The Decline of Detroit

Mike Manley, one Neil's cub scout troop leaders, is fascinated with once-vibrant communities and houses, like English Camp and the Henry Miller mansion, that fell into decline and now can only be found by hiking in on a dusty path in a lush forest. How does it happen that a place like this, not all that far from a current urban area, should have been abandoned and effectively disappeared, he wonders.Actually, we have to look no further than current-day Detroit.

Mike Manley, one Neil’s cub scout troop leaders, is fascinated with once-vibrant communities and houses, like English Camp and the Henry Miller mansion, that fell into decline and now can only be found by hiking in on a dusty path in a lush forest. How does it happen that a place like this, not all that far from a current urban area, should have been abandoned and effectively disappeared, he wonders. Actually, we have to look no further than current-day Detroit.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of a visit by pop artist Mike Pascal and his charming bride, Lisa. Jobs in the Detroit area are thinning out, partly due to the area’s dependence on moribund, clueless American car companies. So when Lisa got an offer to do IT work for Gallo, she accepted and the couple moved to Modesto, the eastern end of the Bay Area sprawl. They’re enjoying the location, but they can’t buy into property until they sell their house in a nice Detroit suburb. It’s a house like ours, but even priced at $199,000, below its assessed value, they’re not getting a buyer. There simply aren’t enough people moving into the Detroit area to replace the people moving out.

I knew San Jose had replaced Detroit on the list of the 10 largest cities in the United States, but I had no idea of what that looked like until Mental Floss pointed me to an article on Detroitblog. Not only are houses and office buildings standing empty and abandoned, Detroit no longer even has enough squatters and crackheads to inhabit them. And so nature is taking back the land that once belonged to it in the first place. (As an aside, Detroitblog is a great site focusing on the historical architecture of Detroit in the context of today.)

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The city of Detroit, which assumes ownership of abandoned buildings, is trying to sell them off. But even at $25,000 each, they’re a hard sell. After all, why would someone want buy a decrepit property in a bad neighborhood when houses in the safer suburbs are going wanting? And even then, from Mike and Lisa’s account, it sounds like the local taxes are crippling: the property tax on their inexpensive house is higher than on our Cali home, which is a lot pricier.

If the area’s economic decline (and short-sighted politics) continue, it’s not hard to imagine parts of Detroit becoming completely rural within 100 years and eventually turned into parkland. And then, the future hikers and explorers of the area will marvel at the mansion ruins hidden in the woods, just as we marvel at our own ghost towns out here.

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