Wandering through a museum exhibit some years ago on art from the cradle of civilization, I came upon a map of the ancient Middle East with the names of scores of cities that no longer exist, and I was suddenly struck that the world is indeed full of sites of once vibrant cities that died. Thinking about the phenomenon of urban death, it became clear that there are multiple causes—wartime destruction, desertification or jungle encroachment, natural disasters, and so on—but that the common factor in urban death, theoretically, is that for one reason or another the city is no longer able to fulfill its essential urban functions. I wondered if cities in a modern society like the United States could die, that is, if there came a point where they were no longer doing the things that cities do that make them cities. Detroit seemed like a good place to begin an exploration of that possibility.
Elsewhere I posit three fundamental urban functions, each so crucial to the sustainability of a city that the failure of any one of them may set a city on the path to death.1 These include governance (the management and financing of common public responsibilities), an economic function that I call the maintenance of the marketplace (the fostering of employment, investment, and trade), and cultural production and preservation. In “Is Detroit Dead?” I subject the city to an examination akin to that which a doctor conducts on an ailing patient and conclude that the city is no longer fulfilling either its governance or its economic functions and thus appears to be dying.
As that article was in the works and in the few years since publication, downtown Detroit (approximately 5 percent of the land area within the city’s boundaries and 5 percent of the total population) has experienced a $9 billion building boom of mostly repurposed and revitalized commercial property, 16,000 new jobs, and some 3000 new or renovated housing units. City boosters point to this as a sign of the city’s resurgence. Yes, but…. I would suggest that such a judgment is premature.
Detroit is still largely a city in despair, particularly for much of its black population. Little of the downtown activity has had discernible spillover benefits for the vast neighborhoods beyond the downtown. Population continues to decline (though the rate of loss slowed in the last year or two); the school system is in a perpetual state of grave crisis; poverty remains higher in Detroit than in any other big city in the U.S., with the rate for African Americans more than three times that for whites. Furthermore, the rate of concentrated poverty is higher in Detroit than in any other large metro area, and Detroit is the second most racially segregated city in the country. The median per capita income even in the apparently prosperous downtown is less than half the national average.
The city has steadily relinquished its governmental functions, greatly diminishing the scope of municipal capacity. Partly this a function of the formal reallocation of various functions—street lighting, social welfare programs, the convention center, water and sewer, the crown jewel of the public park system and so on– to other levels of government (special authorities, Wayne County, the state of Michigan). But the reduction of municipal capacity is also the product of the virtual abdication of development functions to the private sector, and in particular to just a few individuals, unaccountable to local government or the city’s citizens. Detroit is no longer a fully self-governing city within the context of American local government expectations and possibilities.
The city is also still falling short as a magnet of economic opportunity, one of the most central aspects of the so-called vital marketplace urban functions. There is a limited array of economic activities, most of which are not accessible to people with little education. No other big city in the U.S. has so few foreign born immigrants. Although some college-educated young people have moved to the city in recent years—artists, entrepreneurs, tech specialists—the city is not a destination for small town domestic migrants nor high school graduates seeking work. Unemployment is still more than two and half times the national rate.
So is Detroit dead? Not yet, but I still think it is hovering on the verge. There is a core with an aura of vibrancy—a Whole Foods grocery opened in the center a couple of years ago and is often touted as evidence of resurgence–that belies its vulnerability. But much of the rest of the city continues to be a dead zone, still with abandoned houses, empty fields, long-shuttered factories, and a public school system that has lost more than two-thirds of its students since 2002. Detroit still seems to me to be the American way of urban death.
Peter Eisinger is Professor Emeritus at the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School in New York City.
The original article, “Is Detroit Dead?” was published in Volume 36, Issue 1 (2014) of JUA, and is included in the May 2016 Virtual Issue on Global Urban Change. It can be accessed without a subscription for a limited time.
1. “Theorizing Urban Death,” in Robert Scott and Stephen Kosslyn, eds., Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource. 2015: 1–9.↩.