While Detroit officials and boosters boast that the city is coming back, and sections such as Midtown — which includes the New Center area and Wayne State University — are sprawling with new businesses and cultural diversity, blight and crime continue to dot the area surrounding Midtown and throughout the city. There are many neighborhoods where there are no lights, the lights are broken, or they are obscured by trees.
A recent report by the Detroit Free Press showed that there are over 26,000 abandoned homes that are spread out across the city, many of which have become havens for squatters, thieves, drug dealers, and sexual predators. The city does not have the funding to tear any of them down.
Bing promised to demolish 10,000 buildings by the end of his first term. To date, only 4,200 have come down. The city’s schoolchildren often have to walk to schools and bus stops through blocks, such as the Warrendale neighborhood along Woodward Ave., and the Woodbridge neighborhood near Midtown, that have as many as 15 abandoned homes, no working streetlights, and few (if any) police.
“How can you really come to school and be prepared for learning and have an opportunity to live, when every day you’re busy trying to survive,” said Kenyetta Wilbourn, the principal at Denby High School on Detroit’s east side.
“You’re busy wondering who’s behind you. Who’s going to come from the left or the right; who’s going to come out of one of these many empty homes that are right across the street from the school.”
Wilbourn told the Free Press that it took two years of complaints to get the city to install streetlights directly along the curb on the side of Kelly Road where Denby is located. On the three blocks directly across from Denby, students must board city buses a few feet from at least a dozen abandoned homes. There are also no poles for streetlights on that side of the road.
“I see a community that has forgotten and a government that has forgotten about its people,” Wilbourn told the Free Press. She fears that one of her students, male or female, could be dragged inside of a house and assaulted. Denby sophomore Dominic McCormick was sucker-punched by a teen in a red hooded sweatshirt last November, as he was walking home from school.
The region’s surrounding schools, such as Denby, Osborn, and Cody High Schools, are some of the many areas that city officials hope will see residents attempt to migrate from if the streetlight plan is implemented.
Detroit is not the first city to throw this idea around. Colorado Springs removed 9,000 of its nearly 26,000 lights in 2010. Highland Park, which is just three square miles and is completely surrounded by Detroit, removed all but 500 of its 1,600 streetlights late last year after racking up a $4 million unpaid electric bill.
“It touches kids going to school in the dark,” Kirk Cheyfitz, co-founder of a project called Detroit 143 that publicizes neighborhood issues. Cheyfitz, who is also the chief executive of New York marketing company Story Worldwide Ltd., told Bloomberg News that deciding which neighborhoods to light will help Detroit in the long run.
While it is still just in the planning stages, the city feels it is the best way to help shrink the city in order to better serve its citizens. Mogk told Bloomberg that the city really doesn’t have much choice.
The city cannot actually force residents to move, and under Michigan law, it would take special circumstances for the city to seize properties for development. Plus, when this has been previously attempted by the city, the amount of money homeowners demand from the city is often far more than what the property is actually worth on the open market.
“There are tremendous political, administrative, financial and, to some degree, legal obstacles,” Mogk said of the potential issues. “Unless you phase out a neighborhood altogether, you still need lighting, and waste pickup and police and fire protection.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith