Monthly Archives: January 2010

How Kresge plans to reconfigure Detroit

For more than a year now, there’s been growing talk of “rightsizing” Detroit–consolidating the city in some fashion to restore density and make it easier to deliver city services. Just this Tuesday Model D published an op-ed in favor of consolidating Detroit around key corridors and neighborhoods. Now, for the first time, there might be real money behind the idea. On Monday, Crain’s Detroit reported that the Kresge Foundation is offering to fund a citywide master plan to guide the shrinking of the city:

In four to six months, Detroit could have the broad-brush outlines of a land use plan that encompasses the principles of shrinking the city by consolidating investment in key neighborhoods — if Detroit Mayor Dave Bing accepts an offer from a metro Detroit foundation to fund the creation of such a plan.

Bing told Crain’s last August that resizing the city is one of his top priorities. Administration officials are engaged in preliminary discussions with the foundation community, said Edward Cardenas, Bing’s press secretary, adding that the mayor had planned to begin studying land use issues in the first quarter of this year.

That the city must shrink is beyond debate, said Rip Rapson, president of the Troy-based Kresge Foundation, which has offered to fund the plan. And a land use plan is crucial to developing viable long-term strategies.

This is big news for Detroit. It also confirms a growing suspicion of mine: Detroit’s most influential civic leaders don’t work in City Hall; they work for major foundations. The Kresge Foundation above all is on a mission to restructure Detroit, and it has the money and vision to do it. Scan through the latest annual report. In just the past few years, Kresge, along with other foundations, has funded the remake of the riverfront, the Dequindre Cut, and the Argonaut Building and is a major backer of the upcoming light rail line, the Next Economy Initiative, and the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative.

In November, Kresge’s president, Rip Rapson, laid out the binding vision behind all these initiatives in a speech called “A Different View of Detroit.” I’m pasting an excerpt below, but this is one you should read in full. This could well be Detroit’s future:

The second broad theme of the nine modules of work is infrastructure. It centers largely around the issue of land use in Detroit, the lynchpin for re-imagining the kind of city Detroit will be twenty years from now.

If you draw a map of Detroit and then you stick in Boston, stick in Manhattan, stick in San Francisco, and stick in a little part of Saint Paul, you still have room left over. This is an enormous city. Its geography far outstrips its governance capacity. There are all sorts of implications, but at the end of the day, Detroit simply has to shrink in order to grow. That’s a complex undertaking. You have to re-purpose land. You have to re-imagine how you deploy public resources. You have to engage residents in all aspects and at every stage.

If there was ever an issue in Detroit in which philanthropy could play a critical role, it’s here. Land use is the third rail of municipal politics; political folks can’t get near this and live to tell about it. As a result, our staff at Kresge and others have begun drawing on the experience of New Orleans and of European cities to try to figure out how, over the next year, we can make tangible progress in developing a framework that is sufficiently bold, yet sufficiently realistic, to give rise to a very different map of Detroit.

Jane Jacobs on Detroit: “Low-density failure”

I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 masterwork on urbanism, and the assessment of Detroit is damning. “Detroit is largely composed, today, of seemingly endless square miles of low-density failure,” she writes. Long before the unrest of 1967 or the whole-sale flight of the middle class, Jacobs considered Detroit a failed city for being too suburban:

Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.

Even in its heyday, most of Detroit didn’t compare to cities like Chicago and New York. Detroit was simply never developed as densely. Before 1900 (that is, before the Ford Motor Company), the city was only a fraction of its current size. Its outer limits roughly corresponded to the U-shape made by East and West Grand Boulevard. The rest of Detroit was developed later, after the auto boom, in increasingly suburban neighborhoods of detached, single-family homes.

That’s why Detroit will never look like other big cities, even if it recovers. Only the historic urban core has a fighting chance to redevelop densely. The central business district, Corktown, Mexicantown, Eastern Market, the Cass Corridor (Midtown)–these are Detroit’s growth areas, where new lofts and small businesses are repurposing empty buildings and restoring the urban fabric. The rest of Detroit was built to be both suburban and walkable (not unlike Ferndale or Grosse Pointe Park), but after decades of disinvestment most of it is now neither. These residential areas will need to find a different path to recovery, and Jane Jacobs doesn’t offer much help.

Detroit Art City

After visiting two art openings in Detroit last week, I’ve been thinking again about the role art might play in enlivening the city’s open spaces. This has been a pet subject of mine since 2008, when I first read Rebecca Mazzei’s great cover story in the Metro Times on “Waking Up the Neighborhood.” Drawing inspiration from the work of Detroit innovators like Tyree Guyton and Scott Hocking, her manifesto called for “a public art fund that commissions major contemporary projects beyond the conservative traditions of public art. And it needs to happen everywhere — in the urban center and in remote locations across the city.”

Scott Hocking's "Midden Mound." Photo taken from the artist's website.

A year later, her vision came to life — in New Orleans. A new biennial, Prospect New Orleans, placed works by both local and internationally-recognized artists in every pocket of the city, from the French Quarter to the Lower Ninth Ward. The event drew rave reviews and had wealthy out-of-towners brushing shoulders with local residents in neighborhoods they might otherwise not visit. A less critically acclaimed but similarly exciting event took place in Grand Rapids last year. Tens of thousands of people strolled Grand Rapid’s streets for Art Prize, which promised $250,000 to the artist with the most votes. Most of the work was kitschy, but it was a huge success for the city.

"Mithra" from Prospect New Orleans. Photo by New Orleans Lady on Flickr.

Nothing on this scale has yet been tried in Detroit, but the city’s landscape continues to serve as both canvas and inspiration for artists. Two recent examples include the Power House — a project by locals Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart to retrofit an abandoned home as an energy independent, cultural hub for its neighborhood — and the less community-sensitive Ice House — a project by two Brooklyn artists to coat an empty home in ice to dramatize the foreclosure crisis. Together with more traditional draws like the DIA, MOCAD, and the city’s many public sculptures (like the iconic “Fist” downtown), Detroit’s outdoor art installations could both fill some of city’s open spaces and make Detroit a year-round arts destination.

Can community grocery stores succeed?

For several years now, Detroit has been tagged as a food desert — a place where fresh, affordable food is often hard to come by. Because no national grocery chains operate full-size stores in the city, most residents make do with corner stores and independent markets, many of which offer second-rate products at marked-up prices. There are exceptions to the rule — Honey Bee Market in Southwest Detroit, for example, is as nice as any chain store, and Eastern Market is a nationally-known gem — but most residents have few good options in their neighborhoods (regardless what Charles Pugh says).

That’s why a coalition of churches and union workers are trying to build a network of community-based grocery stores in Detroit. Like other non-profits in the city, such as the Detroit Black Food Security Network and Gleaners, the Detroit Community Grocery Store Coalition is fighting to provide Detroiters with food security — the assurance that healthy food will be accessible to all, regardless of income or location. Yet they face the same set of problems that have kept most private businesses from succeeding: high rates of poverty, low population, and frequent petty crime. The difference is that unlike private grocers, which struggle to exist in spite of these challenges, the coalition exists specifically to confront these conditions. Hopefully that head-on approach will enable the coalition to find a way to succeed where others have failed.

Follow Rethink Detroit on Twitter

Yes, it’s come to this. Rethink Detroit has a Twitter feed.

I’m a skeptic of the medium, too, but I plan to make the most of it. I’ll be posting links every day as well as quick commentary when I don’t have time to write a formal post. You can read the updates on the right hand side of the blog or follow along directly at twitter.com/rethinkdetroit.

Making art out of abandonment

Just before the holidays, The Economist touched on a topic I’ll be returning to frequently throughout the year: the prevalence of open space and empty buildings in Detroit. Vacancy may now be the signature feature of Detroit’s landscape. Some 90,000 narrow lots are thought to lie vacant, nearly all of which were once the site of homes and factories. On the east side, entire neighborhoods have been lost, creating a checkerboard pattern of density and relative emptiness. Elsewhere, the effect is subtler; pocket parks and urban gardens fill the occasional gaps where houses once stood.

Yet despite their many liabilities, empty spaces in Detroit have also been the catalyst for some of the most encouraging developments of the past few decades. Activists and artists have had the audacity to re-envision their communities. Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, a living art exhibit of painted homes and found art objects, is probably the most famous example, but the Boggs Center’s Adamah Project is probably more important, inspiring the push toward interconnected greenways and urban gardens throughout the city.

Projects like these are the silver lining to the crisis of vacancy, applying hope and creativity to a mostly dire situation. No, they’re not universally inspiring. The recently announced Ice House, which promises to completely encase an empty Detroit home in a layer of ice on MLK day, is more likely to insult.  And even the Heidelberg Project has its detractors, including nearby neighbors who’d rather not live amidst a tourist trap. But projects like these can change our perception of spaces that otherwise seem lost or barren, revealing how we might reclaim them to turn the city around.

Introducing “Rethink Detroit”

After two years blogging at Think Detroit, I’ve decided to start fresh with a new blog hosted at its own domain. The focus will again be on the revitalization of Detroit, but I’ll be taking a more personal approach, writing about life in Detroit as well as the emerging trends that promise to transform it, from creative enterprise to rightsizing. As a young person living in Midtown and a serious student of Detroit present and past, I hope I can offer a fresh perspective on the city, at once honest and optimistic.

So please follow along and comment frequently as the blog unfolds!