Why is Detroit falling apart so fast?

Detroit homes falling apart goobingUsing Google street view history, www.goobingdetroit.com records the decay of homes in Detroit. Above shows homes September 2009, September 2011, and September 2013

I’ve been fascinated with the decline of Detroit since a guy in my dormitory told me back in 1972 that he’d moved into an abandoned mansion because it was free.  Several weeks later a gang broke in. He barricaded his bedroom door with furniture and jumped out the window, never to return. After the financial crash, the photos of Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre  and goobingdetroit rekindled my interest in Detroit.

So why do houses fall apart?  The best answer can be found in Alan Weisman’s book “The world without us”, but here’s the short answer.  According to HowStuffWorks:

  • “The amount of time necessary for your home to fall to pieces depends on several factors. The quality of your home’s construction, the type of climate you live in, the shape your house is in and the materials your house is made of all contribute to the amount of time it would take for your home to deteriorate.”
  • Water wreaks the worst destruction. In addition to your roof, the caulk around windows will decay and disintegrate, letting water in within 25 years of last application, rotting the wall around the window. From other sites, here’s how: Roofs get leaks when trees add hundreds of pounds of leaves and seeds that clog the drains after rain or heavy snow that weights 8 lbs/gallon, causing leaks which leach glue and materials from the plywood, tearing off the membrane of roof materials. About 1.5 years later, the roof falls in, letting water and snow inside.  Broken windows also allow moisture, mold, and so on. Mold starts to grow and dry rots walls. Tree seeds take root.   Brick houses with flat roofs rot when the roof leaks because the cross beams rot, the walls bow, and gravity caves the house in. Moisture will get into the shell inside the brick exterior, and if there’s more than one layer of brick, in the gap between the layers where it will freeze and contract, collapsing the walls eventually.
  • Water attracts termites, carpenter ants and other insects which further devour your home
  • Tall dry grass outside the home can catch on fire and spread to a home
  • Tree roots will shift the foundation, crack it, and a potential crash unsound walls

Other websites said:

  • People loot abandoned homes of copper, walls, conduits, and destroy drywall for fun.
  • Empty buildings experience far more fluctuations in heat and cold, which causes materials to expand and contract and a faster breakdown (i.e. water freezing inside cracks).
  • Many homes built the past few decades used inferior materials and were designed poorly and won’t last nearly as long as older, better-built homes
  • If streets weren’t cleaned, over the years a 2-inch dirt layer would form from leaves and other detritus, allowing trees and other plants to grow which would tear up the pavement.

Yet it can take decades or more for a home to actually cave in on itself and crumble.  So why are Detroit homes falling apart so quickly?  Here are a few possible reasons:

  • The price of copper and other metals as thieves trip scrap metal out of homes
  • Each year at Halloween homes and buildings in Detroit are burned down in a mixture of wild destruction and insurance fraud
  • Crack cocaine swept Detroit in the 70s and 80s
  • High unemployment, low wages, and poverty led to homeowners not making needed repairs as far back as 1967, and the crack cocaine epidemic exacerbated this. After riots in 1967 white flight to more distant suburbs exploded, and far more families moved out than moved in, resulting in abandoned homes for many decades already
  • According to the New York Times “About 36 percent of the city’s population is below the poverty level, and, by 2010, the residential vacancy rate was 27.8 percent. With fewer people paying taxes, the city has starved financially and has struggled to maintain social services. Swaths of the city are in total darkness because of nonfunctioning street lights. And the average police response time, including top priority calls, is 58 minutes, according to a report by the emergency manager.”

The decline and fall of our fossil-fueled Western civilization is the framework of energyskeptic.  Clearly what’s happened to Detroit will happen to all cities and towns as it becomes impossible to maintain everything once oil is rationed, mainly to the military and agriculture, leaving less and less oil for all other uses.  Supply chains will break as manufacturers go out of business.  Someday, perhaps a scenario like the one in James Howard Kunstler’s Peak Oil series “World Made by Hand” will come to pass, where the most lucrative and easy way to make a living is salvaging materials from structures and garbage dumps.

Ironically, as oil shortages start to threaten lives, Detroit (and even Flint Michigan) may be among the best places to be. There is plenty of rain, and 40 of 139 square miles are vacant lots with good farmland. Don’t believe it?  Read John W. Day and Charles Hall’s book “America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions: Surviving the 21st Century Megatrends“ to learn why this region is more ecologically sound and sustainable than many regions of America.

Although every type of infrastructure is decaying across the U.S., the $552 billion dollars of corrosion damage per year is out of sight and out of mind of most people. Attention is paid when something breaks or when the ASCE issues a new report card every 4 years.  Meanwhile, millions of miles of water, sewage, oil, and gas lines, bridges, roads, and 83,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste (Cornwall) in eroding casks are corroding and crumbling.

We’re lucky the infotainment industry ever publishes anything at all on infrastructure, though it’s often just for a day, and mainly about a specific incident, like a gas line explosion (“if it bleeds it leads”).  Otherwise politics and which bathroom a transgender person should use fill up the news cycle, distracting people from the real news, which is that a few corporations and wealthy families have looted public resources (i.e. topsoil, oil, coal, natural gas, minerals, and so on) over the past 100 years.

In the 1920s, the Technocracy movement, realizing a huge energy boom was underway, thought that if everyone shared the energy, the rich could be kept from gaining control over its production and sale and everyone would benefit and lead richer and more rewarding lives. The technocrats estimated people would have 16-hour work weeks, allowing them time to spend more time with family, travel, and pursue their dreams. Energy would be the new “currency” with a limited number of bonds issued for a person’s lifetime.  This would have led to oil, coal, and natural gas lasting for thousands of years instead of peaking around now, a century later, and rapidly declining in the future to a far lower level (Inman).  Bet you worked more than 16 hours last week….

At some point in oil decline, this means that living in cities will grow increasingly difficult to live in as sewage goes untreated, garbage isn’t picked up, clean water isn’t available, and pavement and buildings cover what little land could be used to grow food.

Detroit is a visible reminder of the hidden crumbling of infrastructure everywhere, perhaps the future of all cities as energy declines.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer


Cornwall, W. July 10, 2015. Deep Sleep. Boreholes drilled into Earth’s crust get a fresh look for nuclear waste disposal. Science Vol. 349: 132-135

Inman, Mason. 2016. The Oracle of Oil.  A Maverick Geologists Quest for a Sustainable Future. W W Norton.

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