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Redefining Detroit

Marketplace Staff Nov 4, 2010

Redefining Detroit

Marketplace Staff Nov 4, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: There’s probably no American city that’s become more of an icon of the recession and the very jobless recovery we’re than Detroit, Mich. It’s been that way for years, actually, since before we ever heard the words “financial crisis” or “automaker bailout.” Detroit has lost more than half of its population in the past 50 years, industries have left, and Mayor Dave Bing says the city can’t support people who live in some of the emptier parts of town.

So he’s got a solution: tear down as many of the 60,000 vacant buildings in Detroit as he possibly can, ask residents in less populated neighborhoods to move closer to the center of town, and, in essence, redefine what it means to be Detroit.

Dave Bing, good to have you with us.

Dave Bing: Thank you so very much, good being here.

Ryssdal: Just to be clear here Mr. Mayor, you are talking about knocking down some of these 60,000 vacant buildings, and convincing people to move away from their homes to other areas of town, to consolidate and make Detroit a denser, more urban place to live, and so help it survive that way.

Bing: Because we’ve lost such a large portion of our population, people have just left. These homes have been deteriorated to the point where you have nothing to do but to tear them down. So we’re going to do to the tune of about 3,000 a year, or 10,000 for my term. But there are also a lot of homes that can be rehabbed, and then we’ve got to rebuild.

Ryssdal: I think I read a quote of yours someplace talking about how you’re going to go about this. You said, we could bulldoze 3,000 buildings a year for 10 or 15 years and still have leftover capacity. The scale of the problem is enormous.

Bing: It is huge. I don’t think there’s another major urban city in this country that’s dealing with what we’re dealing with, because we have lost almost half of our population over the last 30 or 40 years. Detroit had always been a high middle-class community based on the industry that was here, and people were working, making good wages. That has changed dramatically. So in order for our city to come back, we’ve got to take care of those that are still here, and create the right kind of environment so that we can hopefully get middle-class people to move back into the city.

Ryssdal: Where is the money going to come from to do this? Because, you know, knocking down houses and consolidating population and instituting new services doesn’t come cheap.

Bing: I think in the short term we are going to get some support from the federal government. But we’ve got to be very smart with the money that we get from the federal government because it’s not always going to be there. So we’ve got to invest money smartly. We’ve got to figure out once again how to make this an exciting city so that people who are here want to stay here and people who are looking for an urban environment and an urban experience here in the city of Detroit, they can get it here.

Ryssdal: About that federal money — the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the Secretary of Transportation have both said that they support what you’re doing, there will be federal monies coming — but how do you convince them that Detroit ought to get that money when there are so many other cities in Michigan — Flint, Pontiac, and others — that need help as well? Why Detroit?

Bing: You can’t turn your back on the city of Detroit. Detroit is the largest city in the state of Michigan, from a population standpoint, from a land-mass standpoint. And it says something to the rest of the world: if Detroit fails, then not only does Michigan fail, but I think there are a lot of major cities around the country that could really fall into this.

Ryssdal: This entire proposal I imagine is somewhat daunting, but there must be one aspect, one part of it that just keeps you up at night.

Bing: No doubt about it, is when I’ve got to face the people and neighborhoods that we can no longer support. That’s tough because you’ve had maybe three or four generations of a family living in a particular neighborhood, community, block, and the last thing they want to do is move.

Ryssdal: If this works, it is no doubt a major achievement. If it doesn’t, though, what happens to the city of Detroit?

Bing: I don’t think in the negative term — it’s gonna work. It may be in different degrees, but it’s going to work. And it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s the thing that people have to understand.

Ryssdal: Dave Bing, he’s the mayor of the city of Detroit. Mr. Mayor, thanks very much for your time.

Bing: Thank you so very much.

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