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Is Galveston Detroit
on the Beach?

by David Stanowski
23 December 2012

Or, what can Galveston learn from Detroit’s probing soul searching and self analysis?

Clearly, Detroit’s current highly advanced state of decline gives it a clear advantage, over other distressed cities, because it has created a national mystique that is drawing national, even international attention and focus.

In Detroit’s hey day, the city ran on one major industry: autos. That industry has made a comeback, in Detroit, but it is still a shadow of its former self. Galveston was booming when its major industry; shipping, dominated the Western Gulf. Likewise, the Port is struggling to build back its cargo traffic and hold onto its cruise business, even as some feel it has seen its day, and seek to turn it into waterfront shops, restaurants, amusements, and condos.

There is a national discussion about what can be done to save Detroit, while Galveston’s desperate efforts to halt its population decline, draw little interest on the other side of the Causeway.

Author Mark Binelli made some very interesting comments in a recent CSPAN interview about his book "Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis". To some degree, many of them apply to this city on the Gulf.

First, what attracts people, who choose to move to and live in Detroit, and Galveston, is a kind of authenticity not found in most cities, and their suburbs, that have become a kind of homogenized plastic sprawl of subdivisions and chain stores. Other places are often cleaner and safer, but they feel too inauthentic to some people who are searching for something real.

Detroit and Galveston have an urban grittiness that, in contrast, is very attractive, but is also easily romanticized.

Binelli believes that Detroit’s mystique, i.e. its “brand” is based on its sense of authenticity compared to most other places, but that its authenticity derives largely from its dysfunction and blight. This leaves the people who are attracted to Detroit faced with a dilemma; if they get serious about curing their dysfunction, will they destroy what attracted them to the City?

This raises the questions of the day for those who choose to live in Galveston: are we afraid that curing the chronic dysfunction that afflicts this city will destroy its authenticity? And if that is true, do we subconsciously sabotage our efforts to cure that dysfunction? Have we become comfortably numb in our decline, so we don’t really want to stop it? 

Galveston has many distinct advantages compared to Detroit due its location: it's in a warmer climate, it's on the beach, it's in the State of Texas, and it's near a very prosperous major city which is why its decline is not nearly as advanced. On the other hand, imagine what Galveston would look like east of 61st Street if it was not on the beach! Detroit’s more advanced decline has given it one very distinct advantage; its real estate is very cheap! This is drawing people who are willing to take a chance on a city that may be close to a bottom.

It is much cheaper to live in Detroit, than it is in Galveston, even though Galveston has MORE vacant housing units per capita than Detroit and most other declining cities. The major difference is that the local “distressed” real estate has failed to drop to “fire sale” prices as it has in Detroit, as owners hold out for some kind of magical event, like casino gambling, that they hope will stimulate demand for the more than 7,000 vacant housing units, on the Island, which is blocking any chance of attracting large numbers of new residents to Galveston!


% Distressed

Vacant Housing Units

Galveston, TX


Detroit, MI


Flint, MI


Cleveland, OH


Youngstown, OH


Buffalo, NY


The larger question may be; are Detroit and Galveston anomalies in the landscape of a relatively prosperous country, which is in the process of recovery, or really the canaries in a coal mine for a broad national decline, which is gaining momentum? If a much more severe national decline does come to pass, which appears very likely, residents of these cities will have fewer adjustments to make, and there may be some comfort in that.

Video interview with film maker Heidi Ewing on her documentary "Detropia"(click on small red camera icon):

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