National Public Radio’s Jacki Lyden posted a sobering story yesterday about the troubles facing Detroit’s fire department. It was a short but solid piece that outlined the difficulty of preventing a hollowed-out city from burning. The department is half its former size and it faces a city with 70,000 abandoned homes and a withering tax base. It was grim stuff, and it got me asking my usual question: “OK, so what can we do about that?”
Over the last few months I have developed a serious pet peeve about repetitive stories which could all have a general headline “The Great Depression really sucked!” and basically consist of interviewing elderly people about how they had to do without a lot of things. Yes, thank you for that breaking news. What did people do about that suckiness? More to the point, what can we do today to address or prevent any related suckiness?
For some of my suggestions, please see my old blog entry.
But back to Detroit: Short of starting a fire protection cooperative society (like the one founded by Ben Franklin) there isn’t much residents can do about fire issues. That approach would probably be counterproductive, if it is even feasible. So in this case I had to go a little easy on our fearless reporter.
Today, Lyden more than redeemed herself with a piece about some of the amazing stuff people are doing in Detroit, which should be a lesson to us all, since most US cities have the same sorts of urban problems. For example, yesterday I happened to visit Del Paso Boulevard, a stretch of Sacramento that used to be the main road in from the north; it is now a hodgepodge of vacant lots, faded or brightly remodeled art-deco, boarded up windows, and businesses hanging on by the skins of their teeth.
I haven’t been to Detroit in years, and from what I understand it is more of the same from when I visited and got to experience amazing things like the Trumbullplex and the Heidelberg Project and Michigan Central Station and having a crazy bonfire and spin-the-bottle game in a vacant lot while the cops just drove right by (sorry, no link for that one; this is a family blog). Even in 1994 it was somewhat post-apocalyptic. It is a really easy place to get discouraged, but the point of Lyden’s latter article is that some people are seeing this as a huge opportunity to remake the city. I highly recommend that everyone read the article. I’m even going to provide you with another link.
What I think is extra cool about this is that the article is already drawing suggestions. Some of them won’t work, and many of them come from people (like me!) who are far from the situation and not terribly knowledgeable. However, it gets people thinking, and that’s what really matters.
So thank you, Jacki, for a positive contribution to our national dialogue. I’m going to go post my own thoughts now.