After years of boosterism that has left Detroit’s public finances a shambles and its basic infrastructure in dire disrepair, the city finally has a mayor who has a serious, sustainable plan for renewal. My old friend Alex P. Kellogg has written an excellent look at Dave Bing’s efforts to save Detroit by embracing its new dimensions for the Wall Street Journal.
The mayor is looking to the diminished tally, down from 951,270 in 2000, as a benchmark in his bid to reshape Detroit’s government, finances and perhaps even its geography to reflect its smaller population and tax base. That means, in part, cutting city services and laying off workers.
His approach to the census is a product of not only budget constraints but also a new, more modest view of the city’s prospects. “We’ve got to pick those core communities, those core neighborhoods” to sustain and preserve, he said at a recent public appearance, adding: “That’s something that’s possible here in Detroit.”
Rather than offer a downtown-centered redevelopment plan involving massive subsidies to private firms, Mr. Bing intends to make Detroit more livable and attractive to working families by improving basic services and by addressing the burden of a public sector workforce that is too large for the downsized city.
Soon after being elected to a full term in November, Mr. Bing began cutting back on city services such as buses and laying off hundreds of municipal workers. The mayor is now making plans to shutter or consolidate city departments and tear down 10,000 vacant buildings. And Mr. Bing is supporting efforts to shrink the capacity of the city’s school system by half.
Along with the mayor, a number of academics and philanthropic groups are sketching visions of a different Detroit. One such vision has urban farms and park spaces filling the acres of barren patches where people once lived and worked. In a city of roughly 140 square miles, vacant residential and commercial property accounts for an estimated 40 square miles, an area larger than the city of Miami.
“The potential of this open space is enormous,” said Dan Pitera, an architect at the University of Detroit who has done land-use studies on the city.
It’s worth noting that Mr. Bing, a Democrat, has proven far gutsier in confronting fierce political resistance to build a more sustainable Detroit than any number of self-described conservative Republicans.