Monthly Archives: February 2010

Seen in Detroit today

You have to give this guy some credit. It’s thirty degrees, snowing, and the middle of rush hour, and he’s hauling a bed, a couch, and two chairs down Warren on a bicycle — and making quick work of it, too.

Headed east on Warren pulling a bed, a couch, and two chairs.

Off he goes down Ferry Street. Final destination unknown.

Lessons from the Neighborhood Project

On Sunday I decided to drop by the DIA to see the Neighborhood Project, an exhibit by Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart, the Detroit artist-duo behind Design 99 and the Power House. The artists weren’t around that day to speak to, but I was struck by the little manifesto they left on the whiteboard:

Own Your City: Ten Easy Steps

1. Own a house
2. Live in house
3. Meet your neighbors
4. Invite neighbors into your house
5. Own your neighborhood
6. Live in neighborhood
7. Meet your neighboring neighbors
8. Invite neighboring neighbors to your neighborhood
9. Share everything
10. Own your city

The list is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it stuck with me. Detroit might be a better city if more people felt like they owned the place — like we all owned Detroit and were responsible for its upkeep together.

Normally, we relegate this responsibility to government. We pay taxes so bureaucrats can make sure the street lights stay on and the grass gets mowed. But in Detroit, it doesn’t work like that. We pay taxes all right, but too often the street lights don’t stay on and the grass doesn’t get mowed. With half the population gone, there just isn’t revenue enough to run the place–and what revenue there is seems to get sucked up by corruption. So for better or worse (mostly worse), residents have to make do themselves. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality.

I find the Power House inspiring because it makes the best of this bad situation. Cope and Reichart bought an abandoned home just north of Hamtramck and are retrofitting it as an energy-independent, cultural hub for its neighborhood. In another city, the government or developers would have come in long ago to fix it up or knock it down. But Detroit doesn’t work that way. So the artists are fixing it themselves, bit by bit, with scavenged parts and help from the neighbors. They’ve taken Detroit for what it is and are making it a little better, for themselves and for the rest of us. It’s a lesson in self-reliance (and community spirit!) we could all learn from.

What light rail will do for Detroit

After seeing “Beyond the Motor City,” the new PBS documentary on the future of mass transit in Detroit, I’ve been thinking more about what light rail can realistically do for the city. The first segment, after all, will only run 3.1 miles along Woodward, from Downtown out to the New Center. So won’t this end up being the People Mover Part Two — a monorail to nowhere, a la The Simpsons?

I firmly believe the answer is no. For one thing, the light rail line actually goes somewhere. Unlike the People Mover, which circles an area that’s already walkable without adding anything besides a view, the light rail line will bridge several distinct neighborhoods that collectively include nearly all of Detroit’s major institutions. For another, unlike the People Mover, the light rail line has a built-in constituency. Thousands of people already take the bus along Woodward every day.

Most importantly, though, the light rail line has the potential to revitalize the urban core in a way that the People Mover never did. That’s because the area is already undergoing slow, steady, undeniable progress. Unlike downtown in the 1980s, the Woodward corridor is not a dying district. Despite the national recession and the decade-long local depression, the area continues to rebuild, one storefront at a time.

I see it everyday as I walk through Midtown: Leopold’s Books, Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, City Bird, Kim’s Produce, Shangri La, the Burton Theater — six new businesses in just the past year! And many more projects are underway, from the Green Garage business incubator on Second Avenue to the Garden Block restoration on Woodward. This is a walkable, urban area that has only begun to realize its potential.

And yet … it still lacks density. Despite all the development, despite the tight urban street grid, it’s hard to shake the sense that so far it doesn’t quite cohere. That’s where light rail comes in. Until it’s extended, the 3.1 mile starter line will be too short to bring in waves of new commuters. But it can serve as the backbone to the corridor, bridging its disparate parts and focusing new development along its twelve stops. It may take another decade or more to get there, but Detroit’s urban core can once again be a dense, thriving area, just as it was through the 1950s, when streetcars last crisscrossed its streets.

Scenes from 1954 Detroit

Someone posted these clips of Detroit in 1954 to You Tube recently. In many ways, downtown looks much the same today as it did then. Most of the stores have closed, and some of the buildings have been lost to the wrecking ball, but the basic infrastructure hasn’t really changed. What’s missing are the crowds of people. While I don’t harbor any special nostalgia for the era (my first memory of Hudson’s was seeing it fall on live television), I’d still love to see the day when Detroit’s streets are once again bustling with crowds of people going about their daily business.

Ice Tree 1, Ice House 0

I drove by the much-talked about Ice House today. I was not impressed.

It didn’t help that half the ice had melted from the roof. But I just didn’t find it compelling. Covering an empty home in ice is a novel idea, and it draws a crowd, just like those homes that go overboard with Christmas lights and life-size Nativity scenes. But it doesn’t mean a thing.

The Ice House, half-melted after a sunny day in Detroit.

The fact that two Brooklyn-based artists were able to do this just reminds me how little Detroit’s East Side is valued. Within a block of the house, you’ll find burned out homes, old tires dumped on the side of the road, and stretches of sidewalk completely overgrown with ground cover. There are also a lot of friendly, hardworking folks trying to make a living. I don’t see the Ice House — or any of international media coverage it’s received — connecting with any of that.

What’s more, it’s not even the prettiest ice sculpture in Detroit! That honor goes, of course, to the Belle Isle Ice Tree, a Detroit tradition since the 1960s. I’m a big fan of cutting edge social art, but I think I’ll stick with the home favorite this time:

The Belle Isle Ice Tree -- a wonderful sight, even at dusk on a cloudy day.