The occasion of America’s Independence Day seemed a good-as-ever – no, a better-than-average – opportunity to visit Detroit, which seemingly declared independence from prosperity decades ago. The design writing community has been doing some hand-wringing lately about “ruin porn,” so these descriptions will be kept to a relative minimum. But it really does have to be seen to be believed.
Nothing can really prepare you for the shock of the scale of decay. Giant factories that were once the heart of America’s industrial might sit shattered and pockmarked with graffiti, spalling concrete, and poked through with mature-looking trees. In many neighborhoods, trees fall on the streets and aren’t picked up. Skyscrapers loom cadaverously with their windows blown out.
Sidewalks are overgrown. There are many blocks in the city where only one or two homes remain standing, all else having been torn down, burned down, or simply collapsed into humus. Some areas are so depopulated, it would be relatively easy to convince yourself you were standing in some tiny Alabama town on the edge of a swamp, rotting in Faulknerian torpor.
I’ve never understood why Hollywood directors spend so much time and money digitally altering familiar cityscapes for their “dystopian apocalypse” movies. They should just come and shoot in Detroit, which could use all the injections of commerce it can get.
The thing is, it’s not all bad. We’ve all heard the jokes about the low, low, price of once-glorious houses now up for auction – and there is truth to this — there are certainly bargains to be had, if you don’t mind a little renovation work and a 21st century version of “homesteading.”
Places like Midtown, Downtown, and the Eastern Market, a multicultural melee of arched sheds, venerable storefronts and food trucks, could be described as “thriving.”
There are several massive casinos scattered around downtown, and the streets around these behemoths are a sea of taillights, jostling crowds, loud music and street vendors – in other words, inhabited like the streets of a thriving city.
A concerted effort by local business boosters (among which Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans is the most substantial) keeps Campus Martius, anchored by a bistro and fountain, lively right into the evening. Vestiges of former glory and future potential are all around in a few of the core commercial districts. There is haute cuisine in Corktown, and there are secret gardens at La Dolce Vita right off a blasted stretch of Woodward Ave. The former Grand Trunk railway ticket office is now a craft beer bar serving local brews.
There are more plans for the area between Midtown and Downtown. Three of Detroit’s professional sports teams will have their own homes within blocks of each other, once a Red Wings stadium opens across the Fisher Freeway from Ford Field and Comerica Park. Encouragingly, this one is to be surrounded by a mixed-use development containing up to 2,000 residential units. Owned by the Ilitch family, one of the larger concerns in Detroit that is not Dan Gilbert, the so-called “Sports and Entertainment District” will extend downtown across the void of the freeway into a vestigial area that currently consists of the odd turn-of-the-century home, some immaculate, some derelict, and many vacant lots. The planned M-1 Woodward Avenue streetcar, replacing a line that was torn out in 1956, will be operational by late 2016, connecting major areas of activity like Wayne State University with Downtown, passing right in front of the new arena.
It is discouraging that, as a result, the Joe Louis Arena (also owned by Ilitch), already the fourth-oldest NHL stadium, completed in 1979, will be demolished, giving people one less reason to ride the erstwhile People Mover monorail that encircles downtown. Which isn’t to say it was a great piece of architecture – it just seems like Detroit has enough buildings to demolish already – and what will replace it on the waterfront?
What is so deeply strange about Detroit is that it’s not as if there is one “side” of the city that “decent” people tend to avoid, like the south side of Chicago or the north side of St. Louis. The advance of decomposition has so permeated the city, which was already somewhat sprawling when it was intact, such that the “good areas,” such as Palmer Park, containing very well-preserved Queen Anne and other eclectic turn-of-the-century manor homes, can consist of only a few square blocks and be totally surrounded by urban blight.
This makes “going out to dinner in the city,” unless one sticks strictly to the freeways and prescribed approaches to the city’s attractions, a kind of bushwhacking expedition. Turning down any side street is more likely than not to yield a sagging house or burnt-out car, potholes big enough, and untended long enough to support weeds, dark streetlights or a stray dog. And not very many people. It’s kind of like Grand Theft Auto meets Parts Unknown.
To make the landscape a little less unknowable, and to begin to put numbers to the solutions, there is always Projects like the Motor City Mapping "Blexting” app, which allows enterprising citizens to send Instagram-like reports of blight to a mapping database, infers that data-aggregation will become part of the story of how a region gets its head around the topography of dereliction. The Detroit Land Bank Authority and the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force will be using this street-team data to determine which of the 27,000-plus buildings it has already logged is in most dire need of demolition. (The city estimates as many as 70,000 buildings need to be taken down, and that 5,000 of them are occupied by squatters). But what comes after?
Though the city is still depopulating, the cauldron of potential remedies for its ills is bubbling over. Although the large-scale, developer-driven schemes are more likely to gain traction because of the monetary and political largesse associated with them, Detroit is by no means short on creative energy and ideas, many of them small-scale and theoretically achievable.
There’s Made Studio’s idea to connect the burgeoning Eastern Market across a currently squalid few blocks of abandoned factories to the Dequindre Cut, a former Grand Trunk rail right-of-way that now hosts a bike path along part of its length. Design and quality of life do matter – but jobs matter even more.
To that end, the Motor City Project, driven by the World Policy Institute, a two-year pilot project to repopulate and revitalize Detroit using “lessons learned from thriving communities in developing world megacities.” The aim is to repurpose some of the informal micro-enterprises activity that happens in places like Nairobi and Lagos, where government dysfunction and poverty thwart most conventional attempts at building businesses, which should sound familiar to Detroiters. Though it has a tinge of neo-liberal optimism – the idea is that entrepreneurs can be enticed to move anywhere with limited government interference – importantly it is focused on jobs and integrating purported “new arrivals” with longstanding residents through “collective community restoration projects.” For a city that literally can’t keep the lights on, it’s not hard to see the appeal of this as an idea, but it’s not going to improve police response times or backfill pension deficits.
To further stoke the fire, Mayor Mike Duggan this June announced the formation of a new Innovation District, in a 4.3-square-mile area that already holds 55 percent of the city’s job and contains three percent of its landmass. Concentrating this energy on Downtown and Midtown bodes well for transit-oriented density, “knowledge” businesses, arts and entertainment. But the cynicism of long-time Detroit residents who have seen heavy industry pack up for good,for decades on end, is understandable.
There are already worries about gentrification, expressed in darkly humorous graffiti such as “Hipster ATM,” scrawled on a foreboding-looking abandoned building just a stone’s throw from the Eastern Market parking lot.
There is even griping in the New York Times about potential dilution of the high-quality art scene that is just now breaking into the national level. But the artists and small entrepreneurs will survive – there is enough room in Detroit for all the action-painting studios and artisanal coffee shops in the country, and it’s hard to imagine from this point in time how over-gentrification could ever be a problem here.
With so much attention paid to small-craft businesses and micro-entrepreneurs, it’s easy to see why someone in an outlying neighborhood that for decades has been left to fester with high crime, low income and little opportunity might be skeptical of such proposals. Is this latest raft of proposals going to make any difference for them?
There have been previous, more organic attempts to co-opt abandoned property for the purpose of spirit-lightening, if not necessary enterprise that will hit the tax rolls in a substantial way. When we visit a place like the Heidelberg Project, a madcap collection of occupied and abandoned houses in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, festooned with the childlike collage art of Tyree Guyton and attacked relentlessly by both arsonists and slum-busting mayors, we’re both apprehensive and giddy.
We ask ourselves what we’re doing. Are we helping a neighborhood regain its footing after years of neglect by proving that it’s safe to visit?
Are we “slumming”?
Are we consuming a slightly more brightly colored version of “ruin porn”?
There’s not much to buy there besides a few Guyton books and trinkets in the small gift shop, so it’s hard to argue visitors to Heidelberg are helping the local economy much. Then again, if there were open businesses to serve them, perhaps they’d linger longer, but there aren’t. Detroit is full of such chicken-and-egg stories.
If – and this is a sizable “if” with an unknowable timeline – sizable industries return to the city and hire low-skilled workers in large numbers, the new concentration of energy on downtown means those with means live there as well as drive there from the suburbs, government can clean up its act and provide services reliably – Detroit just might emerge on the other side of this debacle a city more livable, economically diverse and appropriately-scaled than the shell it left behind.
The impetus to re-invest in Detroit with accompanying grand rhetoric, is not new, and has delivered relatively little to the daily lives of its residents, though it has at least drawn attention away from abject decay through the power of iconography. The Renaissance Center, a seven-skyscraper shimmering behemoth by John Portman, first opened in 1977. It was financed largely by the Ford Motor Company in the early 1970s as part of a civic campaign to stem the tide of disinvestment that had already begun in the city – and this was before the Arab Oil Crisis and the emergence of fuel-efficient Japanese cars to add to the Big Three’s woes. With its freeway access ramps, gigantic blank berms facing the street, copious parking, and a “city within a city” program, RenCen was seemingly custom-designed to make suburbanites feel safe driving into the city once again, if only to shoot up above it in hermetically sealed glass elevators and view it from a safe distance.
Ironically perhaps, the complex now is the corporate headquarters of General Motors, which spent $500 million to renovate it in 2004. The tradeoff for the updated spiffiness of the Logan’s Run-like atrium, with big glass facades on both the river and street frontage, is that it is now primarily a GM showroom.
Outside, embedded in the granite pavers of the riverfront promenade, there is a world map representing the extent of the GM universe. Each point of light represents a factory. On a recent night, the lights representing Gravatai, Brazil and Hanoi, Vietnam, shone brightly amidst the strollers in the warm summer air. The lamp representing Detroit was burnt out. Scrawled in chalk, an arrow and the word “fix” pointed to it.