Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

First Time to the D by Alan Sage

[ This week I kick off another two part mini-series on a city from guest authors, this time Detroit. First up this travel piece from Yale undergrad Alan Sage. Next week Pete Saunders will check in with a book review – Aaron. ]

In the urban studies seminar I took last semester, our professor saved one day of class to tackle a surprise subject, one he would choose about a week before based on what the urbanist community was most heatedly debating at the time. So it came as no surprise when he sent out Philipp Oswalt’s opus on shrinking cities and announced we would be discussing Detroit.

Coming into such a wide field as urban studies, especially in a school where there’s no cohesive urban studies program but rather a smorgasbord of classes in various departments catering to specific interests, caused me a fair degree of trouble in deciding where to focus my attention. But the idea of shrinking cities captivated me immediately, as I imagine it has many other urbanists, perhaps because it is so simple a problem yet spawns infinite creative solutions. Ideas like urban farming appeal to my analytical side: there’s a poetry to the simple theory that as land value returns to the level at which it depends on what the land can produce rather than larger economic forces, its owners ought to appropriate its usage accordingly. Neighborhood stabilization techniques involving the eased acquisition of adjacent vacant properties, like the one Mayor Dave Bing is piloting right now, offer the same beautiful simplicity, harking to the idea of country estates, now economically possible given Detroit’s current land values.

But as these ideas captivated me, I realized that they might make sense theoretically but not practically; after all, while it’s great if a farm can bring fresh produce to a food desert, one doesn’t necessarily want to be walking by cornfields in inner-city Detroit after coming home from a late show, and who knows what kind of brownfield remediation expenses might be required. Filled with questions like these, I decided I would make a trip to Motown during spring break to see the much-discussed metropolis with my own eyes. After some attempts to convince my academic compatriots that the Motor City promised everything anyone could want in a college spring break, I realized I would be voyaging alone. But that was okay—for my French class, I had been watching a language learning program called French in Action, a story which centers on an amicable college student named Robert who takes a semester off from school to travel alone to Paris and “find himself.” I figured I would create my own version of French in Action, promenading on Woodward, Grand River, Gratiot, Michigan, and Jefferson: the Champs-Élysées equivalents of a city once called the Paris of the Midwest.

I landed at Wayne County Metropolitan around one in the afternoon on a hazy Tuesday, armed with a backpack and the address of Hostel Detroit, a quirky lodging in Corktown that seemed to be the perfect fit for my purposes. As my cab exited the Fisher Freeway onto Rosa Parks Street, the driver asked me if I had ever been there before. He seemed a bit disconcerted about my purposes for going to the desolate locale in “North Corktown” (the “East Williamsburg” equivalent of Detroit). The hostel inhabits the northeast corner of Vermont and Spruce, streets whose names invoked in my mind the images of a bustling American downtown. But other than the hostel, the other corners are all barren lots.

I heard the faint hum of French Canadian radio as I entered the hostel’s welcoming common room. I sought out the source of what sounded like Edith Piaf and found Michel Soucisse, Hostel Detroit’s skinny-as-a-twig manager, whose patronizing “Oh baby, this is Detroit” I would come to expect as the consistent answer to my naïve questions about Motown.

I dropped my bag on the bed and Michel laid out a guide to Detroit on the table. I told him a bit about my urban studies background, and so he shared his thoughts on living in a shrinking city. Originally from Quebec, he told me that Detroit was a place where people who’ve rejected mainstream society can come to create a society based on alternative principles. I received my first “Oh baby” when I asked him how often the 37-Michigan bus comes and how I should plan on getting around the city.

Equipped with knowledge of which restaurants warranted a visit, I left the hostel and headed to Mudgie’s, a “high ideal” deli serving up large quantities of locally grown produce. Along the way, I traversed Michigan Avenue, which felt safe but a bit unsuitable for walking on account of the building-street width ratio. I realized I wasn’t all that familiar with this sort of uncomfortable walking sensation, having spent my childhood in New York, a city where building heights are rarely low enough to offer pedestrians that undesirable sensation.

The crowd at Mudgie’s was surprisingly diverse. I knew Detroit was a 80-plus percent African-American city, but having seen the handiwork of gentrifiers in New York I expected there to be a hard-and-fast divide between the different communities. (Anyway, if you find yourself in the neighborhood, the Ivy was a delicious vegetarian option at Mudgie’s.)

My sojourn next lead me to the People Mover, an infamous transportation folly that I felt obliged to experience. It was while riding up the escalator at the Fort/Cass station that I had the first taste of the eerie aesthetic of Detroit. The downtown is much like a 70s science fiction fantasy, what with an automated monorail that no one rides and the GM skyscrapers at the Renaissance Center, which seem like a lair of evil if there ever was one. Beneath Detroit’s drôle de métro, it seemed like the elite presided over a dystopian empire of misery. I certainly hope I don’t sound like a proponent of ruin porn, but I’m not trying to separate the city’s inhabitants from the changes in its built environment. Rather, this sci-fi-esque ambiance is a product of urban planning initiatives that sought to turn downtown Detroit into a safe haven for the elite completely separate from other residents of the hulking metropolis. The People Mover and skywalk systems seem designed to allow people never to have to set foot on the once mean streets of downtown, and any economic development professional can tell you this means less potential for small businesses to profit off of foot traffic. And the Renaissance Center doesn’t exactly invite pedestrians to enter after stepping off of a DDOT bus—I certainly felt uninvited as I attempted to cross Jefferson Avenue on a windy afternoon.

My first night in the Motor City concluded at Seva, a vegetarian restaurant behind a trendy gallery in Midtown, Detroit’s culture capital. As I nursed a glass of $3 rosé, I felt like Robert in French in Action as he nursed a kir in the Closerie des Lilas. I think part of why I continually felt a similarity between Paris and Detroit resided in the sense that both feel like places one goes to find oneself. Both are cities of great reputation, one famous and one infamous, but nonetheless places where it feels like incredible events are always on the brink of occurring.

I hopped on the 53-Woodward bus after dinner, and switched at the Grand Circus to the 18-Fenkell. Ford Field and Comerica Park were both nearby, and as I waited for the 18 I ruminated on what had led planners to place large temporal structures in the heart of downtown Detroit. It seemed as if in the great urban redevelopment efforts of Detroit planners had thought very “approximately” about the effect of projects. Sure, the People Mover certainly seems like it would attract riders since it goes to all the important downtown sights, but if every place it goes to is within a 10 minute walk why would anyone waste the time to take the train? Stadiums seem like they’ll revitalize a city since they attract large crowds, but they’re temporal structures, only serving their intended function for a small percentage of the time. Of course very few structures serve their purpose 24 hours a day (which is why planners prefer mixed-use developments these days), but any sports arena will be on the far low end, only attracting large crowds at very, very specific times, rarely for long enough to spur much by way of nearby development.

After a surprisingly restful night in the hostel’s group room, I started my morning off with breakfast at a coffee shop on Larned Street right under the People Mover. After some thoroughly mediocre over-medium eggs and a cup of hot, black coffee, I headed over to the Rosa Parks Transit Center, where I would dérive around the city, taking whatever bus line caught my eye. On a whim I eventually chose the 48-Van Dyke/Lafayette.

After leaving downtown, we passed by tranquil Lafayette Park, which my professor from freshman year (and esteemed urban planner in New York) Alexander Garvin had described as a truly successful towers-in-the-park project. It turned out Michel lived in Lafayette Park, and told me he would never reveal how little he paid for rent lest New Yorkers descend upon a too-good-to-be-true deal. Michel told me an older resident of Lafayette Park once told him that news of the ’67 riots didn’t reach the neighborhood until well after the fact. I commented that it seemed secluded and lacking much by way of commerce, and Michel agreed, but added that it wasn’t a problem since there were a few grocery stores within a few miles drive. Perhaps the rules of mixed development that have such profound impacts in walkable cities don’t quite apply in the kingdom of cars.

Soon the #48 bus entered the East Side of Detroit that is familiar to followers of the mainstream media. I suppose I would be rehashing to write in detail about the rows of empty lots, burnt out buildings, and high ratio of abandoned to occupied commercial structures. But one aesthetic element I found particularly captivating was the design of store signs: a good many of them are hand-drawn. Although these weren’t the districts conquered by the creative class, I was reminded of what Michel had told me about Detroit being a place full of creative freedom. In Detroit, land is cheap enough that people can start the kind of grocery store for which a whimsical, hand-drawn advertisement is more appropriate than computer-generated signage. These ideas were confirmed when I visited Heidelberg Street the following day.

The landscape felt absurd as we passed a stretch of Van Dyke adjacent to an almost completely-vacated district, not too far from City Airport. We paused at a railroad crossing, and everyone moaned as the lights started flashing and the arms came down. But a sigh of relief was breathed when the engine revealed itself not to be dragging a long train, but a single car. The ambiance of the moment and surrounding area made me feel a bit like I was in a Don Delillo novel; there was a certain absurdity to the colorful abandoned storefronts in the midst of empty grids and frequent railroad crossings serving ever-decreasing quantities of freight. I imagined a future in which the bus would pause for the passage of an engine carrying absolutely nothing. If planned shrinkage were ever to be politically feasible, I imagine some of these neighborhoods near the airport would be the first to go.

After my trip through the East Side, I walked through the Eastern Market, which sadly wasn’t open on a Tuesday, looking for somewhere to lunch. The deeply industrial feel of the area struck me. Huge trucks passed up and down Russell, and the sheds where the farmer’s market is held on Saturday were gargantuan. I was expecting to see the touristy sort of farmer’s market one finds in New York, which is more to offer the luxury of fresh produce than to serve any sort of utilitarian purpose. But Detroit’s Eastern Market is a powerhouse of commerce, a market to rival any of the greats in Taiwan or China.

I ended up dining at a Thai place called Sala Thai housed in the abandoned Fire House No. 5. After a quick Pad Thai, I went back to the hostel and then on a long walking tour of Woodbridge. Having wandered around the digital streets of Detroit on Google Maps before arriving in person, I imagined Woodbridge and Corktown as some of the most dangerous areas. They seemed to possess a great deal of urban prairie, and like a good student of Jane Jacobs, I posited this would mean fewer eyes on the street and thus danger. But something very strange has happened in a city shrinking as fast as Detroit: there are so few people in these districts that emptiness doesn’t mean danger. In that regard, it really is a lot like the countryside. Not to mention the clear lines of sight created by having empty lots in every direction.

When Michel told me what areas of the city to avoid, he explained that the parts generally regarded as most dangerous were those that formed a belt around the city. The far western parts of the city near Evergreen; the northern parts around 7 Mile and Dexter; and the eastern parts around Mack Avenue and Gratiot. Even a quick YouTube search on Detroit hip-hop will present one with rappers citing these neighborhoods as particularly infamous and dangerous to reckon with. One song is titled the “Linwood Dexter Way”; another simply “I’m from Seven Mile”; and there’s even a group called the “Gratiot Boyz.” But Woodbridge isn’t one of those areas a rapper would feel legitimate citing as perilous. A Buddhist temple and art galleries have felt comfortable entering the area, so I don’t imagine crime is at the kind of level where it becomes a daily concern in a resident’s life. The idea that what I’d dare call the least desirable neighborhoods (with a few exceptions, like the choice Palmer Woods areas) are in immediate proximity of the suburbs was certainly counter-intuitive to me. Cities very often disobey the notion of gradients one might expect to find.

My tour of Woodbridge concluded in Midtown, and as it was getting late, I stopped at Slow’s “To Go,” a branch of the famous barbeque joint whose ability to lure suburbanites to Corktown went as far as to attract the Times’ attention. I savored their delectable veggie chicken as I waited for the 16-Dexter bus on Cass Avenue. Of all the streets I saw in Detroit, I think Cass Avenue might have the greatest potential to be reborn as a vibrant urban thoroughfare. Its downtown portion offers sights of incredible architecture, like the dilapidated Hotel Eddystone. Up a little north, it passes by some quirky shops and a loft development on Canfield. Then you’ve got the university, the Detroit Institute of Arts (D.I.A.), and the Museum of Contemporary Art just a short walk away in Midtown, and the New Center at the end of Cass. I imagine other urban planners have had the same idea, since the Techtown incubator is located near the northern end of Cass. Combine all this with the street’s relatively small width, making it friendly to pedestrians, and pretty frequent transit service on the 16 line, and you’ve got a killer boulevard.

My last day in the D Michel gave me a tour of his favorite Detroit spots in his car, starting on Belle Isle and traveling through the Villages near the Manoogian Mansion. But he concluded his tour on Heidelberg Street, which remains my most prominent memory of this short adventure. For those unfamiliar with the Heidelberg Project, it’s the brainchild of an artist named Tyree Guyton, who came back to the neighborhood he grew up in after serving in the army during the Vietnam War only to find his neighborhood ravaged by the riots and ensuing neglect. And thus he unwittingly became one of the grandfathers of tactical urbanism, picking up a jar of paint and drawing polka dots on an abandoned house. Before long, he had transformed an entire street of abandoned houses into a tremendous art exhibit, and not one easily understood. The pieces range from the surreal to the deeply political, with human-sized fake syringes sticking out of the grass in one section, and stuffed animals overflowing from a house in another. Some of the project was destroyed by Coleman Young in the name of urban planning, but thankfully it still survives today, constantly changing with the whims of Tyree and the other artists who’ve collaborated on the Heidelberg Project.

To me, Heidelberg Street represents a deeply political reclamation of urban space, a willingness to take the built environment and make it represent the true feelings of a neighborhood, rather than paint over suffering in the name of improving the city. In the end, Heidelberg Street has achieved its artist’s goal of getting people to come into a neighborhood they once feared (and perhaps still fear), simply because it’s too original to miss. If it does contribute to the blight, which it may, its honesty makes it worth it.

I spent my last few hours in Detroit wandering up and down Woodward Avenue, taking in the much-celebrated Diego Rivera mural at the D.I.A. and visiting the old Fisher Theater in the New Center. I even stopped by a crêperie called “Good Girls Go to Paris” on Woodward Avenue, just for the sake of completing my French in Action fantasy.

At the end of the trip, I realized I wanted to write a piece about my experiences in the Motor City, capitalizing on the fact that I was there for a short enough time to have a feel for my visceral reactions—the emotions that would accompany a longer stay don’t cloud my vision. In my urban studies classes, I’ve found we as students have a tendency to confound the questions of how we do change a city in such-and-such way with how we should change a city.

They’re very different questions, and I think that at the end of the day planners should be concerned with how we do accomplish the feat rather than what feat we’re aiming for—that’s a decision for the citizenship. Thus I tried my very best to use my immediate feelings about Motown to guide my urban theory. If at the end of the day, Detroiters think the creative class is a plus for the city, simply because they expand the tax base, then that’s a decision they’ll have to weigh against gentrification. As a budding urbanist, my goal is to understand where each of these decisions may lead.

Alan Sage is an undergraduate at Yale University. He edits the Urban Collective blog for Yale’s urban studies organization.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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