Saving Detroit

(In the wake of the news on Wednesday that the latest census shows that the city of Detroit has lost 25% of its population over the last decade, we are re-posting our post from December on how Detroit can be restored to a vibrant city.   If you have thoughts about how to save Detroit, please share them at the Winning Progressive Facebook page).

When I tell people that I love Detroit, most of them react with skepticism or look at me like I am crazy.  But Detroit is a stunning city with a storied history, unbelievable architecture, a proud population that is struggling to make their city work against all odds, and a lack of the chain stores and commercialism that have suburbanized parts of so many other cities in the U.S.  Detroit is the home to amazing places like the abandoned Grand Central railroad station picutred above; the Heidelberg Project, which has turned three square blocks of the city into an outside art exhibit; the Detroit Institute of Arts and its Detroit Industry murals; old-school restaurants like Mario’s and Roma Cafe, which opened in 1890; the Lawndale Market, a corner store that has more than 10,000 polaroid pictures of customers hanging from the walls and ceiling; the John K. King used and rare book store that fills four stories of an abandoned factory; and enough soul food restaurants to keep any soul food fan happy.

Detroit is also, of course, a city that is struggling to stay alive.  Suburbanization, the decline of the auto industry, and economic and governmental neglect have hollowed large parts of the city out.  Detroit’s population peaked at around 1.85 million in 1950 and has fallen steadily since then to approximately 900,000 or less today.  So many people have left the city that many blocks have only a few houses on them, surrounded by open lots on which there are no signs that houses once stood there.  There is enough abandoned land in Detroit that Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston could all be placed within the city’s borders.

The question becomes how do we reinvigorate Detroit?  The city’s mayor and others are proposing to “down-size” the city, which essentially means getting people to move out of the least populated neighborhoods so that city services can be shut off to those areas.  Others, like Hartz Farms, are proposing to use the large areas of unused land for urban farming.

While perhaps understandable given the dire situation that Detroit is in, the problem with these approaches is that they constitute essentially abandoning the idea of Detroit as a major American city.   We here at Winning Progressive believe there is a better approach that focuses on reinvigorating the city by repopulating it.  This can be achieved in two ways:

* Make Detroit an immigration safe haven - Immigration has always been the life blood of American cities, from the Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants who came in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the Latino immigrants of the past couple of decades.   And many more people want to come to the U.S. from other countries but either cannot get their way through our broken immigration system, or do not want to risk coming here illegally. As more people immigrate to an area, economic activity and jobs are created to provide basic goods and products to them.

In 2008, the U.S. spent $2.2 billion on finding and deporting undocumented immigrants, and in fiscal year 2010 we deported a record 392,000 undocumented immigrants.   Obviously some of that spending is necessary and some undocumented immigrants should be deported because they have committed other serious crimes, etc.  However, our nation’s focus on deporting undocument immigrants at the same time that cities like Detroit are “down-sizing” due to a lack of people is ridiculous.  Why not make Detroit, and other struggling cities like Cleveland, Flint, Youngstown, etc., safe havens for undocumented immigrants?  In other words, let undocumented immigrants who do not have criminal records and are already in the U.S. be free of fear of deportation if they move to Detroit or other struggling cities.  And for people who want to immigrate to the U.S., create an expedited immigration system that ensures quick approval for any law-abiding immigrant who agrees to live in Detroit or another struggling city for at least five years.

* Urban Homesteading: In 1862, the government sought to encourage westward expansion through the passage of the Homestead Act, which authorized the sale of 160-acre plots of unoccupied public lands in the west for a nominal fee after someone resided in the area for five years.  In Detroit today, the city government has taken possession of tens of thousands of vacant lots and thousands of other lots in the city have long been abandoned.  So, why not enact an Urban Homestead Act, that combines free land with a $100,000 grant to build or restore a house on that land to any law-abiding citizen who agrees to live there for at least five years?   Such a program would repopulate cities like Detroit, assist people in need, and stimulate the economy by increasing home building activity.  100,000 families could participate in such a program at a cost of $10 billion per year, which is one-seventh the amount of what the wealthiest two percent of Americans will be receiving every year if the Bush tax cuts are extended and less than one-tenth what we spent every year on the Iraq war.

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