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Feb. 26 2010 - 10:55 am | 497 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Detroit mayor wants to relocate poor citizens; Trail of Tears to follow?

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has started down a dangerous policy road. He says he ”absolutely” intends to relocate residents from ailing neighborhoods in an aim to downsize and better service the city.

“If we don’t do it, you know this whole city is going to go down. I’m hopeful people will understand that,” Bing said in a radio interview this week. “If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation.”

Already, comparisons to the U.S. government policy of American Indian relocation have popped up.

“Sounds like reservations to me; it sounds like telling people to move,”community activist Ron Scott said in a recent news report. “The citizens of the city of Detroit who built this city, the working class, didn’t create this situation. You are diminishing the constitutional options people have by contending you have a crisis.”

Just a reminder to anyone looking in from Detroit: forced relocation of tribal citizens is now considered a failed U.S. policy. At the time, for decades even, the solution seemed like a good one — the only one — to many policy makers.

But the policy ended up robbing sovereign citizens of their traditional homes and sacred land. Poverty, broken spirits, alcoholism, and many other social ills resulted.

American policy makers ultimately changed their minds because what seemed like sound policy at the time ended up creating a bigger mess in the long run. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been spent to try to account for the aftereffects of relocation. And hundreds of millions more will likely be needed for years to come.

Some in Detroit can already imagine a plan where community members are forcibly removed, only to see businesses and other developments take their place.

But voters don’t like that idea very much, having voted in 2006 to ban the government’s ability to take property for economic development.

Still, Bing is venturing forward — with the strong support of many well-meaning policy makers and analysts.

All the good intentions in the world aside, the question needs to be asked: is this the right solution in the long run? Or a short term politically-minded fix to a much bigger problem? What new problems could be created? And where will Bing be if and when they show up?


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s not just Detroit. Taking their cues from Youngstown, which has pioneered the concept of accepting a smaller city and managing the decline, a lot of Rust Belt cities are accepting they aren’t going to be a big as they once were, and they’re knocking down properties and turning the land back to nature.


    What is new here is the idea of forced resettlement. I could see cities providing financial incentives for people to move, but forcing them… that’s problematic.

  2. collapse expand

    Isn’t this an eminent domain question, involving how to use land for the greater public good? Equating ancestral tribal lands with 30-foot lots in an emptying city is a bit of a stretch.

    As the article went on to say, one out of three lots in Detroit is vacant or abandoned. The city was designed to hold more than twice the people it has now. With a shrinking tax base, how can a city provide needed services over such a vast area?

    • collapse expand

      James, a point can be made that the “greater public good” is subjective at any given point in time in history, no?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Granted, but there has been a WIDE spectrum of applications, from the horrific and genocidal, to the unfair, to the inconvenient. And certainly when you talk about a govt making decisions for “The good of the people,” there will be accusations of paternalism, despotism, swindling, etc.

        The administration of a city has to address the question of land use and resource allocation, if it doesn’t want to go bankrupt. One reason Detroit is difficult to live in is that basic services (police, fire, schools, even water and power delivery) are spotty and unreliable and likely to get worse, not better. Trying to develop population clusters, which will certainly bring about a lot of howling, seems to be a viable path for the city to take. Otherwise, it will continue to decline, and how it that good for the future of Detroit’s citizens (as well as Michigan’s, who pay a lot to help keep the city afloat)?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    There are big costs for inaction as well, both in monetary and in human terms. Think about the future for thousands of schoolkids who live in desolate neighborhoods and schools that are falling apart. The situation isn’t going to get better on its own.

    That being said, people should be vigilant about land being cleared and then sold to private interests eventually. That’s as Detroit as a coney island hot dog.

  4. collapse expand


    “Just a reminder to anyone looking in from Detroit: forced relocation of tribal citizens is now considered a failed U.S. policy. ”

    I would add a reminder as well. For those looking in, the “Great Society” is now considered a failed U.S. policy as well.

    The poor and uneducated of all cities have a bleak future in a globalized knowledge worker society. No government program or moving people from one place to another will alter that.

    And that is as it should be.

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    About Me

    I'm a staff reporter for Indian Country Today. I've written for American Indian Report, News from Indian Country, Politics, High Country News, Cultural Survival Quarterly, The New York Sun, The New York Times, The Guardian, and other places. I sometimes appear on NPR to discuss Indian and political issues. I'm a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I live in metro Washington, D.C. E-mail me: robertcap@gmail.com Twitter: RobCapriccioso

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