The politics of revising Detroit’s blight count

Jul 30, 2015 at 12:52 pm

As the old saying goes, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Now, we don’t believe that all statistics are lies, but the human element can certainly enter into them, especially when researchers see what they want to see. Sometimes they’re naked fibs, as when Sen. Joseph McCarthy variously claimed that there were 200, 81, 57, or 10 “known communists” working in the State Department. Sometimes they’re based on “fuzzy math.” But the ability of statistics to dazzle people, to present big ideas starkly, is often put to political purposes.

But sometimes such figures are challenged. For instance, this year, the Detroit Land Bank Authority announced that, of the 80,000 vacant homes described as in need of demolition by the Blight Removal Task Force last spring, about half of them are still structurally sound enough to be rehabilitated instead of torn down. What’s more, the land bank wants to help find buyers to put into them.

Dispute the land bank’s revised estimate if you like, but you’ve got to hand it to the group’s media relations job. Under the adroit leadership of former radio host Craig Fahle, the bank has altered the conversation about demolition. We’ve gone from frightening headlines about how we can’t ramp up the fight against blight fast enough to ones that talk about “saving” homes. Turning the media around in this town isn’t easy, making this an impressive accomplishment.

Of course, plenty of powerful interests will be sore about this. Some of the more cynical observers of city politics concluded long ago much of this demolition wasn’t necessary, that it’s been less about stabilizing neighborhoods than it is about the care and feeding of large business interests, in this case the demolition contractors. The city seems to have one tool in its toolbox: a wrecking ball. And as old Sam Clemens once said, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

But how do these “statistics” get out there? Why are they repeated? And whose job is it to debunk them, anyway?

It’s reminiscent of when a spokesperson for the Detroit Works Project told the media that there were 40 square miles of vacant land in Detroit, and that “the size and population of San Francisco would fit into the current vacant land in the city of Detroit.” (Actually, it would be a tight squeeze to fit the almost 47 square miles of San Francisco into 40 square miles, even with a city-sized shoehorn.)

The group later downgraded the estimate to 37 square miles of vacant land. It was also admitted that the figure included parks. And cemeteries. Leaving those out, the Detroit Works experts estimated it was more like 25 square miles, including vacant structures. The number-crunchers over at Data Driven Detroit have estimated it at less than 22 square miles. (An area big enough to plop down, say, Barrow, Alaska, in.)

And yet the 40-square-mile figure lived a charmed life, being repeated even after it had been reconsidered.

Why is that? One reason is that journalists are notoriously lazy. If a fact seems too big to check, and comes from the mouths of respectable organizations, it’s very easy to simply repeat it based on trust.

Another reason such false facts gain currency is that they present a version of reality as seen by the powers that be. To too many leaders in Detroit, the problem isn’t getting the resources to provide adequate services across the city; the problem is that too many residents remain in certain areas that leaders feel are better off fallow. When you tell people that if you bundled every vacant lot into one parcel, the entire city of San Francisco could sit in it, you are priming them to believe that certain areas should simply be written off.

In a more honest era, this was called propaganda. It probably should be called that today as well.