‘As fast as budgets will allow’

Urbanophile re-publishes a post originally from Dotage St. Louis, titled “Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St Louis“:

“My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse…. The more and more I experience cities, the less and less I am willing to accept St. Louis’s exceptional status as a destroyer of its most unique asset, its built environment… The answer… (to blight) is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant.”

Angie Schmitt at Rust Wire picks up the thread: ‘Youngstown, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis and Detroit are all tearing down buildings as fast as budgets will allow. I hope we don’t wake up in 5 years and realize we’ve made a big mistake. We will never be able to replace the quality of what was lost.’

The city of Detroit also has a well-established cult of destruction.  Just this week, officials announced the plan to demolish the  long-abandoned but cherished eyesore known as old Cass Tech High School.   But old Cass Tech had been vacant since at least 2005, when its gorgeous glass-walled replacement opened.  I suspect the threat posed by over-zealous and unnecessary demolition had ceased to be a threat by about 20 years ago.  For a long time now, Detroit has been churning out vacant buildings way faster than its budget would allow for their teardown.  At the current rate, the backlog of vacant properties will have only grown in five years, absent several hundred million dollars more in demolition assistance from the federal government.

For one thing, most of these structures have little no real prospects of ever housing anyone but squatters ever again.  Residents will vouch that it doesn’t take long after a building falls vacant for Detroit’s creative and enterprising scrappers to strip the copper from it.  Michigan’s harsh winters and summer humidity make quick work of wood.  With what’s left I’d imagine it’s nearly as cheap, if not cheaper, to rebuild from scratch than to try to rehab the existing house.  (Which is not to say that ambitious do it yourselvers don’t sometimes try and even succeed; the palatial 1887 house in Corktown I rented when I lived in Detroit had been beautifully renovated.)

Moreover, these structures, historic as they may be, are far from harmless.   Detroit recently suffered a wave of fires caused by downed power lines to which its fire department proved tragically slow to respond.  The risk has grown to the point that the city of Highland Park is actually seeking federal funds that are normally allocated for brush fires in the mountain west.

Perhaps even more insidious than fire is how blight discourages potential residents and demoralizes current ones.  I remember touring a duplex in Woodbridge back in summer 2007.  Like the Corktown home my roommates and I eventually chose, it was beautiful and historic — but the view from the back porch was of the collapsed, fire-damaged facade of the building to its rear.  I was new to Detroit, and while I was adventurous enough to try it out in the face of the raised eyebrows of older family members and co-workers, the message I took from that view from the back porch was not welcoming.  I kept looking, elsewhere.

If you’re that concerned about it, buy some property in Detroit and do something with it.  I agree with Angie and Dotage blogger Matthew Mourning that our cities lose an irreplaceable part of their heritage every time they demolish a building of a certain age, and that in the past such decisions have been made far too readily.  But city residents don’t just get to photograph these picturesque ruins and hope against hope that someday somebody with money will choose to invest in their restoration.  They have to live among them, and with their consequences.


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