Writing in Fast Company, Greg Lindsay argued this week that downsizing Detroit “won’t make Detroit any denser, but the opposite.” He then quotes The Baffler’s Will Boisvert at length for support. While I too am not totally comfortable with Bing’s rhetoric on rightsizing, I think there are enough misconceptions in Boisvert’s quote that it’s worth picking apart section by section. Let’s start at the top:
[As] rational as all this sounds, it hangs on a grotesque misunderstanding of Detroit’s predicament. Despite its ghost-town image, Detroit’s population density is still actually rather high by American standards. The city is half again as dense as Portland, Oregon, substantially denser than the booming Sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas, denser even than Pittsburgh–all of them places that adequately fund city services. Detroit’s problem is not underpopulation, but brute poverty, something that the grossly overstated efficiencies of shrinkage won’t alleviate.
It’s true that overall, Detroit is still denser than newer Sunbelt cities, even after losing half its population. Unfortunately, Detroit is no longer dense enough to support its own infrastructure. There are far too many streets, sidewalks, and sewers per person. The city is fiscally unsustainable, and as a consequence, depopulating neighborhoods are neglected, leading to environmental damage as well. Burned out homes are left standing; illegally dumped trash piles up in the streets. That’s why planners favor rightsizing — so Detroit can stabilize at a size it can afford to maintain and maybe start to grow again.
And for all its anti-sprawl rhetoric, shrinkism is extravagantly wasteful from the larger perspective of metropolitan land use. It hollows out the dense core of metro-area settlement under the assumption–the ugly, unstated postulate of shrinkage–that decent people can’t be enticed to live there.
“Shrinkism” is not responsible for hollowing out Detroit’s core; suburban flight and jobs loss are. Rightsizing is an attempt to deal with the consequences of the mass abandonment that has already taken place. Part of the solution, as Boisvert recommends, ought to be limiting further sprawl on the metro area’s edge. But even if that were politically possible, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Nor would simply building new housing in Detroit’s emptiest areas. It’s been tried, and the unfortunate truth is that when 100 new affordable homes are built in Detroit, dozens more are abandoned because net housing demand is essentially zero.
The reasons why demand is so low are well known: crime, poor schools, high taxes, lack of jobs, poor city services, limited retail, and so on. Problems like these can’t be tackled in isolation. There needs to be comprehensive change to bring any one neighborhood back, let alone revive the city as a whole. That’s why so many leaders here have come to favor rightsizing. They view this as an opportunity to focus concentrated resources on Detroit’s most promising corridors, creating the conditions that will finally make Detroit’s older neighborhoods once again safe, enriching places to live.
As city districts are razed and emptied, development is shunted, as usual, to cornfields on the exurban frontier, where people drive everywhere and nowhere–that’s the green part of the equation.
Rightsizing will not “shunt” development to the exurban fringe. That’s what’s happening already. Most of the neighborhoods we’re discussing haven’t seen significant investment since the 1950s. If nothing is done, they will continue to deteriorate and the exurban fringe will continue to grow. If they can once again be made dense and sustainable, in part through consolidation, Detroit might have a fighting chance to compete against suburban neighborhoods by providing a safe, viable urban alternative.
Detroit’s not often pegged as a beautiful city, but art is pervasive here, if you just look. Hand-painted signs, community murals, and street art seem to adorn every building or the ruins that remain. As I walked through the quiet streets of the New Center today, along Second and Cass between I-94 and Grand Boulevard, I noticed some stunning pieces amid the grit.
First, I came upon the murals adorning the Detroit Children’s Museum:
Then I wondered alongside the train tracks. Much like the Dequindre Cut, the walls between the two sets of tracks function as an ever-changing gallery for graffiti and street art, visible only to the passengers of the Amtrak trains that pass by every few hours.
When a feral dog began to bark in the distance, I turned back toward Woodward. There I found a colorful youth mural, tagged over in parts with graffiti, that had been organized by the New Center Council. And in the distance stood the newest addition to Detroit’s skyline looking north: a bright blue, 9-story mural splashed across the side of a building on Grand Boulevard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.