As Ashley Woods points out in the Huffington Post, long-time residents who never left their cities are frequently left out of the equation:
Last month, Thomas Sugrue, the scholar who literally wrote the book on Detroit, traveled to the Motor City to deliver a tough message to business and political leaders. Detroit's comeback, he said, depends on whether the city can improve the lives of working-class African-Americans.
"Revitalization" is a buzzword in the city, which filed for bankruptcy last year and grapples with widespread blight and high unemployment and poverty rates. In spite of all this, Detroit is often celebrated as a hipster paradise and tourist destination by national media outlets.
But Sugrue said Detroit's recent successes in its downtown area and in Midtown, the city's cultural center, aren't benefiting the majority of residents.While plucky urban homesteaders make for inspiring stories, many of the more pragmatic efforts to turn these cities around don't get much coverage. In a recent essay for Belt Magazine, I made my pitch for land banks:
While it lacks the emotional appeal of stories about the young idealists who venture back to these struggling cities, land banks are a more far-reaching and clear-eyed attempt to help places like Flint. They don’t focus on getting residents into abandoned housing; instead, they concentrate on eliminating empty structures.
Admittedly, the land-bank approach appeals more to the head than the heart. It requires cities to let go of the past and admit they might never regain the growing populations, thriving economies, and broad middle-class prosperity of the post-war boom. Though it’s not an economic plan that will generate new jobs, it is a logical step toward stabilization and it lays the groundwork for the future.
If they are in it for the long haul, newcomers to cities like Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, and Gary can play a role. But let's not forget the current residents who are doing the heavy lifting, or the programs and policies that will bring about the biggest change:
There’s no silver bullet that will solve the problem of abandoned houses in America’s shrinking cities. Well-meaning Rust Belt expatriates like me can lend a hand. Dedicated urban homesteaders can save some houses with money, carpentry skills, and sheer force of will. Innovative projects like Detroit’s Write A House, which gives a renovated home to writers who move to the Motor City, can play a role in stabilizing neighborhoods. But the staggering number of empty houses means that these laudable efforts are only a small part of the solution. Land banks and other initiatives to demolish the structures that no one wants will have a far greater impact.