From Motown to no town

 

One of the United States’ biggest cities is in free fall, with so many residents fleeing that it is ready to disown the neighbourhoods they left behind. But could the weeds of urban neglect become the green shoots of hope?

AS YOU DRIVEwest from the centre of Detroit in the snow and bitter cold, along Michigan Avenue towards Ford’s River Rouge factory, you pass block after block of boarded-up stores. Their chances of reopening are remote. The houses on the side streets that once provided the shops with customers are mostly abandoned, burnt out or already torn down. You are three minutes’ drive from the centre of the United States’ 11th-largest city, but it doesn’t feel like the First World any more. It feels like the end of the world.

In 1967 John Lee Hooker recorded Motor City Is Burning, about the race riots that racked his adopted hometown that year. Some say Detroit’s decline began then, but it plunged faster into its current mire with the collapse of the US auto industry in 2008. Home to about a third of that industry, the state of Michigan has taken most of the pain: an estimated 230,000 jobs have gone in the past three years.

The car-industry bosses who gathered in Detroit for the opening day of the North American International Auto Show last month were bullish about the recovering US car market and pleased to announce some new jobs. But few would have ventured beyond the few blocks that hold Detroit’s Cobo Centre, which hosts the show. There were extra police patrols for them, plus fleets of Mercedes and Audis to take them from hotel to hall. They would not have to witness the devastation that the car industry’s clear-out is wreaking on the city that gave us GM, Ford and Chrysler, the Model T and muscle cars, the planes and jeeps and munitions that helped win the second World War, and Motown records. But they wouldn’t have had to go far: the blight, as Detroiters call it, has eaten into the heart of the city, with its empty, windowless skyscrapers and theatres used as parking lots.

Motor city’s not burning but dying, and the statistics are harrowing. Detroit has lost more than half its population since its postwar peak. A third of all houses are empty or already demolished. Half of all children live in poverty, and the median house price is now under €6,000. But one fact really stands out. The new mayor, a former basketball star named Dave Bing, is going to close a third of the city. With a budget deficit of more than $300 million, Detroit can’t afford to maintain neighbourhoods from which most of the population has fled. So if you live in Detroit, later this year you might get a letter explaining that, technically, you no longer do; that your sewerage and police patrols will soon be cut off; and that instead you can have a free house in one of the neighbourhoods the city thinks it can save.

“I’M LEARNING HOWto catch my own water, but I hope it won’t come to that. If they’ve already decided to close us down they ain’t saying,” says Mark Covington, who lives on Georgia Street, not far from GM’s vast Hamtramck plant, northeast of the city centre. It’s unsettling to stand here, even with a local. It is, or was, a residential area, but the streets are deserted. Most of the houses have been pulled down or stand like eyeless skulls, their doors and windows gone, their plumbing and wiring pulled out and sold for scrap. Packs of wild dogs, abandoned by owners who can’t afford their food, now live in them; we check for fresh paw prints in the snow on the steps before going in.

“The rest of the city’s just catching up to where we’ve already been,” jokes Covington. “We had houses torn down here when I was a little kid. All my adult life it’s been hard to find a job. A lot of people round here used to work at Hamtramck and the Ford plant, but now hardly anyone does. When the financial crisis struck we were already in a bad way, but things got worse. There are people around here living without heat or light in their homes. Rubbish started piling up in the streets, and the drains were blocked and weren’t getting cleared. This wasn’t how I remembered my neighbourhood. It hurt. So I decided to do something about it.”

The gently spoken 38-year-old moved back to Georgia Street to live with his mother and grandmother in the house he was born in, one of the few still standing, after he lost his job in 2008. He thought that if he planted some crops on an empty lot he might discourage people from dumping their rubbish there, as well as providing healthy food for neighbours who either can’t afford it or can’t get to the shops; despite being in the inner city the economic devastation is such that the nearest store still open is more than a kilometre away.

It seemed to work. Covington and his volunteers at Georgia Street Community Garden now raise 36 types of fruit and vegetable on a series of empty lots; they have a goat and some chickens and for $1 bought an old shop in which they hold film nights and children’s parties and give away food and warm clothes.

Urban farms like Covington’s are one of Detroit’s few growth industries; one start-up plans to open a 15-hectare farm in the middle of the city. We’re used to our metropolises relentlessly expanding, but this one is in full retreat. Green holes will appear in its heart as abandoned neighbourhoods revert to urban prairie, tall grass taking over entire blocks when the final house falls, the grid pattern of the streets just about visible through the foliage. “A lot of neighbourhoods are worse than this one,” says Covington. “You can go a mile up Georgia and there’s already blocks with not a single house on them.”

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIPis about 50km and a world away from central Detroit, a quiet, low-rise suburbia where neighbours still wave cheerily at each other from their cars. It has about 50,000 residents. Late last year General Motors finally closed its vast Willow Run plant in the township, which at its peak employed 14,000 people making Chevrolets and transmissions. The plant was the town, and now Ypsilanti is terrified that it will go the same way as Georgia Street. The local council has already cut police and firemen and pulled down 17 abandoned houses. It’s not always easy; with nobody to shut off the water supply some become encased in ice as frozen pipes burst, thaw and gush water. “We’re not going to be like a little Detroit or Flint,” says Brenda Stumbo, the elected township supervisor – effectively the mayor. “We’re trying to keep the standards of the community up until the jobs come back.”

She’s showing us around the colossal Willow Run site. GM invested $600 million here as recently as 2003. It looks modern and perfectly maintained, but like those run-down Detroit streets it is unsettlingly empty. It’s a Tuesday, but not a single footprint breaks the snow on the steps of the modern office blocks. We apologise to Stumbo for making her stand in the cold. “I’d gladly get pneumonia if it brought some jobs back here,” she says. “We have to work fast. I’m amazed they haven’t kicked us off yet. But can you see what we have here? There’s a million square feet of clean, green space in there, ready to go. We don’t care if it’s a foreign carmaker. If GM themselves said they’d come back but asked for a tax break we’d give it to them. We just want the jobs. People say the auto industry is dead here, but I don’t accept that. Some say Americans don’t want to work, but that’s just not true. And we’ll work for $10 or $15 an hour.”

Are her electors angry at General Motors for mismanaging itself so badly, and having to close the factory the town built itself around? “I think so. I think there is anger. It’s like the grieving process. It happens in stages. At first you’re just shocked. You don’t realise the impact until it happens to you. This place symbolised the hope of opportunity for so many people. They left their homes in the south to come and work here, like my parents did. The car industry gave us a better life. Can you imagine the pride of being able to send your kids to college when you couldn’t go? But now the kids are leaving town. The things we were blessed to have we no longer have. We’re struggling, struggling.”

BACK ON GEORGIA STREETI tell Covington that I don’t want this story to be relentlessly downbeat but that the urban cancer that has seized Detroit, and his neighbourhood particularly, seems so advanced I’m wondering why he and his friends don’t just admit defeat and leave. But Covington sees something I can’t amid the fire-gutted houses and empty, snowbound streets. “I was raised by a village, not just by my mom and dad. My daddy was in jail one time, and I got a whooping because one of the neighbours had told him I’d been up to no good. We’d gotten away from that, but this past year everyone’s buying into it again. It’s about rebuilding a community. Last June a guy who grew up under me was killed. I heard his mom say she couldn’t afford the funeral. In two days we’d raised $1,500 for her.”

The US car industry has remade itself at Detroit’s cost. Detroit, from Mayor Bing to Mark Covington, has plans to do the same, but after what the car industry has done to it it might not want to call itself Motown any more. Few of those jobs will come back, but on this corner, at least, a sense of community has. Covington hopes the mayor will notice and not cut Georgia Street off. As we talk, and as if to prove the point, his childhood friend Pete shuffles out of a house I thought was boarded up and starts shovelling the snow from a sidewalk nobody walks down.

‘We have people who qualify for free food who were earning six-figure salaries before’

It looks like a normal supermarket. The people shopping here look like your neighbours. But there are no prices on the shelves, and no tills at the checkouts, just a set of scales to weigh your trolley. Last year in this part of Michigan one major charity alone distributed 13,500 tonnes of food aid to the casualties of the crisis, mostly through soup kitchens or distribution points handing out boxes of food.

This one, the Fishes Loaves Community Food Pantry in Taylor, just west of downtown Detroit, offers a little more dignity. Once assessed, you’re told how often you can visit and how much food you can take away. You can choose it yourself and carry it off in Walmart bags, so your neighbours won’t know you need food aid.

“This is heavy Ford country,” says Chuck Vella, one of the volunteers who runs it. “We had thousands of people working at the Rouge, or at Ford’s world headquarters, or in their suppliers. Now those jobs have gone, and they’re not coming back. We have people who qualify for free food here who were engineers and managers earning six-figure salaries before. It runs the gamut. And what the media doesn’t get is that it’s not just the thousands who have lost their jobs but also the people who have had their benefits and hours cut. You might still be earning $30,000 or $40,000 a year, but your bills are so high you can’t afford food and you’re scared you’re going to lose your house.”

Vella, who ran his own store for 25 years before retiring, is intensely proud of the pantry. He says there’s nothing else on this scale for miles. “We started planning Fishes Loaves before this thing [the economy] tanked. When we first moved in it felt like the Taj Mahal compared with the pantries we’d run before. But it doesn’t any more. We opened two and a half years ago, and we were busy from day one. We give people appointment times. If we didn’t we’d have queues outside.”

With GM and Ford hiring again, does he see things improving? “Once in a while someone says, ‘I got a job and I’m not coming back.’ But it’s minimal.”

Death of a city Detroit’s declining population

1950

1.85m

1960

1.67m

1970

1.51m

1980

1.20m

1990

1.03m

2000

0.95m

2010

0.79m

Statistics are from census data bar the 2010 figure, a New York Times estimate

To donate to Georgia Street Community Garden go to georgiastreetgarden.blogspot.com