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More Shrinking Thinking, Continued

Detroit mayor Dave Bing came out strong in favor of reducing the operational size of the city recently, raising the specter of future campaigns to urge some Detroit residents to leave their homes for other blocks or neighborhoods in the city.

"You can't support every neighborhood," Bing told WJR's Frank Beckmann. "You can't support every community across this city. Those communities that are stable, we can't allow them to go down the tubes. That's not a good business decision from my vantage point."

Bing acknowledged it won't be "an easy conversation."

No, it won't be. And it shouldn't be, given that there are still countless Detroiters with deep ties to their homes and communities. (I think, for instance, about all the older people I've known over the years who've purchased vacant lots on either side of their well-kept homes and turned those lots into garden shrines, at once beautifying their own residences and staving off the decay of a surrounding block.) But still, that conversation is one we're going to have to have — unless someone can explain how a city with a plummeting population and a roughly $300-million budget deficit can still afford to provide municipal services to nearly 140 square miles of land, where more than 35 percent of residential lots sit vacant.

Of course, even though I favor the idea of shrinking the city, I'm anxious about how Mayor Bing will and can do it. I've talked to people connected with city development efforts, and I've enjoyed much of what I've heard. But ultimately it is the mayor who's going to have to provide a concrete plan and leadership on this thing— and I hope that will come served with some fair-minded policies on how to deal with relocating homeowners. In fact, if there was one thing about Bing's remarks that did disturb me, it was what seemed to be an implication that the city wouldn't (couldn't?) provide equal services to residents who won't leave desolate neighborhoods.

"If we don't do it, you know this whole city is going to go down. I'm hopeful people will understand that," Bing said. "If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation."

"If they stay where they are I absolutely cannot give them all the services they require."

I will admit that I'm questioning whether I'm reading that last line right, but on its surface, the statement seems like an impolitic one to make. I mean, if you really can't provide services, that's one thing. But in this context, at least to me, the line rings as as much a threat as a dire administrative prognostication. And like I said, I favor shrinking the city -- but can you really pull that one on tax-paying residents, even in largely abandoned neighborhoods? (Or even on those too broke to pay taxes?) Legally, I mean? I'm no constitutional scholar, but I have my concerns.

That said, it seems to me that Bing does need to start talking in more direct terms about other potential sticks and carrots here, including the most controversial and historically checkered stick of all -- eminent domain. Again, he's right when he says it won't be an easy discussion to have, and that doesn't just go for the residents.

John Mogk, a Wayne State law school professor, said Bing's on the right track but will face four major challenges: political support; money; creating a bureaucracy to administer the project and legal challenges.

Among the court challenges he sees ahead include the legality of cutting off city services to particular neighborhoods and using eminent domain to relocate residents. In 2006, voters approved a prohibition on government's ability to take property for economic development.

"It's a huge challenge," Mogk said. "No other city in terms of Detroit's scale ... has yet to face up to what it needs to do and has accomplished it."

Big challenge there, but no surprise. And prohibition or not, it'll be interesting to see what the mayor is willing to turn to if/when push comes to shove on resident relocation.

Opposite Bing, though, is an other intriguing stance: That of those who seem to think that Detroit doesn't need to reduce its operational size.

And he's already facing opposition from activists such as Ron Scott, who said he is "adamantly opposed" and believes the business community is pushing Bing to get cheap access to large tracts of the city."Sounds like reservations to me, it sounds like telling people to move," Scott said. "The citizens of the city of Detroit who built this city, the working class, didn't create this situation. You are diminishing the constitutional options people have by contending you have a crisis."

I get the part about constitutional options, but given that land is already dirt cheap here, how much more prodding does a business community that already enjoys cheap land prices and lucrative tax breaks have to do? And while I agree that working-class people didn't create many of Detroit's structural problems, working-class and poor residents are also those most affected by those problems. So I think the same land-management question should be posed to those who oppose the idea of reducing Detroit's operational size as to those who favor it: What, really, is the plan?

Frankly, I'm still mulling this one over, even after this post, and would really like to hear some enlightened views on this whole situation. Is Bing wise to play the "city services" card this early in the game, if at all? What options does Detroit have when it comes to offering incentives for residents to move? Is eminent domain really off the table? Or are you of the mind that Detroit doesn't need to shrink at all, that there's another way to handle city land management and an affordable distribution of services? Share.

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