Eminent Domain's Contribution to Detroit's Downfall
By David Henderson
George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin has an interesting post on the contribution of eminent domain to Detroit’s decline. He discusses the infamous 1980s case of Poletown.
Much earlier, before the infamous 1967 Detroit riot, there was another instance of eminent domain that contributed to the riot. I discuss it here.
The government’s fingerprints show up elsewhere in the [Kerner] Commission’s report. Urban renewal “had changed 12th Street [where the riot began] from an integrated community into an almost totally black one,” says the report. It tells of another area of the inner city to which the rioting had not spread: “As the rioting waxed and waned, one area of the ghetto remained insulated.” The 21,000 residents of a 150-square-block area on the northeast side had previously banded together in the Positive Neighborhood Action Committee (PNAC) and had formed neighborhood block clubs. These block clubs were quickly mobilized to prevent the riot from spreading to this area. “Youngsters,” wrote the Commission, “agreeing to stay in the neighborhood, participated in detouring traffic.” The result: no riots, no deaths, no injuries, and only two small fires, one of which was set in an empty building.
What made this area different was obviously the close-knit community the residents had formed. But why had a community developed there and not elsewhere? The report’s authors unwittingly hint at the answer: “Although opposed to urban renewal, they [the PNAC] had agreed to co-sponsor with the Archdiocese of Detroit a housing project to be controlled jointly by the archdiocese and PNAC.” In other words, the area that had avoided rioting had also successfully resisted urban renewal, the federal government’s program of tearing down urban housing in which poor people lived and replacing it with fewer housing units aimed at a more-upscale market. Economist Martin Anderson, in his 1964 book, The Federal Bulldozer, had shown many of the problems with urban renewal. Even some of Anderson’s harshest critics at the time admitted that urban renewal could be called “Negro clearance.” Indeed, at the time, an even blunter term, also beginning with the letter “n,” was used.
But the Kerner Commission, even in the face of its own evidence, refused to admit that urban renewal was a contributing factor to the riots. Indeed, the Commission recommended more urban renewal. The Commission’s phrasing is interesting, though, because it admits so much about the sorry history of the program:
Urban renewal has been an extremely controversial program since its inception. We recognize that in many cities it has demolished more housing than it has erected, and that it has often caused dislocation among disadvantaged groups.
Nevertheless, we believe that a greatly expanded but reoriented urban renewal program is necessary to the health of our cities.
In short the commission’s antidote to poison was to increase the dose.