Thursday, March 11th, 2010
(Photo Urbanarcheology via Wikipedia)
The New York Times ran yet another article on the fate of the Michigan Central Depot, a former grand train station that has come to symbolize the decay of Detroit. The building is a shambles. It’s owned by billionaire Matty Morourn, who hasn’t invested anything in its maintenance and probably never will as long as he remains embroiled in a dispute with various government agencies over plans for another Detroit River crossing to Canada. (He owns the existing Ambassador Bridge and wants to build a twin span, while the state has a rival proposal). The previous Detroit City Council voted to condemn and demolish the building, sending Moroun the bill, but nothing has happened and the building just sits there forlorn. From the NYT:
Preservationists, business owners, state leaders and community activists are taking what feels like a last stab at saving the 97-year-old building before it goes the way of New York’s Pennsylvania Station or, more locally, Tiger Stadium and countless other pieces of old Detroit that have fallen to the wrecking ball in recent years.
Among the recent proposals have been to turn the cavernous brick, steel and stone facade into an extreme sports castle; a casino; a hotel and office park; a fish hatchery and aquarium; an amphitheater; or a railway station again, with high-speed trains.
Or just clean and secure it, and leave it the way it is as an attraction for tourists.
It is still a magnet for urban explorers and photographers from around the world. On various Facebook pages, it has more than 15,000 fans and friends. Phillip Cooley, a restaurant owner who lives across a park from the station, estimates that about 30 sightseers a day show up at its locked gate, cameras raised. He calls the building “an education.”
This notion of securing the Michigan Central Depot, and other “industrial ruins” Detroit and converting them into tourist attractions as ruins is a good one that should be explored.
(Photo Shane Gorski/Flickr via Infrastructurist)
I realize full well this is the type of suggestion that, when it comes from an outsider, infuriates locals. But hear me out.
Detroit has a vast supply of decayed and vacant buildings, many of them architectural treasures. Even if MCD is somehow restored, it will be one of only a handful saved, while so many others will languish for some time. Many, like the Lafayette Building, may become so damaged that they have to be torn down.
What if instead of spending a huge amount of money to try to save one building, the city found a little bit of money to do basic maintenance to preserve the structural integrity of many buildings – and create a safe path through parts of them that tourists could walk through similar to how ancient ruins are displayed in Europe. Heck, don’t even clean the buildings up. That saves money and makes them even more impressive to visitors. This could preserve more structures for the long haul, and create a tourist attraction. The structures can always been renovated later when demand warrants.
Actually, the tourists are already coming whether it is authorized or not. Thirty folks a day at MCD is pretty impressive. Imaging putting a string of these sites together – probably including many of the same ones we’ve seen photographed before – and allowing tours. And of course marketing the heck out of it.
(Photo JBCurio/Flickr via Infrastructurist)
This idea also shows the type of thinking Detroit needs to be doing to build a future. Harvard business professor Michael Porter has stated that “competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique matrix of value.” The CEO’s for Cities “City Vitals” research identified four key dimensions of success, of which one is “distinctiveness”.
Being distinctive, being different, means you are doing things that most other people aren’t. It doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be different. There is plenty of scope for implementing best practices, such as complete streets. But you can’t hang your hat on that alone.
Imagine a Detroit with a light rail line on Woodward, bike lanes, art galleries, etc. That’s a nice vision, and those might do some good, but ultimately they are not really going to attract anyone to Detroit or create a unique offering there because there are plenty of places that already do those things better than Detroit ever will.
I’ve said before that Detroit is a big city with a powerful brand, the sort of place that can attract people. One possible way is to make Detroit the ultimate arena in which to prove out alternative visions of our urban future, a new American frontier where you can re-imagine and reinvent yourself and pursue wild and crazy urbanist dreams that would just plain be off limits anywhere else.
The concept of “embracing the ruins” goes right alone with this. What other city has such a supply of these or would dare step up to preserve them as ruins? I can’t name one. That’s distinctiveness for you, and distinctiveness that totally reinforces a possible brand image.
Frankly, we probably should preserve some of these in America. I’ve written before about the possibility that the enclosed mall might end up all but obliterated from the American landscape. So too the industrial ruin.
America should perhaps keep some reminders of the vanity of life and the follies of the industrial age, to the hubris that brought so many gains, but also so many ills – and one heckuva hangover – to our country. This might even be a legitimate place where federal assistance is warranted – to save these buildings from the wrecking ball and preserve them as national monuments to the industrial moment in America.
For another view on MCD, see Wayne Senville’s take.
There were more reports this week about Detroit’s plans to shrink itself. Unlike the Youngstown situation, where a more or less gradual and voluntary approach is being taken, it looks like Detroit is lining up to take stronger action to more or less decommission tracts of the city. According to the Associated Press:
Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”
Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly.
Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit’s plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown.
The Detroit News chimes in with a story on the locations of the most desolate neighborhoods.
The matter of the sheer scale of Detroit is worth noting again. Youngstown has a lot of great things going on, and I believe is on the right track. But it strikes me that a place like Youngstown is unlikely to attract many of the truly audacious dreamers that don’t have a pre-existing connection to the place. When you want to take on that challenge, it’s a city like Detroit or New Orleans that has the powerful brand to be a draw. I think this powerful brand is a huge asset of Detroit, a city known around the world.
This will be an interesting one to watch. I continue to be impressed with the leadership of Mayor Dave Bing and Detroit Public Schools financial receiver Robert Bobb. I’d put those two up against almost anyone in the country based on what I’ve seen so far. This gives Detroit one crucial advantage that is all too lacking in so many cities: quality leadership. We’ll see where it takes them.