Aggressive demolition campaigns may sound good to voters, but won’t help Detroit, argues Jason Hackworth, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.
An Ohio native, Hackworth has studied extensively studied Detroit’s abandonment, finding that no other Rust Belt city in the United States has experienced such wide-scale demolition.
Hackworth argues that, while large-scale urban renewal projects and highway construction from 1949 to 1974 are blamed for destroying neighborhoods, so-called “ad hoc demolition” in the past 50 years has done far more damage.
In Detroit, nearly 13,500 acres – the equivalent of 21 square miles, or about 1/7th of the city – have lost at least 50 percent of their housing to demolition since 1970, according to Hackworth. That compares to about 1,000 acres that lost half their homes during urban renewal.
He argues that demolition works best when it’s followed by programs to invest or build in neighborhoods. So he’s pessimistic about the chances of success for Mayor Mike Duggan’s latest demolition blitz, arguing in papers such as “Why there’s No Detroit in Canada” that racial animosities and hostility from state lawmakers lower the city’s comeback chances.
Bridge Magazine recently interviewed Hackworth by phone. His answers are edited for length and clarity.
University of Toronto professor Jason Hackworth says demolitions have done more to harm Detroit than urban renewal and highway construction.
Bridge: Mayor Duggan has spent a lot of time and money measuring his success on the number of homes he’s demolished. So did his predecessor, Dave Bing. Is Detroit any better off?
Jason Hackworth: I don’t think so. But (Duggan) is responding like every other big city mayor with lots of vacancies. He’s going where the money is. It’s really a pragmatic decision.
My guess is that he’d prefer there be money to follow (demolitions) to build things, but there just isn’t. There’s scads of federal money available for demolition and nothing else. I think Duggan, like other mayors, is trying to thread this needle of making it look like (he’s) doing something without having the resources to do it.
There are a number of studies that evaluate the impact of demolition on a city’s fortunes. They show fairly clearly that having a vacant house next to a house that is occupied really drags down the value of the occupied house. But they also found that having a vacant lot also drags down the value, just at a slower rate.
Cities like Detroit and Cleveland that accelerated demolitions since the 1970s perhaps slowed some of the hemorrhage, but only marginally so.
So no, (Detroit) is not better, but I don’t place blame at the feet of Duggan or anyone else. It’s a much bigger problem. It’s the lack of money from state and federal governments to do anything positive and the belief that the free market will evolve from these vacant spaces, which they’ve never really done.
There has been some suggestion, even in your own research, that demolition begets demolitions.
As bad as urban renewal was in the 1960s, there was money to build things. … Since the 1970s, cities have been orphaned by the state and federal governments. And demolition money is a last-ditch effort to slow the bleeding of disinvestment … but it just accelerates decline. Vacant homes are seen as discouraging. So are vacant lots. So it starts snowballing and you get more demolitions.
You’ve written about a belief that “demolition is the larval form of regeneration.” What does your research show?
There’s a belief in market fundamentalism, that something good will come from demolitions, but it’s largely not in places like city hall in Detroit or Cleveland. It’s in Lansing and Columbus and other state capitals where these policies are forged and demolition money is allocated.
It’s from Republican-controlled, rural-dominated state governments, where a caricature form of urban policy gets forged by politicians who not only aren’t thinking about this at a nuanced level but have a real hostility to cities.
Are you saying demolition only works in concert with other programs? That, in and of itself, it can’t help much?
I don’t want to be overly critical. It would be foolish to suggest that some houses don’t have to come down. Some are so run down they’re uninhabitable and others have been so stripped that you’d have to invest $10,000 to $15,000 in an environment where you can only sell it for $10,000.
There is a sensible argument to be made that demolition can be part of some kind of redevelopment, but it is never by itself generated any market outcomes.
You researched Detroit and found that no other city has lost more land mass to demolition since 1970. What role does housing stock play?
There’s some fantastic, really well nice built homes in the center of the city. But a lot of the city is built as bungalow, wood-frame construction that burns very easily (and) deteriorates very rapidly if left alone.
It’s not as much of an issue in other cities that grew more slowly because they didn’t experience the kind of boom Detroit did or were older and couldn’t build outward as quickly.
I do think (housing stock is) a component of why there’s such vast vacancy in Detroit.
So if demolitions can’t solve all problems does that mean they shouldn’t be done?
No, I just think they need to be part of a larger solution. If they’re going to do them, the ideal case would be part of a larger redevelopment.
If I was the mayor of Detroit or Cleveland, I probably wouldn’t turn the money down either because I do think constituents living on streets with vacant houses have legitimate gripes and lives probably do improve if you demolish the house next door that is being used a drug den.
But my critique is this notion is that it’s going to do anything more.
Do you have an alternate theory about what would have happened, 50 years ago, if Detroit and other Rust Belt cities hadn’t pursued aggressive demolition strategies?
I don’t know if there’s an alternate theory but I would say other cities have experienced similar levels of de-industrialization throughout the world and they don’t look like Detroit.
Part of it is quality of construction. Part of it is isolation from state government…. But I do think these issues are more acute in a place that is more African American. The effort that whites in Detroit have historically made to stay away from the black majority has been extraordinary. And I think it affects the level of disinvestment and why it’s so much more acute there than it is elsewhere in country where there’s more mixed population. The exit reaction was far more severe.
So you’re not all-in on Detroit’s comeback?
No. I think the downtown, Corktown, Midtown is a fundamentally different place than it was even five years ago and it’s increasing in population because of mostly white people who used to live in the suburbs.
But that’s almost completely irrelevant to most of the rest of the city. The rest of the city continues disintegrating. And I don’t think of the two as being related. If anything, I think that’s why there continues to be an out-migration of black residents: This belief that there’s never going to be a connection (between downtown and the neighborhoods).
OPPOSING VIEW: Bulldoze away: Some Detroit neighborhoods need thinning out