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5:55 am
Wed July 24, 2013

Can Detroit Be Saved?

Originally published on Wed July 24, 2013 11:59 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's bankruptcy that's shaken up the city of Detroit and exposed how a once-great American city can collapse.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The city of Detroit's population went from a peak of 1.8 million people in the 1950s to less than half of that today. Detroit shed jobs as the auto industry changed worldwide, leaving large swaths of desolation throughout the city.

MONTAGNE: Yet there are pockets of revitalization. Hip cafes, startups and huge real estate developments are often cited as glimmers of what a new city could look like. So the big question is: Are they enough to remake Detroit?

Robin Boyle joined us to talk about that. He's chair of the Urban Studies and Planning Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, by way of Scotland. Good morning.

ROBIN BOYLE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, we read stories these days about these startups in Detroit: stylish cafes, you know, wait lists for lofts in some neighborhoods. What does that Detroit look like?

BOYLE: Well, there really is two cities here. We've got the traditional downtown, and an area we call Midtown that is becoming really very attractive, attractive to new businesses that are, in turn, attracting a new demographic: a younger, more educated population coming into these areas, filling in jobs in technology, some attracted by the businesses that were here before, but many actually starting up new businesses that are trying to change - change the nature, change the trajectory of the city of Detroit.

MONTAGNE: Would you call this group of people the newcomers, a lot of them, urban pioneers, in a sense?

BOYLE: In a sense they are pioneers. They are pioneering because they're coming into an area that had been unattractive for decades. However, it is important to stress that this is a relatively small area. In fact, it's been identified as 7.2 square miles of a city that is almost 140 square miles. So there's another 132, 133 square miles of the city that is not being part of this new Detroit.

MONTAGNE: Describe that city to us, because over the years, there's been plenty of images of it: abandoned lots, black and burned-out houses. In some respects, it looks like a war zone.

BOYLE: Well, it depends when you come, believe it or not. Today, for example, we've had a very wet summer. So this part of Detroit I'm describing is verdant. It's green. Many, many of the lots have not been cut, so the grass is waste-high. But really, if you come here in February, it's a very different world. This is an area that has lost a lot of its people, a lot of its services. There are acres and acres - it's very hard to say how many, but there are many, many, many areas that are suffering from this emptiness.

MONTAGNE: Well, there are fairly sizable projects in the works. There's a proposed light rail system. There are billion-dollar real estate redevelopment. There's a hockey arena. What kind of impact could these big projects have on the rest of the city?

BOYLE: Well, in one sense, these are extremely important and extremely valuable. They demonstrate that the central city of Detroit is relevant to businesses, is relevant to visitors, and more importantly, it's relevant to residents of the city. The challenge, however, is how do you link, or how do you connect the improvements in the downtown area that you described? How do you connect that to the 700,000 people living in the city, to make sure that the benefits accrue to everybody in the city and not just to that small 7.2 square miles? And that is not easy.

MONTAGNE: The core population of the city is made up of the working poor. Where do they fit into discussions about the new Detroit?

BOYLE: Sadly, they don't. They badly need the ability to compete in the labor market. Those who can exit the city. Either they leave permanently, or they find jobs in the suburbs and they commute out. Seventy percent of the population who are of working age in jobs leave the city to go to the suburbs to work. We need to turn that around. So we need to find a way of kick-starting the labor market by giving the younger people the skills that would allow them to get jobs. Perhaps these are entry-level jobs in the new sports stadiums, in the emerging service sector. And then maybe a step up will be an internship or an hourly paid job in one of these high-tech companies and so on. We build that job base back in the city of Detroit. It's not building cars. That's gone away. So we need to find something else that makes this a relevant labor market.

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MONTAGNE: Robin Boyle teaches urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. Thanks very much.

BOYLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.