three elderly women live alone on the block in tidy wood-frame houses, with neatly trimmed lawns and colorful gardens surrounded by chain-link fences. The rest of the houses on Flanders are boarded up, burned out or otherwise abandoned.
"If there are only 50 houses in a neighborhood where there used to be 2,000, is that really viable?" asks Karla Henderson, who oversees Bing's Detroit Works Project. Of the city's 54 neighborhoods only 15 have been deemed healthy by city officials. "Even our stronger neighborhoods are tipping," she says. Over the next four years Bing will use a threefold increase in federal neighborhood stabilization money to tear down 10,000 dangerous structures in all-but-abandoned neighborhoods.