America’s Abandoned Cities: Detroit Pranksters Make Playthings of Empty Buildings
Pranksters with too much time on the hands are alleviating their boredom by scavaging around Detroit’s ample supply of abandoned and vacant properties, The Wall Street Journal reports. A staff videographer even documented a group of perpetrators in the act of pushing a dump truck out a fourth-floor window of an old Packard plant. Click on the video in the story linked above and see it for yourself.
Detroit has 80,000 abandoned lots and buildings, according to the city’s planning department. Old housing projects, homes, strip malls and even high-rise buildings sit empty across much of the city. Motown has more vacant office, retail and industrial space than nearly every other big city in the country.
Like many of Detroit’s abandoned buildings, though, it’s anything but deserted. Rather, it’s a hive of activity, buzzing with scavengers, vandals, late-night revelers, arsonists, photographers and urban explorers who brave the crumbling buildings’ many hazards and create a good number of their own. The complex remains unguarded.
“Mayhem. That’s what they should call the place,” says John, a 36-year-old telephone-line repairman who spends his spare time exploring Detroit’s legendary industrial ruins. “If you decide you want to push a dump truck out of a window, this is the place to do it.”
There’s more to this. The pranksters’ playground of empty and abandoned properties represents a deep and lasting betrayal of the needs of urban America. Some cities in the Rustbelt, hit first by the abandonment of their inner cores and then utterly devastated by foreclosures, bear scars from which they are unlikely to recover and that few seem to see. Years after the financial crisis ends, I wonder if we’ll look back at this as a time when we stood by and let some of the country’s once-great communities simply fall into disrepair and die.
In Washington, Congress ceded to the lobbying efforts of powerful interests like the National Association of Homebuilders, and passed an extension of a homebuyer’s tax credit that costs more than it delivers and puts money into the pockets of people who don’t need it. There are no lobbying groups for people who live in neighborhoods with foreclosures that even banks have abandoned because they aren’t worth the expense of taking back.
However, there are some bright spots in the overall dark landscape. As TWI’s sister site, The Michigan Messenger, pointed out last week, urban gardening has taken hold in parts of Detroit, which now boasts more than 700 urban farms within its city limits. The idea behind some of those farms is to present a healthy alternative to the liquor stores, gas stations, and convenience stores where residents often turn for high-cost groceries and fast food.
Like urban gardening, the best solutions to the abandonment crisis will come from the bottom up. But those efforts need government support to take hold and expand. In order to take off, any possible solution requires a sense of urgency among policymakers about the huge problems facing cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago — and even the outer exurbs in the boom markets of California and Arizona, where foreclosures have caused property values to sink and have left communities stuck in a downward spiral.
But there’s been no big national push for possible solutions like land banks, which would allow local communities to seize and reuse vacant land and buildings. There’s been no national summit to talk about the tragedy of declining neighborhoods due to foreclosures. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner apparently picks up the phone and chats with his Wall Street friends several times a day. Hey, Secretary Geithner — How about making a call to a homeowner surrounded by foreclosed homes? Or maybe taking a stroll down one of those blocks in Detroit where every single home is owned by a real estate speculator? In America’s abandoned neighborhoods, they’ve been waiting to hear from you, or from anyone in Washington, for a long time. And they’re still waiting.