In Visions of Future Detroit, Don’t Forget Services

by Jeremy Loudenback

In July, the city of Detroit found itself in trouble again, attracting the headlines that have earned it an ugly reputation for urban and social dysfunction. After he was appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Kevyn D. Orr, the city’s non elected emergency manager, decided to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection. It was hardly a surprising turn of events for many longtime observers of the city, who have seen it held up as the epitome of all the worst fears of modern American cities: a crumbling infrastructure, huge pensions that have constricted city finances, an ineffective city bureaucracy, millions of dollars owed in municipal bond obligations, significant racial and economic segregation, and most famously, a once-proud bastion of auto manufacturing still struggling to find a foothold in the new economy.

A recent New York Times article, though, sees the news of the bankruptcy as an opportunity to re-imagine Detroit in strikingly new ways from the ground up.

Should its areas of nearly vacant blocks be transformed into urban farms, parks and even ponds made from storm water?
Could its old automobile manufacturing economy be shifted into one centering on technology, bioscience and international trade?
Should Detroit, which lost a million residents over the last 60 years, pin its sharpest hopes on luring more young people here, playing on an influx of artists and entrepreneurs?
Should the city take down its enormous ruins, like Michigan Central Station, that have devolved into bleak tourist attractions or restore some of these buildings and market them, perhaps as museums or tributes to a proud industrial past?

To stimulate the “rebirthing” process, many of Detroit’s civic and political leaders are taking cues from “Detroit Future City,” a hefty document that provides a series of priorities for the city based on input from thousands of residents and leaders over the past three years. But as alluring as the opportunity is to reinvent the city by pushing the reset button, questions still remain about how to rebuild the foundations of a once-thriving city, including making sure the voices of all the city’s residents are heard in the process. While it’s nice to imagine transforming large swathes of Detroit into an urban farm or making the Motor City into a tech hub for the Midwest, re-establishing the role of government by providing core services like police, garbage, and buses should still be at the forefront of imagining a new Motown.

Emergency Manager Orr hopes that the bankruptcy process will help Detroit shed its $18 billion in debt, and help guarantee the municipal services that have recently been a shaky proposition for many city residents. Once the bankruptcy process is finished, the city should be better positioned to consider sweeping changes, though many Detroiters may be wondering if they’ll still be able to recognize the city.