George Graham

“Free Market” Leaves Detroit to Rot While Flint Fixes Its Problems

This is a tale of two cities, but while it is the worst of times in many communities, nowhere in America is it the best of times (unless you are a financial shark).

In one city, Detroit, the urban landscape is deserted, and foreclosed houses line the streets as far as the eye can see. Total vacant land in Detroit now occupies an area almost as big as Boston, according to a Detroit Free Press estimate. So what are city officials doing about it? They’re turning to the “free market” to rescue them – and the “free market” is letting them down.

detroitOn the auction block in Detroit last week, almost 9,000 homes and lots in various stages of abandonment were offered for sale (photo of abandoned home at right). Despite a minimum bid of only $500, less than a couple of thousand were sold after four days. Also, hopeful home buyers found themselves bidding against banks and speculators. Naturally, the individuals were no match for the deep pockets of speculators, so the properties that were sold are not likely to attract residents any time soon. Look for Detroit’s urban rot to get worse, not better.

In neighboring Flint, a “land bank” program has been initiated, and it’s working. Turns out government is not the problem, after all. Not in Flint, anyway. The local government is selling foreclosed houses through brokers and attracting new residents. Some of the vacant land is allowed to revert to green space, and some is devoted to community gardens. Where appropriate, plots are stitched together for redevelopment. It’s a process called community planning.

For reasons that escape me, many Americans shudder at the prospect of community planning. They are convinced that thoughtful preparation for the future is a “tyrannical” intrusion by government into the private lives of individuals. They prize the “freedom” to foul their nests and indulge their gluttony at the expense of their neighbors and future generations. If anyone tries to impose reasonable restraints on their excesses, they cry, “Socialism!”

Some of these “protesters” are wealthy and privileged. They have nothing to gain and lots to lose if the government were to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.While I don’t admire these people, I can understand their self interest.

freeIt’s the “live free or die” underclass that puzzles me. Huddled in rusting trailers or crumbling shacks, hoarding an arsenal reminiscent of an Afghan warlord, yards strewn with parts of old machinery and overgrown by weeds, they are prepared to fight to the death to defend their freedom from health care, freedom from education, freedom from sanitary living conditions, freedom from a decent future for their children…

It seems to me that their most prized possession is ignorance. What hope is there for a country where more people believe in haunted houses than in global warming?

The latest Pew poll shows a steep decline in the percentage of Americans who believe global temperatures are rising (from 71 percent to only 57 percent in the past 18 months). And those who believe human activity contributes to global warming are down from 47 percent to 36 percent. Meanwhile, according to a recent Gallup poll, 37 percent of Americans believe that houses can be haunted.

As you might expect (as I might expect, anyway), this contrast is particularly dramatic among conservatives: Only 18 percent of Republicans believe there is evidence that human activity causes global warming, while 28 percent of conservatives believe in haunted houses.

What I want to know is where in the Constitution does it say that Americans have the right to be stupid?

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for