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Paralyzed By Paranoia

Caught wind of an interesting debate recently at the Web site Planetizen about the effectiveness of "right-sizing" troubled cities like Detroit. The debate seems even more resonant now that Detroit Mayor Dave Bing seems to want to distance himself from any language that suggests a re-sizing of the city.

In the meantime, the land management arguments are being ratcheted up on all sides, with Bing hinting that residents who don't leave areas targeted for right-sizing won't get squat in terms of city services and his harshest opponents likening the mayor's right-sizing plans to the vilely racist and criminally inhumane "Trail of Tears" incident.

Me, I'm not sure how you else can develop an effective land-management policy for Detroit without condensing the serviceable boundaries of the city. More than 138 square miles of land. Likely fewer than 800,000 people. A $400-million budget deficit. A vanishing core industry, and few replacements on the horizon. Who is going to come in to re-fill the abandoned homes with families, the vacant lots with homes and businesses? And how much longer should we let good land go to pot before we're done waiting for the return of these fictional masses?

Sure, I think Roberta Brandes Gratz poses a great question in her argument against "right-sizing"...

Can anyone point to one city, just one, where any of these "renewal" schemes that dedensify cities have worked to regenerate, rather than further erode, a city? Just one. No theory please; just real on the ground success.

But I also thinks she fails to consider just how much this city has already been "dedensified" over the past 50, 60 years. Right-sizing Detroit isn't proposed in lieu of doing something else productive and regenerative with what is there. It's a response to what is not.

No, I don't think land management policy should amount to a land grab for corporate interests, and see little reason why proper oversight — and civic diligence — couldn't prevent this. I don't think Bing should, or legally even can, cut off services to a Detroit neighborhood because people won't move. And I'm staunchly against selling away even one square mile of the city, and was glad to see that the mayor apparently is, too.

But even as a child, I heard people preaching about the importance of land, its value to any struggle for opportunity. "It's the one thing they don't make more of," people used to tell me. And right now, I just see land languishing. Entire swaths of residential neighborhoods around streets like Van Dyke and Chene are just gone. The westside of the city, while more densely populated than the east, also has neighborhoods with huge chunks missing, too.

Meanwhile, many Detroiters continue to resist change out of fear that government, philanthropic and business interests just want to run out the city's black poor and working class, then hand the city over to white suburbanites and big companies who're secretly laying in wait for property values on East Grand Blvd. to plummet to appropriate levels. And hell, I could respect even that overly skittish attitude...if it were married to an organized plan of resistance and revitalization for Detroit.

But what I see instead are people paralyzed by paranoia, fatally anxious over accepting any help at all by dire warnings shouted by people who, in their stout determination to thwart The Man, refuse to acknowledge that they are the ones helping to uphold a miserable status quo. As one of my dearest friends said to me over lunch downtown at Sweet Lorraine's this afternoon, "This is Detroit: We need to accept that we are The Man."

That's real talk right there. I'm not worried about Roger Penske getting over. I'm worried about my mother getting adequate police protection, about my younger cousins not having to fear getting shot outside their home and on their way to class. I'm worried about what business opportunities the city will have for my children in 10, 15, 20 years. Detroiters don't need to be beaten down with fear anymore. Detroiters need to be so empowered and engaged that they openly welcome opportunities to partner and exchange ideas in the name of reviving this city — and dare anymore crooks to try to take advantage. The people shouldn't be taught to fear public policy; the people should be taught to shape it.

And yes, those policies should reflect the best interests of the people who live here, including land management. Out of respect for the many Detroiters — especially black folks — who have maintained their homes and communities through the city's worst times,  moving even one family should be weighed and undertaken with the utmost seriousness. But I do think there's a way to provide people with fair and proper incentives, to move folks with dignity and genuine concern for citizens' sense of community.We just need to commit ourselves to that way.

And out of respect for the very real oppression of Native American peoples, I won't even think to compare the idea of moving a family from one end of Brightmoor to another to one of this nation's worst-ever crimes against humanity.

Like I said, I think the idea of right-sizing Detroit is a good one, an idea that shouldn't be allowed to become the latest boogeyman under our collective bed. But if right-sizing the city is so wrong, then what, really, is the right answer? This city, this region, we can't stay the same. And we can't go back to what we used to be.

What's so bad then about setting a new course?

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