Demolition in Detroit

This local property has been restored since the photo was takenFriday’s Wall Street Journal article about the demolition of historic homes in Detroit came at an interesting time. The previous evening we had attended the Hartford Preservation Alliance awards event, a gathering to celebrate the architectural history of our city and the efforts of community members to restore and reuse buildings rather than knock them down.

Detroit has a rich architectural history, as can be seen on sites like Forgotten Detroit and Some of the historical homes are currently in use, and in good condition, while others appear to be abandoned. The city has lost a substantial number of residents over the past 50 years and there are apparently blocks with few inhabited houses. A piece on the Land+Living site from 2006 shows some images of Detroit’s residential landscape.

The WSJ article raises an important question that we face here in Hartford too … how much should we preserve? Is preserving the exterior sufficient? Is bulldozing ever the right thing to do?

Houses are large, and they’re expensive to maintain. This makes preserving them much more difficult than paintings, sculptures, or other works of art. However, like a work of art, each house is often unique since it reflects the site on which it was built and may have been customized for the owner. Therefore homes are different from cars, stamps, or guns, where having one example of each “model” could be considered sufficient.

I like to think of myself as a practical, if not pragmatic, person. Houses need to be functional; otherwise they’re not going to survive. I think that older homes should evolve over time to meet the needs of modern society. They need regular maintenance, and the best way to achieve that is by continuing to serve their primary role as a shelter and an oasis from the outside world. However, in making the updates property owners have a responsibility to make changes within the spirit and character of their home. They should make historically appropriate choices as often as possible.

The larger challenge is when neighborhoods and regions evolve. This is the primary issue that Detroit faces, and is also a relevant topic in the City of Hartford. What happens when it no longer makes economic sense for homeowners to maintain and restore their property? Or a block of properties? Or an entire neighborhood?

Detroit has chosen to sacrifice some of their history in an effort to move their city forward. Without living in the area and experiencing their problems first-hand, it’s difficult to fully understand that decision. I can only imagine the intense debate that led up to the final demolition orders. Mayor Bing’s State of the City address on March 23, 2010 outlines Detroit’s major challenges and initiatives, of which the demolition program is just a small piece.

It’s always sad to see grand old homes in disrepair – you can still see their beauty shining through the years of neglect. At some point taking them down may be the only option. Hopefully here in Hartford we can continue working to protect our historic properties as we confront many of the same challenges as Detroit, just on a smaller scale.

5 thoughts on “Demolition in Detroit

  1. Great post! As a renovation lender, I am all for attempting to restore older homes, streets and blocks to their former grand look, but , as in Detroit, we do have to balance the local economics with the cost of trying to keep up with historic splendor. Much of the demolition in Detroit was, unfortunately, about trying to slow the bleed of home values. Hopefully, this is not something we will have to do here.

  2. Flint would be another model to look at it in terms of how to scale down blight, etc. For example, like Flint, Hartford needs to consider reducing the inventory of derelict properties that surround its downtown in order to create a greener and safer buffer or transition zone while at the same time encourage higher density residential development predicated on an 80/20 market/affordable ratio. I know it’s not very PC but the fact remains that the city needs to build a more affluent tax-paying base if it’s ever going to survive. If we can get a larger, critical mass of more affluent residents living downtown we will then see more retail and business development as well which in turn would help solidify other neighborhoods which could once again link into a more prosperous and SAFER downtown. Right now the city is fragmented and kind of scary!

  3. Let me state up front that I am a preservationist! I understand the dilemma faced by Detroit, but struggle constantly with near-term “solutions” versus long-term results.

    We all know that we are currently in an economic recession – and it hurts a lot – but knocking down historic buildings should be an absolute last resort. World, national and local financial woes come and go, but once a building is gone – it is gone forever. Historic buildings are much more than bricks and sticks and mortar – they are our past, a physical picture of our evolution, and the sole of our collective developmental growth. The workmanship that went into building even the most modest of antique homes is already a lost art. We can not afford to have historic amnesia – lest we forget what it’s like to have pride in our work(manship)or care about how we cohesively create community.

  4. Thanks for the comments … great to see that others like the beautiful old buildings too.

    I can’t imagine that Hartford will greenlight projects that knock down anything historical. One reason is because we have a historic preservation ordinance in place to help protect our architectural history. Another reason, unfortunately, is that many older buildings in the Downtown neighborhood were razed during previous building booms.

    I’d like to see the region focus on growing the local economy – attracting businesses and adding jobs – so that it will make economic sense to fix up older properties. Hopefully some buildings Downtown will be converted to residential, and hopefully homes in the neighborhoods will be restored.

  5. It is very sad to hear that Detroit is letting its homes fall into disrepair. Cities like New Orleans (where we are currently vacationing) have wonderful sections of grand homes dating back over 100 years. Those images draw thousands of tourist a year to enjoy them. Protecting historic homes is very important, and I hope folks like yourself can find a way to help preserve them.

    Best Regards,


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