Category Archives: Politics

Review: Reimagining Detroit

The 2010 Census was unkind to the Rust Belt.  Buffalo, Cleveland, Flint, and Youngstown all posted double digit percentile declines in population, falling back to levels last seen a century ago.  Detroit lost a full quarter of its population.  Yet, if Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher is right, there is still cause for hope.  In his timely and optimistic book, “Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City,” Gallagher argues that although shrinking cities like Detroit face severe challenges, they also possess the space and opportunity to become greener and more livable, even if they continue to shrink.

The first step toward revitalization, Gallagher writes, is adjusting expectations.  At its peak, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States.  Its massive factories were booming and its streets were lined with shops and people.  Although segregated and polluted, Detroit enjoyed immense prosperity, and many people still judge the city today against this high water mark. To make any progress, Gallagher insists, Detroit has to stop looking backward and work with the city as it is now: a deeply troubled, depopulated place that urgently needs to rescale itself.

For inspiration, Gallagher turns to a host of other cities that have pioneered ways to make use of empty space and retrofit obsolete infrastructure.  In Portland and San Francisco, unneeded highways have been removed from the city center, enabling neighborhoods to reconnect to the waterfront.  In Seoul, London, and Zurich, streams that were once buried in the sewer system have been brought back to the surface, improving the environment while creating new parks and development alongside the water.  In Havana, an impressive network of urban farms, first created amidst the severe food shortages of the “Special Period,” are now providing most of Havana’s fruits and vegetables.  In Chicago, major public arts projects, like the oft-photographed “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park, have attracted tourists and catalyzed development downtown.

Many of Gallagher’s best suggestions are simpler interventions at the neighborhood level.  To beautify the weed-choked vacant lots that dot the city, Gallagher recommends the model used by Philadelphia Green: reseed the lots with grass or ground cover, plant trees, and install picket fences.  To rescale Detroit’s huge arterial streets, built eight lanes wide but now carrying little traffic, Gallagher recommends widening the sidewalks and reserving lanes for bicycles and buses.  These are affordable improvements that, added together, could make a dramatic difference in the look and feel of a neighborhood.

Some of Gallagher’s ideas for Rust Belt reinvention come from Detroit itself.  One of these is urban gardening, which has taken off dramatically in the past decade.  Since 2000, more than 800 gardens have registered with the Detroit Agricultural Network, and several large-scale farming operations are currently seeking city approval.  Gallagher sees great promise in this trend.  At the community level, the benefits are undeniable: gardens beautify empty land, bring neighbors together in a common pursuit, and produce fresh, healthy food—often a scarce commodity in the inner city.

Whether urban farming can turn a profit is another question.  Gallagher is a skeptic.  He notes that Detroit’s best-known farms are actually quite small; if operated strictly for profit, they would only provide a subsistence living.  To operate more profitably, urban farms would need larger parcels of uncontaminated land, a resource that is still easier to find on the outskirts of town than in the heart of the city.  For that reason alone, Gallagher doubts Detroit’s local food economy will ever reach the scale of Havana.

For better or worse, Detroit is also on the leading edge of another trend: the shift from public to private governance.  Nearly all of Detroit’s signature institutions now rely heavily on corporations and foundations for support.  The Detroit Institute of Arts, Campus Martius Park, and Eastern Market are all run by conservancies; Toni Griffin, the lead planner of the Detroit Works Project (Mayor Dave Bing’s signature planning initiative), and Robert Bobb, the former Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools, were both compensated by national foundations; and the first leg of the proposed Woodward light rail line will be funded by a handful of philanthropists.  A similar trend plays out at the neighborhood level, where parks and community centers depend on the labor of volunteers for the most basic maintenance, from mowing the grass to picking up trash.  Several historic neighborhoods, like Indian Village and Palmer Woods, even hire private patrols to supplement the beleaguered city police force.

Gallagher applauds this reliance on public-private partnership as a model of fiscal responsibility, and other cash-strapped cities will likely follow Detroit’s lead.  It is a dubious precedent though.  On the one hand, it is true that many of Detroit’s greatest gains, like the revitalization of its riverfront, would not have been possible without private support.  Urban farming, the most talked about trend in the city, is technically not even legal; it has spread in defiance of city codes through grassroots effort.  But Detroit is not a do-it-yourself paradise.  Volunteers do tremendous work in the city, but they cannot keep every park open nor keep every street clean.  Furthermore, while they are free to paint a mural or build a new playscape at the neighborhood school, they are powerless to keep that school open if the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager decides to close it.  Likewise, while foundations and conservancies have restored some of Detroit’s best institutions, they cannot be everywhere at once, and each time they step in, the public forfeits some control.  Public-private partnership may be necessary, but only as a complement to a robust, functioning government, not as a replacement.

With that important caveat, “Reimagining Detroit” is an excellent and inspiring book.  In clear, open language, Gallagher lays out an agenda for Rust Belt revitalization that is creative, audacious, and (one hopes) achievable.  Although he writes with Detroit in mind, his central thesis—that “a smaller city creates the canvas to become a better city”—should give heart to any city in the grip of Census-inspired despair.  The challenges are still formidable, but Gallagher makes it crystal clear that shrinking cities have a wealth of options to reinvent themselves as something new.

First published at the great regional blog Rust Wire, which I highly recommend.

Liveblogging: State of the City 2011

7:50 pm – You can read the text of the speech here. Nothing too memorable, I’m afraid. I liked most of what he said, but it was all boilerplate. No new proposals to speak of, and while he took on critics that claim DWSD is being suburbanized with gusto, I thought he sidestepped the widespread and serious questions that have arisen over the Detroit Works Project, his administration’s signature policy.

7:44 pm – Notably absent from the speech: Detroit Public Schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently called for the mayor to take over the sinking school system, but there’s no indication Bing wants the job. He didn’t say a word on the subject tonight.

7:41 pm – And the headlines are in. Detroit News: “Bing: Federal oversight of police nearing end.” Detroit Free Press: “Detroit Mayor Dave Bing unveils plans to cut crime, help neighborhoods, unite region.”

7:33 pm – Abrupt ending: “It’s time to ask, ‘What will your contribution be?’”

7:30 pm – Bing touts light rail as economic development. No mention of transit issues. What about the direly underfunded DDOT? Or the regional transit authority we’ll need to fund ongoing operations and expansion? Someone let Bing know that all successful cities need great transit systems.

7:25 pm – Nearly 1 in 5 Detroiters are unemployed. Bing’s claims of an economic turnaround ring hollow. I’m thrilled that Quicken moved downtown and the DMC is expanding, but overall Detroit is still bleeding jobs to the suburbs and elsewhere.

7:20 pm – Deficit down to $150 million. Submitting plan in March to eliminate the rest. But he calls out Snyder, who’s in the audience: “The [state] budget presented has potentially devastating consequences for the City of Detroit.”

7:18 pm – Bing says his water system deal is not a move toward regional ownership. Calls out critics for rehashing “old arguments,” and says, “Your time is over.” Camera pans to Joann Watson, perhaps Bing’s most vocal critic on City Council. The Michigan Citizen, which claims Bing “caved” on the water deal, must be fuming.

7:13 pm – Bing: “We’re working on a plan … Is it ready today? No.” We’ll see the first draft in April.

7:05 pm – The long federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department may soon be over: “We will be in full compliance by the end of this year.” Finally. Only took seven years!

7:04 pm – “We are a work in progress.” Warms the heart.

7:00 pm – I guess we’re not over the Chrysler ad. Dave Bing walks on stage to “Imported from Detroit.”

6:40 pm – According to the News, tonight’s themes will be delivering city services more efficiently, the importance of the Detroit Works Project, stabilizing the city’s finances, and economic development. In other words, Bing’s going to talk about everything he’s been criticized for failing to do so far.

6:30 pm – Bing goes on at 7 pm. You can stream the speech at My Detroit Cable or TV20 Detroit.

Detroit: Do-It-Yourself City

Detroit gets a lot of bad press, and 2010 was no exception. Stories of Detroit’s corruption, crime, and civic collapse regularly made national news, and locals loved to grouse about it. But in many ways last year was also a turning point for coverage of Detroit. Looking back, what’s remarkable is not the number of negative stories–most of which, frankly, were deserved. What’s remarkable is how much positive press we received at the same time.

The New York Times alone published ten articles heralding Detroit’s revitalization, including three on the vibrant arts scene, three on new businesses and entrepreneurs, and one on urban farming. Entrepreneur Magazine and CBS News both said Detroit was a great place to start a business, and the Huffington Post gave shout outs to restaurateurs Torya Blanchard and Phil Cooley. The Guardian, C.S. Monitor, and Grist all named Detroit the focal point of the urban gardening movement. The Guardian also praised our cultural scene, as did The Star.  Toronto’s Globe and Mail told people to visit, Patti Smith told artists to move here, and Palladium Boots co-opted our cool for a half-hour documentary / infomercial that hyped our creative scene.

Clearly, a new meme has taken hold. In the new telling, Detroit is seen as a do-it-yourself city for the young and creative. Philip Lauri, the creative mind behind the Detroit Lives! project, is one of the most enthusiastic champions of this viewpoint. He captured the spirit of it in an interview with the Metro Times: “This town isn’t for everybody … [but] if you’ve got the right combination of vision, ambition, and self-start drive you can sail to the moon in this town. If you’ve got a voice, it will be heard and if you’ve got an idea and the wherewithal to see it through, it can materialize. You can do anything from Detroit.”

It’s an affirmative, empowering take on Detroit’s dire situation and one that I largely endorse. Detroit’s young do-gooders aren’t looking for one quick fix to what ails the city; they’re focused on gradual, incremental change. Nor are they beholden to the development models of the past. Gone is the expectation that a new factory or major development will transform the city overnight. The emphasis is on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Let a thousand urban gardens and small businesses bloom. And in rhetoric if not always in fact, there is a professed desire to work with and build existing communities rather than replace or displace them.

That last desire–to respect the residents who are already here–may prove the hardest to honor. Despite the idealistic intentions of these young leaders, many Detroiters warily regard their efforts as the first symptom of gentrification, sensing that today’s idealists will inevitably yield to tomorrow’s indifferent yuppies. And while longtime Detroiters may welcome the investment and the energy of the D.I.Y. class, they don’t necessarily share the same values. Newcomers talk excitedly of density, bike lanes, and public art. They are mostly college-educated and seek the glamour of city life. Elsewhere in Detroit the needs are more urgent and basic. Residents want the cops to answer when called; for the street lights to turn on at night; for the parks to be safe and clean. They want local jobs and functional schools. In so much as these priorities are seen to be in competition, there will be conflict.

And in Detroit there is always the question of race. Regardless the merits of new investment, is it fair for a batch of newcomers, many of whom are white and suburban born, to garner so much attention when the efforts of so many African Americans before them went unrewarded? (Many think not.) What kind of city will Detroit become if new residents start arriving in larger numbers? Detroit is a place where residents take pride in how many decades they’ve lived on the same block. They can tell you when the color line broke in their neighborhood. Will Detroit be the same city culturally if the black middle class continues to flee and most newcomers are white or Latino? These are some of the stickier questions being raised about Detroit’s future, and Detroit’s young boosters will have to confront them, even as they rightly celebrate the momentum behind the city’s revitalization.

The video above is of a conversation held by the CAID late last year on “Art, Race, and The Image of the City.” It’s an excellent opening salvo in a dialogue that in many ways is just beginning.

Righting the rightsizing process

On Tuesday the Detroit Works Project kicked off with a mass meeting at Greater Grace Temple on the far west side. Nearly a thousand Detroiters answered the mayor’s call, filling every seat and lining every wall of a huge room at the church. The energy in the crowd was palpable as the mayor’s deputies took to the podium, but the promise of the first few minutes soon gave way to confusion and frustration. Expecting a presentation, the crowd was instead told to break into smaller groups to brainstorm the city’s future. The unexpected (and unfocused) format led to discord, with angry voices calling out, “This is not what we came for!”

The breakout groups were overcrowded and loud. The facilitators struggled to keep order, and not every room had a microphone, forcing some residents to shout to be heard. In my group, the facilitator, a community liaison from the Skillman Foundation, asked the audience to envision what the city would look like in 20 years. Most of those called upon ignored the prompt and focused on their current frustrations, airing grievances, asking pointed questions, and demanding action from the city now. Only after Mayor Bing addressed our group in person did the session take a more productive turn, with residents volunteering suggestions from rehabbing abandoned buildings to giving neighborhoods access to broadband. Just as the conversation got going, however, the evening came to an end.

It was an inauspicious start for a process expected to last 18 months and result in the reshaping of the city. The format was off-putting, the facilitators were unprepared for the size of the crowd, and residents’ incoming concerns about the process itself were not addressed from the get-go. That created space for the mayor’s doubters and outright opponents to seize the floor and take control of the discussion.

If Mayor Bing hopes to salvage these meetings, he will need to address the full audience at the beginning, not the end, and directly address the fears and concerns that have arisen on the question of shrinking, downsizing, or rightsizing the city. While they weren’t the loudest voices, many in the large and diverse crowd seemed open to long term reform, but they wanted to understand what the options were and whether they could trust the mayor to respect the community’s concerns. Bing needs to speak directly to these residents and win their trust and participation. If he can marshal their support and solicit their ideas, the Detroit Works Project might actually live up to some of its ambitions.

Retrofitting Detroit: Connect the dots

This is the last in a series on retrofitting metro Detroit for urbanism. Also see the first, second, and third.

Willis Street in the Cass Corridor / Midtown Detroit. Courtesy of Andrew Jameson @ Wikipedia.

When people think of Metro Detroit, the images that come to mind are of urban decay on the one hand and sprawl on the other. But the makings of a great city–one with walkable neighborhoods and lively streets–are hidden here in plain sight. From the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit to the busy main streets of suburbs like Ferndale and Royal Oak, the building blocks are in place for a truly regional “city” that transcends conventional boundaries.

For more than a decade now, urban life has been making a comeback in Metro Detroit. You can see it along the Riverwalk downtown. You can see it on Vernor Avenue. You can see it on Cass. You can see it on Nine Mile in Ferndale and Main Street in Royal Oak. People are out walking the streets, eating in sidewalk cafes, shopping, and going to work. They’re moving into lofts and riding their bikes more, enjoying these pockets of urban renaissance.

Unfortunately, these pockets have remained just that–isolated pockets that don’t add up to a greater whole. But with the addition of rapid transit, we could go from a simulacrum of urban life to the real thing, creating several corridors of urban development that bridge the city/suburban divide and make urban living a safe, attractive, and affordable option for all those who desire it.

Main and Fourth Street - Downtown Royal Oak. Courtesy of joelwashing @ Flickr.

While several corridors have tremendous potential–Michigan Avenue out to Dearborn and Jefferson Avenue out to the Pointes both come to mind–the most promising is the Woodward Corridor from downtown to Birmingham. Rapid transit down the length of Woodward would connect a long line of historic, walkable neighborhoods together, from Boston Edison to Berkley. It would also connect major hospitals, several dozen cultural institutions, and hundreds of thousands of people. While the corridor wouldn’t become “urban” overnight, it would immediately boost the areas that are already urbanizing, like Midtown and downtown Ferndale, and create the opportunity for other communities to pursue similar redevelopment.

If fully realized, an urbanized Woodward corridor could realign our region in several fundamental ways. First, it could make living without a car an attractive option again. Since the 1950s, when the streetcars stopped running, it has been difficult to find work, get to school, or grocery shop without a car. But if transit were rapid and efficient on Woodward (with ample bus connections to nearby communities), you could easily, say, live in Ferndale, take classes at Wayne, and work at Beaumont. Or live in Boston Edison, work in an office downtown, and go out for the night in Royal Oak. All without ever using a car.

Second, it will make tourists easier to attract. If you visit our tourism website today, you’ll see how hard it struggles to define the region, drawing as much attention to “North Oakland” and “Macomb” as Downtown Detroit. The Woodward Corridor will be far easier to market to out of town visitors because it will span city and suburb and connect most of our major attractions together. Visitors could walk the riverfront, take an architecture tour downtown, see museums in Midtown, spend an afternoon at the Detroit Zoo, and go out to eat in Ferndale, Royal Oak, or Birmingham — all without worrying about parking or directions.

Downtown Birmingham. Courtesy of ifmuth @ Flickr.

Third, it will create a meaningful and lasting linkage between Detroit and its suburbs that will help foster regional planning and development. Beginning with a regional transit authority, rapid transit on Woodward could be the catalyst Metro Detroit needs to start thinking and acting like a region. A continuous stretch of urban development from Detroit to its suburbs could help disabuse people of the notion that the suburbs can survive without the city or vice versa. We’re one region, and we rise or sink together. Woodward could be the focal point that makes that argument obvious and fosters regional pride.

Obviously, none of this is preordained. It’s not assured yet that Metro Detroit will even build a regional rail system, and if it does build one, whether it will be fast and effective enough to spark development. Nor is it clear how receptive the different communities along the path will be to a more concerted effort at urbanization. Lingering racial and political fears, too, could prevent the kind of cooperation needed to spark corridor-wide redevelopment. But this is the best case scenario we should be striving for–a world class “city” in Metro Detroit spanning both Detroit proper and its suburbs, starting with Woodward Avenue and spreading to the other spokes in years to come.

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.