Where Did Everyone Go?


Detroit Riverwalk with "Shadow People"
Detroit Riverwalk with “Shadow People”

It has been well publicized. Decades of severe loss of population, an under-performing public school system, an economy heavily dependent on just one industry, abandoned homes, crime out of control (including the infamous title of the nation’s murder capital). Yes, I’m referring to Washington D.C. a few decades ago. OK, well, maybe it has not been well-publicized. Detroit is not the only city in transition.

Several months ago, I had this concept of writing an article about the misconceptions and misinformation about the City of Detroit: this place that surrounds the El Moore. Internet searches would historically result in images of the El Moore as well as other buildings in various states of disrepair; lost and abandoned. Most of the connected world has seen these images by now. “Ruin porn” they “called” it. I used “the past tense”, because in a short time, the mood is starting to shift towards the positive.

You see, Detroit has just emerged from a complicated municipal bankruptcy. It was monumental triumph of people from all sectors coming together for the greater good for an awe-inspiring city in relatively short period of time. They said it couldn’t be done. Detroit is still not without problems now, but our city is in a much better position to tackle its challenges, and people within the city and from far away are beginning to see the light.

But as this great city begins its new chapter, I want to take a few steps back for a moment and try to put our past strains in perspective. It is imperative that we learn our history,  since history can repeat itself, knowing history can actually help you plan for the future. But that planning can become skewed if historic accuracy and perspective is lost.

There are so many areas of misinformation, that it is difficult to focus on just one. But let’s try. When Detroit’s “unique” population loss is reported, it is often not reported how that fact relates to similar population loss in other American cities; in fact, that more than half of top 20 largest American cities of the 1950’s have lost more than a third of their populations. St. Louis lost 63% (the highest-percentage loss — yes, more than Detroit), Cleveland lost 57%, Baltimore lost 34%, Pittsburgh at 54%, Cincinnati lost 41%….Between the years of 2000-2010, Detroit shed 236,000 residents. The great Chicago lost 200,818 residents in that same time period. When Detroit’s population loss problem is viewed in isolation, it becomes a harder problem to solve.

What’s also interesting is that those Detroit internet images lack people. Yes, showing all this despair minus people has profound effect. It minimizing empathy. During the height of the Great Depression more than third of the Detroit’s labor force was unemployed. Some of the commercial/industrial parts of Detroit than, looks like parts of Detroit now. Research images of that era, and you will find photos of lots of people but not (empty) buildings. And if you identify with those people being shown, it creates empathy. Which can lead to collective problem solving. However, people became indifferent and even angry towards Detroit’s blight. But also those faceless internet pics gives you the impression of total ghost town. Detroit still has density higher than Denver and Dallas. Detroit was just lacking that social economic diversity to maintain sustainability and the money moved to the suburbs.

The need to reinvent is nothing new. So change is a must. And that’s what the El Moore project represents to me. Adaptation. It is stated in Ecology that any plant or animal species that doesn’t adapt to change will become extinct. And that law applies to people, nations, and even cities. Man has been moving since he has been on Earth. Most recently in North America, Southerns to the North and now, Northerners to the South. And across the country, people are desiring urban life over suburban amenities. And that’s what going to happen to Detroit. People are starting to chose Detroit for one significant sustainable reason. They love it.

I will be writing a series of articles of the misconceptions/misinformation about Detroit. Again, not to dwell upon the past, but to look towards the future.