The critical factor in reclaiming urban areas

While doing some poking around to learn more about the disintegration of Detroit, I came across a blog post by Aaron Renn that characterizes Detroit as the new American frontier. At first that sounds exaggerated—after all, lots of American cities are decaying but in none of them do we see even the glimmer of reclamation efforts that take a post-industrial approach. But the writer shrewdly observes that Detroit has one quality that is not to be found in any other large city—namely a feeble, incompetent city government.

This piece also highlights one the absolutely crucial advantage of Detroit. It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

Can you imagine a two-story beehive in Chicago? In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained. Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused, ensuring that anyone who ever wants to do anything will be forced to run a costly and grueling gauntlet of variances, permits, hearings, etc. Only the most determined are willing to put up with that.

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because of the hand of government weighs less heavily.

What’s more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them.

This is what I thought was Franklin Sanders’s most stunning and encouraging prediction in Heiland—that the growing inability of government to enforce its edicts would lead to large geographical areas where men were free of government interference, probably the key prerequisite to derailing the industrial juggernaut and cleaning up the mess it made.

Please take a moment to look at the original post; it includes some pictures showing how land in Detroit is opening up as the people leave.


3 thoughts on “The critical factor in reclaiming urban areas

  1. That was an interesting article. i knew Detroit had been called a devastated city, but i hadn’t realized how devastated until i saw the pictures. Wow. Berlin must have looked like that after they cleaned up the rubble, and before they rebuilt. I’ve never read Heiland, but it sounds interesting. i went to Franklin Sanders website, and found the story of what happened to him. I yi yi! All i want to do after reading that, is stay well out of site of the government. Out here in the Ozarks, a lot of things go on quietly, out of site. As long as nobody gets bothered by it, nobody says anything. People know that the same government that bothers your neighbor, can and probably will bother you. So, even if you don;’t like him, it’s in your interest to keep quiet. I do think that government is close to reaching the point of having so many conflicting laws, and so little money and resources to enforce them, that eventually only the important laws will really be enforced.

  2. Looks similar to some satellite pictures I looked at last year of Syracuse, NY where I spent a few years growing up.

    An aside, good interview on Charlie Rose tonight with Niall Ferguson, you can also watch one of Obama’s guys blow a lot of smoke, I couldn’t get through that one.

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