Tag Archives: Downsizing

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.

Downsizing for density

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

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.