To outsiders, Detroit remains the stereotype of urban America gone wrong. Over the past half century, an exodus of manufacturing jobs, racial unrest, institutionalized corruption, inadequate schools, and government teetering on bankruptcy have racked the city.
But today, the city is at a tipping point: The 2010 Census shows Detroit's population at 713,777, about a 25 percent drop over the past decade, and half what it was in the 1950s. The shrinking tax base looks ominous: A $200 million municipal budget deficit is projected to balloon to $1.2 billion by 2015 unless the city council agrees to deep job and service cuts.
"This is our moment," says Mayor Dave Bing, a onetime point guard for the Detroit Pistons who, before entering politics, built a successful steel company supplying the automotive industry. "We're not going to be at 2 million population again," he admits, noting that explosive growth in population is not so much his priority as is being "as good as what you can be with what you've got."
And what Detroit has, in spades, is land – and a vibrant core of residents, new as well as die-hards, who see opportunity in the ruins.
Large swaths of this city look like a ghost town. Blight, resulting from abandoned homes and shuttered factories, is everywhere. Dead zones detach rather than connect neighborhoods from each other, creating a patchwork that the city says makes it too expensive to service. So the mayor has an idea: Draw residents out of marginally populated areas through direct and indirect incentives into a close-knit population core. By razing and repurposing what is left behind, the city might reduce its geographic size and save money by not having to service such far-flung neighborhoods.