Rethinking rightsizing in North Corktown

N. Corktown - Established 1834

Rightsizing has been a buzzword in Detroit for at least a year and a half, but for all the talk so far, there’s been little focus on the actual neighborhoods of Detroit. Instead we keep hearing about the same mythical block. You know, the block that only has a single house left standing. The block the city can no longer afford to service. The block whose last resident refuses to move, so help her god.

We’ve allowed this one abstract example, grounded in no particular place, to drive the discussion, prompting supporters to call for relocation incentives and opponents to preemptively decry the return of urban renewal. But city blocks don’t exist in isolation–they exist in neighborhoods–and context makes a big difference. To get a real feel for how “rightsizing” ought to work (if it’s going to work at all) we need to look at specific neighborhoods that are overrun with open space — places like North Corktown, an actual neighborhood unique to Detroit that is putting its excess land to creative reuse.

Urban garden on Cochrane Street

On the surface, North Corktown seems like any other struggling area of Detroit. The western half of the neighborhood has lost so many residents that there are more open fields than houses. But increasingly, the overgrown grass is giving way to crops. Community gardening is less a trend here than a way of life. Urban farms dot the landscape. Brother Nature Produce and Detroit Evolution are both based here. So too is the great blog Little House on the Urban Prairie, which documents country living in the city.

On the east side of the neighborhood, a small town feel has been restored through infill housing and pocket parks. The residents there are active, organizing neighborhood patrols, fixing up abandoned property, and installing public art on empty lots. And city life is never further than a bike ride away. On Trumbull Street, the eastern boundary of the neighborhood, you can visit a Teamsters union hall, gamble at Motor City Casino, or gaze at the downtown skyline, which is only a mile away. The usual distinctions between city, town, and country have blurred together into one eclectic landscape.

Greenhouse

To be sure, the neighborhood is not a utopia. It still struggles with the familiar banes of Detroit living, including foreclosed homes, illegally dumped trash, and unmanageably tall grass at the peak of summer. But it has begun to tame its open spaces in a way that other neighborhoods in Detroit have failed to do. Furthermore, it has done so without displacing any residents, and without significant spending from the city. While North Corktown would no doubt welcome more investment, it has managed to gradually improve the quality of life through the cumulative impact of small projects and grassroots efforts, not the kind of major corporate or government-backed initiatives that would sweep existing buildings and residents aside to make way for new development.

That’s why North Corktown should be at the forefront of the “rightsizing” discussion. While relocation incentives might be the last resort for areas of Detroit that are both heavily abandoned and contaminated, they shouldn’t be the only option on the table. Instead we need to figure out how to work with what we have. Every Detroit neighborhood, no matter how devastated it may seem, has assets to manage. Brightmoor has the Rouge River, Eliza Howell Park, at least one enclave of strong housing, and dedicated community organizations. Jefferson-Chalmers has historic commercial buildings on Jefferson, proximity to shopping in the Grosse Pointes, and access to the Detroit River. These neighborhoods, too, can gradually find a way to recover, not by waiting for major developments that will never come but by limiting crime and reclaiming their open spaces.

Sculpture / Park

The key is that “rightsizing” need not connote one particular strategy. The word has been hijacked by the conspiratorially minded to connote downsizing, shrinking, or urban renewal. But what it should mean is community-based and community-driven reinvention, a la John Gallagher’s new book, Reimagining Detroit. Hopefully, this will be a focus of the next round of Detroit Works Project meetings: crafting sensible, affordable plans that will revitalize neighborhoods based on their specific needs and assets without displacing the few residents who have toughed it out over the years.

P.S. If you’re from North Corktown, I’d love to hear your perspective. Am I on to something or off base? Comment below or send me an email at cooper [at] rethinkdetroit [dot] org. If you’re not from North Corktown but want to learn more, start with the Corktown’s Residents Council and Inchernet, a new “living map” of the neighborhood. Also check out Soup at Spaulding for a taste of the activism going on. There’s also an ethnography, published in 1999, that touches on the racial history of the area.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking rightsizing in North Corktown

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  2. Patrick Morris

    First: where does the word rightsizing come from? Who hijacked it, and why is the hijacker conspiratorially minded? A search for “rightsizing” on http://www.freep.com yields five results, and two are op-eds by Ron Dzwonkowski that deal with state-level rightsizing. The same search on http://www.detnews.com yields nine results, most of which are blog posts and not actual articles. A Google search mainly returns articles about rightsizing personal life.

    ***

    I don’t live in North Corktown, Cooper, but I think you are on to something. There are tangible sights like community gardens and public places in the area that are led by active community members. Corktown’s Victorian homes are being renovated (http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Site=C4&Date=20101106&Category=FEATURES&ArtNo=11060809&Ref=PH&Params=Itemnr=1). It has fared better than numerous other neighborhoods in Detroit. I don’t think, however, North Corktown is as useful of a model that you purport it to be. I believe that North Corktown is a component of Detroit that, in public discussion, should be weighted equally with similarly sized or cohesive community areas in Detroit.

    What did North Corktown teach us about the right way to rightsize? Is it that rightsizing should promote community gardening? Sure, gardening is great. But not everyone likes to garden. Is it that progress starts at the grassroots level? I think Detroiters are smart enough to have known this for decades. You recommended that Detroit neighborhoods should start recovering by “limiting crime.” Again, don’t you think Detroiters already know this?

    What did North Corktown teach us about the wrong way to rightsize? You don’t seem to mention anything wrong, other than “familiar banes of Detroit living,” with the North Corktown development. And I don’t know of any implemented and executed redevelopment policy that has kicked people out.

    Is it that Detroit neighborhoods should be scared of “government-back initiatives that would sweep existing buildings and residents aside to make way for new development”? What if that’s exactly what certain neighborhoods need, or what if that new development is a park? And how can you eschew this development tool while making posts about the need and importance of a Detroit light rail system?

    Two Detroit community leaders, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity Detroit and the president of a neighborhood association, were overjoyed to learn of their neighborhood’s participation in a previous City neighborhood stabilization pilot program. The plan? To demolish structures in East English Village and MorningSide and move certain people out.
    (Source: http://www.freep.com/article/20100429/NEWS05/4290435/Bing-staff-backs-off-talk-about-downsizing-Detroit)

    We agree that rightsizing doesn’t promote one particular strategy. So why should we immediately downgrade corporate and government proposals? You say there has been little focus on actual neighborhoods, but what about the Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods Program that is active since 2006? (Source: http://www.skillman.org/good-neighborhoods/) What about Detroit Public Schools’ Facilities master plan to reshape neighborhoods with comprehensive learning campuses? (Source: http://detroitk12.org/admin/ppo/bss/fm/docs/DPS_Facilities_Master_Plan.pdf)

    I think North Corktown should be weighted equally as other neighborhoods in discussions like the Detroit Public Works project. I don’t think, as Michiganders, we can begin to choose certain development strategies over others. We can’t judge a program by its short term solutions to long term problems. In Iraq, the 2005 community rebuilding strategy in Tal Afar led by Colonel H.R. McMaster was widely hailed as the path to successful development in Iraq. Just two years later, the city experienced suicide attacks and sectarian violence.

    You are right to say that neighborhoods exist in a context. But there’s one more level: neighborhoods consist of people. For grassroots development to work, we have to be in the communities and working together with residents. You have to get into a neighborhood and meet the people so that “neighborhood” is no longer a nebulous term. Talk with them. Listen to them.

    ***

    I understand that this post is only about one unique style of development and that there are many variations currently taking place across the city. From what you profile as happening in North Corktown, Michiganders should be excited to see community revitalization projects. I’m glad to see people working in their communities: I know it’s time consuming work that challenges residents to work across social boundaries. Detroit needs a well educated and engaged public, and in showing off North Corktown you have contributed to that.

    It’s always neat to remember the motto of Detroit: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus. “We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes.” Maybe it’s overused now, and while Detroit is far from ashes, it’s easy to make an extension to our current era in Detroit and Michigan. And Michigan’s? Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice. “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” I like them both.

  3. Cooper Post author

    1. When I use the word rightsizing, I am referring to strategies to cope with the city’s growing surplus of empty housing and land as a result of population loss. It’s not a perfect term, but of the various euphemisms that have been used historically–planned shrinkage, urban triage, rightsizing, downsizing, Detroit Works Project–I find it the least loaded.

    2. When I referred to the conspiratorially-minded, I had editorials like this in mind, which predicts a “modern-day trail of tears for Detroiters.” There were similar comments at the first Detroit Works Project meeting from people who are convinced that Bing has a secret plan to force people out of there homes.

    http://michigancitizen.com/bye-bye-detroit-p8374-1.htm

    3. As I tried to explain in the post above, I find the example of North Corktown an instructive case study for rightsizing in two ways.

    First, it offers a counterexample to the growing conventional wisdom that to save resources, the city will need to clear out its least populated neighborhoods. While there may be some areas that are not suitable for redevelopment (due to severe environmental contamination, for example), there are ways to rehabilitate mostly empty areas without significant expense. In North Corktown, the community has had some notable success with urban farming, public art, safety patrols, and a small infill housing development.

    Second, studying the example of North Corktown–as opposed to theoretical discussions about “empty blocks”–shows how valuable it can be to evaluate the issues of population loss and vacant land on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, tailoring specific solutions for each area.

    4. I’m not opposed to government, corporate, or philanthropic investment in Detroit. Quite the opposite! I welcome all of the above. I just think it’s worth highlighting that smaller, more grassroots efforts can produce substantial progress as well, and do so in ways that are more likely to build on the existing social fabric rather than replace it.

    5. The government-backed initiative you reference in Morningside Heights and East English Village is an example of one I would happily support. Even though Morningside Heights has considerable vacancy, the city is not talking about clearing the area entirely (something many people fear will result from the Detroit Works Project). Instead, they might offer incentives for those on less populated blocks to relocate to the more populated blocks within the neighborhood to restore some of the density the area once had. That’s another sensible and neighborhood-sensitive approach to rightsizing.

  4. Patrick Morris

    After reading that article, it seems like many of the concerns about the future of Detroit are based in fact and not part of a conspiracy. It’s no conspiracy that the bankers and financial institutions that helped create the sub-prime mortgage crisis are running off to vacation homes with fat bonuses and flourishing in excess reserves provided cheaply by the Fed. Ordinary stockholders are left with nothing.

    Detroit, the article mentions, had similar conflict of interest and nepotism issues in the housing market under Mayor Dennis Archer. Conflicts of interests abound between public and private entities; there are corporate interests who stand to gain from a certain path of Detroit’s future development. This interpretation of “rightsizing” is equally valid, and may actually complement yours, since your post doesn’t discuss the economics of Detroit’s housing market.

    The “clear & rebuild” strategy is prevalent in the Detroit and Michigan population because of its simplicity and ambiguity – not unlike the “boom & bust” framework of Detroit’s 20th century history. But there are voices already trending away from that conventional wisdom. Obviously, you and I operate with different “conventional wisdoms;” it’s naturally a subjective term. But the Detroit Free Press has consistently been running articles and excerpts from John Gallagher that promote citizen-centered development. Sure, I’m biased because I read the Detroit Free Press, (and the paper is giving him press because he is a former Freep reporter) but I judge it to be a decent arbiter of popular opinion on Detroit and Michigan issues.

    Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the Detroit News, believes that no matter how the city is geographically oriented, the more important issues facing Detroit are educating the city’s youth and acting in cooperation with surrounding municipalities to create a more regional government.
    (Source: http://detnews.com/article/20100919/OPINION03/9190309/The-three-I-s-of-Detroit-s-decline)

    Governor-elect Rick Snyder’s plan for Michigan cities is to lure new residents with tax incentives, eliminate waste and corruption, restore funding for the arts, and invest in infrastructure projects like mass transit. (Source: http://www.governorelectricksnyder.com/vision-plan/policy-central/central-cities) Sure, he hasn’t yet done anything in office, and politician’s websites are little more than rhetoric, but he’s already displayed commitment to working with Mayor Bing.

    Second, this method of development is a local application of “clinical economics” http://www.theglobalist.com/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=4602. Clinical economics continues use in numerous post-Communist bloc countries in the transition from state-owned closed economies to market-driven open economies.

    We still have a tenuous definition of “neighborhood.” What about the residential areas of Detroit that have no definitive markings of a specific neighborhood? Where does one draw the line between one neighborhood and another? We can mention numerous areas that have unique institutions, historic landmarks and stable housing – Midtown, Corktown, Southwest, Jefferson/Chalmers, Rosedale Park, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park – but what about the majority of Detroit that doesn’t fall into one of these neat & easy names? These residents might not have the resources, time, or assets like waterfront location, historic buildings, strong community centers, museums, stable population, and immigrant enclaves that are helping the neighborhoods mentioned to be successful.

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  6. Jon

    It seems to me that the Detroit Works project is mostly an effort to more closely align expenses with revenues. Bing isn’t interested in making the city any smaller, I doubt he could push through any major development restrictions and I highly doubt he would be satisfied with a permanently depressed city. If anything, the right-sizing that you’re talking about is mainly a temporary thing and it’s mainly focused on the budgetary effects of land use and less actual land use itself–don’t expect to see 50,000 sheep in Detroit anytime soon.

    I agree that the most positive and/or innovative developments will come out of locally based efforts (like my involvement in one doesn’t skew my opinion?) mainly because the city as a whole is full of an incredibly large number of problem areas. The spacial definition of data that the city gets is really not likely to be able to separate the good blocks from the bad ones, the blocks where positive models are being developed from the ones where frantic phone calls complain about a lack of services.

    I see this winter as especially pivotal. Either “little” efforts like those in the North Corktown area get together with some very high level plan of action or we’re just going to get steam rolled by bigger interests–interests that certainly don’t have the wellbeing of the community as a primary concern. Of course, capacity in rural areas like N Corktown is no easy task, 1 house a block means just one household to contribute. We’re always happy to have more help with this sort of stuff, write jonkoller@gmail.com if you’re interested.

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