It is noble for city cheerleaders to remain positive when talking about redefining Detroit, as they are inclined to do. Even more noble is to first realistically assess the scope of the decline.
Perhaps more than any other major city, Detroit neighborhoods are generally seen as uninviting, inhospitable and perilously plagued by “underclass” behavior that is characterized by bad attitudes and bad manners.
Residents are subjected to offensive piles of uncollected trash, tires and debris that blight the landscape. Downtown streets are littered with vacant, pre-depression architectural relics in the latter stages of decomposition. The city’s arteries are lined with derelict, ugly, abandoned buildings – aging and ghostly vestiges of a once-thriving business class.
Code violations kill the aesthetic of the community. Because the city fails to properly monitor and maintain thousands of abandoned buildings it owns, these structures pose a threat to the city’s recovery by lowering property values. Many are contaminated eyesores that attract vandals, open dumping and other illegal activities.
So why is this happening?
There is a theory among some social psychologists that community neglect is ritualistically wedded in a kind of perverted sequence. Commonly known as the “Broken Windows” theory, it suggests that people are more apt to exhibit destructive behavior in neighborhoods that appear to be unwatched and uncared for.
The theory goes something like this: If a broken window in a building is not quickly repaired, the rest of the windows will be broken in short order. Just one unrepaired window sends the message that no one gives a hoot, so more broken windows won’t concern or hurt anyone.
Perceptions affect reality. Unattended damaged property does become fair game for people out for fun or plunder. Even the appearance of social disorganization is a predictor that a marginal neighborhood is on the verge of becoming a breeding ground for property defacement, vandalism and abandonment.
It occurs when adults stop admonishing unruly, raucous children, who engage in more graffiti and other damage. Neighbors lose patience; families move out and litter accumulates. Existing buildings are turned into empty ruins.
It is now big business, for example, for thieves to strip unoccupied, sometimes occupied homes and buildings, taking the bricks, furnaces and the kitchen sink. Shady junkyard dealers abet thieves that plunder and cannibalize equipment and transmission lines for copper and other metals that fetch a high price.
Urban decay is not new. But what is happening today is different in at least two important respects from what occurred 60 to 70 years ago. Back then, Detroiters didn’t have the money or transportation to flee neighborhood problems. Nonetheless, blight and crime had a kind of built-in self-correcting mechanism: the resolve of residents to reassert control over their environment. Although lacking the means to escape the various forms of disorder, people possessed a determination to take back the streets.
Today, flight from the city has become rather easy for all but the poorest of the poor. The remaining “underclass” has little appreciation for community cohesion, so it unwittingly fuels and expedites a permanent out-migration from the city.
It may not be possible to suppress this devastating epidemic and fix — literally and metaphorically –the city’s broken windows. The city simply can’t afford to tear down vacant buildings in numbers that keep pace with the rate of abandonment.
So we bear witness to an irreversible transformation that will strip away all memories of a city where people once proudly wanted to live. Unfortunately, that is one of the consequences of allowing stable neighborhoods to disintegrate into oblivion.