On both sides of Dorothy Wafer’s Detroit home sit rows of crumbling houses among trash-strewn lots. A body was found in a car down the street last month, and there was an attempted rape, she said.
There’s no place like home, though. Wafer, 61, last week planted roses in front of her two-story house, with islands of hostas, lilies and carnations in the yard and icicle lights on her chain-link fence.
“I might live in a ghetto, but I’m not a ghetto person,” said Wafer. “This is what I know, and I don’t want to move.”
Detroit, which filed the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy on July 18, has almost 150,000 vacant parcels and 700,000 people on 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) after losing more than half its population since the 1950s. Planners envision farms and other nonresidential uses for empty land, and creating population-dense areas where it’s easier to offer services. Yet residents such as Wafer have kept gracious homes, put down roots and don’t want to move.
The Motor City is considering incentives, such as those New Orleans used after Hurricane Katrina, to encourage people to relocate rather than forcing them to. It’s among the many challenges of creating functional neighborhoods in what was once the fourth-largest U.S. city, one that since March has been run by a state-appointed emergency manager.
While U.S. cities such as Boston and Pittsburgh redeveloped after depopulation, Detroit’s situation is more similar to migration from East German cities including Leipzig and Dresden after the fall of the Berlin Wall, said Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“We’ve obviously never done anything of this scale in the United States,” Katz said in a telephone interview. “Detroit should be like the vanguard of experimentation.”
When Wafer moved to the east side in 1975, there were only well-maintained homes, she said. Today, a dozen buildings on her street are empty, including the elementary school that her three girls attended. The Detroit Future City report, a master plan for reconfiguration created by political and business leaders, designates the area for an alternative use.
Still, her mother back home in northern Louisiana’s Claiborne Parish instilled the importance of keeping her property nice, she said. The family, including Wafer’s domestic-servant mother, construction-worker father and nine siblings lived in a one-story home surrounded by cotton fields. Wafer remembers that besides corn, greens, sweet potatoes and watermelons, her mother also took time to plant petunias.
Wafer met her future husband in the schoolhouse they attended from kindergarten through high school. After they married, he came to Detroit and she joined him in 1972 at age 19. She cried for three months because she was so far from home.
Now, the city is home. Even as residents left as they lost jobs or relocated to the suburbs, Wafer persisted. She bought and cleaned up the vacant lot next door and put on an addition and siding with new windows in the 1990s, she said.
Last month, she paid two men $60 to clear brush on land she doesn’t even own. She was embarrassed by how it looked to people driving onto the street.
“I’d rather stay here and work with this area and hope that it’ll make a comeback,” Wafer said.
Detroit expanded in part because of the cars that workers could afford with factory wages and company discounts. Such mobility encouraged road construction and a boom in single-family homes, especially after World War II.
Today, most Detroiters live in areas as much as 30 percent vacant, and almost 10,000 are in neighborhoods unlikely to rebound, according to Detroit Future City. Those areas, where stray dogs roam the streets lined with abandoned homes, are better suited for parks and farms while creating denser neighborhoods within a half-mile of schools, the plan said.
Yet Detroiters endure.
Sixto Rodriguez, a 71-year-old singer rescued from obscurity in the U.S. thanks to the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” still lives in the Woodbridge neighborhood. He bought the place decades ago and is loyal to the area, said Chuck Cosgriff, who lives a block and a half away.
“The people that are here are committed to it, and we look out for each other,” Cosgriff said.
Rodriguez didn’t return telephone and e-mail messages.
Many residents would move to areas with more services, the Detroit Future City report said. One key is changing zoning and regulations, said Dan Kinkead, executive director. While current residents who live in abandoned areas could stay, no else would be allowed to move in, he said.
“For folks who hear that and feel as if it’s some kind of a moment of retreat, it’s absolutely not,” Kinkead said. “It’s actually a point at which we define our future.”
A “house-for-house” swap or a rebuilding effort like that after Katrina could help, Detroit Future City said.
In New Orleans, Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS) Executive Chairman Leonard Riggio committed $20 million for a nonprofit called Project Home Again to build 101 homes in the Gentilly neighborhood, helping displaced residents cluster, said Carey Shea, executive director.
“It’s a model for Detroit,” Shea said. “Detroit will have to come up with its own Detroit model of doing it, but I do think it’s definitely one option.”
Incentives must be “extraordinarily generous,” said Maggie DeSantis, president of the nonprofit Warren/Conner Development Coalition on the city’s east side. A survey of about 3,000 residents in 2010 showed that 36 percent weren’t willing to move, according to the Lower Eastside Action Plan, another redevelopment guide.
Larry Varnado lives in a well-kept home in an area designated as a future “naturescape” in the Lower Eastside plan. Varnado, a Mississippi native, moved there 41 years ago to work in a car plant. Today, it’s mostly empty, with two boats filled with trash lying in the road a street over, but Varnado said he won’t move without a deal that costs less than the $423 a month he pays now for property taxes and insurance.
“I’ll probably die here,” said Varnado, 65.
The key for facilitating movement is to show homeowners the house they would occupy, said Richard Baron, chief executive of the St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar Inc., a developer working in urban neighborhoods. Baron, 70, a Detroit native, said he has two housing deals and a 3,000-acre development planned in his home town.
“This has to be done block by block, with a strategy that is basically developed with the participation of the people,” Baron said.
People in blighted areas could receive a different level of services even as the city works toward a new future for those neighborhoods, DeSantis said.
She said an example is urban agriculture by Hantz Farms, a subsidiary of HantzGroup Inc. owned by John Hantz, a financial-services professional, entrepreneur and Detroit native. The company is spending $3 million to buy and clear about 1,500 lots, President Mike Score said. The company will demolish homes and plant hardwood trees and possibly orchards and Christmas-tree farms, he said.
The idea is to make investments that fit the urban landscape, improve life and generate revenue, Score said.
Wafer said she’s not convinced anyone would ever offer a deal that she likes.
“Who’s to say that that area is not going to go down like this area is?” Wafer said. “As long as no one bothers me, I’ll be here.”
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