Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Cities Need a “Deaccessioning Policy” for Public Assets

One of the major controversies following the appointment of Kevyn Orr as emergency financial manager for the city of Detroit has been the exploration of whether or not the art at the city-owned Detroit Institute of the Arts can or should be sold to satisfy creditors in the event of a bankruptcy filing. This obviously sent shock waves of indignation through the community.

Following on from that, the Detroit Free Press took a look at what other assets could be on the auction block. In addition to extremely valuable masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh and Matisse at the DIA, there are also classic cars at the city history museum, the animals at the zoo (estimated price of a female breeding giraffe: $80,000) and Belle Isle Park.

Obviously with $15-17 billion in long term debt and no way to pay it off, Detroiters are delusional if they don’t think they are going to face painful sacrifices. This is the day of reckoning for a region that has failed in its basic duties.

On the other hand, having an asset fire sale is not a good idea. Cities are not companies, where you can file Chapter 7 and liquidate. Indeed, cities can’t be forced to sell assets at all under bankruptcy, though certainly pressure can be brought to bear.

This reminds me of the approach that has too often be taken regarding privatization. Mayor Daley in Chicago seems to have selected assets for privatization not based on any public interest criteria, but based on where he thought he could generate cash. This seems to be common. What public assets have positive market value? Sell them off! Similarly, the Orr seems to be looking at Detroit’s assets merely as sources of cash.

NYT Economist Paul Romer presciently told me that better handling of assets in bankruptcy is a key issue for cities and something on which private sector restructurings might shed some light. Corporate bankruptcies not only restructure debts, they ensure assets are allocated productively. But municipal bankruptcy today is almost entirely about paying what is owed. “How can we make sure that civic assets end up used more efficiently in municipal bankruptcy?” Romer asked.

I think it’s a good question, and one that deserves thought well before bankruptcy emerges. Cities accumulate assets over time but often fail to manage them. Corporations suffer from the same issue, but there’s generally a more rigorous asset management approach. For example, when I was working in corporate technology, we held quarterly asset impairment reviews to ensure we fairly valued any capitalized assets on our balance sheet. We also performed application portfolio reviews to classify systems in terms of things like “invest and enhance”, “maintain”, or “retire” and formalized these in our annual SLAs with user groups.

Retiring assets is a hugely contentious issue anywhere. I’ve yet to not find a corporate software application that someone somewhere didn’t scream bloody murder about getting ride of. A common tactic for things like reports is for IT departments to simply stop producing one to see if anyone screams. (I one time launched a new system where the legacy environment that was being replaced had over 1,000 reports. We managed to go live on the new system with 15. Given that it has been in production for a long time now, I suspect they are back up to a thousand).

I really haven’t seen much in the way of analogous processes for government. But I think there should be. That is, there ought to be some type of criteria developed to articulate the public interest and policy goals with regards to assets, and then the existing asset based managed according to that. The idea is to invest limited resources wisely and make sure that the asset base of a city is being utilized properly. And when assets are to be disposed of, it’s not some emergency cash raising exercise.

When it comes to asset disposals, perhaps cities should in fact look to museums. They are organizations that hold precious assets in trust with the idea that they will be cared for in perpetuity. However, there’s also a recognition that disposing of artwork can sometimes be appropriate, if safeguards are put in place.

As one example of how to do it right, the Indianapolis Museum of Art developed a formal deaccessioning policy that includes reasons for disposing of art work, the process for doing it, and restrictions on the use of proceeds. They also maintain a deaccessioning database where the public can review and comment on artwork that is proposed to be disposed of, and see which works were sold and where the proceeds actually went.

Something analogous for cities, along with an actively managed process for asset review and management, might help help avert these frantic searches through the attic looking for heirlooms to sell and such. It would also provide a robust framework for saying No to privatizations and/or asset sales. Otherwise there will be no way to separate the signal from the noise because some group of people will always complain loudly when you want to do something.

It might be too late for Detroit to do something like this at this point, but other cities should look to develop more rigorous asset management policies and procedures.

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong

Pretty much everyone is being forced to come to grips with the reality of the 21st century urban world. I’ve noted before that religious movements are no exception. As part of this trend, Christianity Today magazine has been doing a project called “This Is Our City” focused on urban issues. They’ve been profiling several cities during the course of the project, and this month’s city is Detroit.

I’m delighted to have an article about Detroit included as part of this. It’s called “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong.” In it I note how Detroit as a city is often little more than a movie screen onto which others project their ideas. Thus many of the reports you see about Detroit bear little resemblance to reality. Here’s an excerpt:

We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That’s not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we’d never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as “Rust Belt”—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.

But there’s a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit’s fate. In some ways the city has become America’s movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called “ruin porn” shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing how many of these are nearly devoid of actual people.
Many of these are clear variations on the “canary in a coal mine” theme: If we as a broader society don’t change our ways, we will end up like Detroit. This is in marked contrast to say a “Rust Belt” label or the various movie stereotypes of New York, which are at least rooted in some local reality. What makes Detroit’s projected identities different is that they largely are rooted in a reality external to Detroit itself. Whatever your pet idea or phobia, Detroit seems to be the perfect lens through which to explore it, and the screen upon which you can project it.

You might also be interested in perusing the other Detroit articles on the site, especially “Faith in a Fallen Empire,” and also “Why Church Partnerships Really Matter,” which discusses the Everyone A Chance to Hear (EACH) initiative that brought together a large number of regional churches in one of the few movements that is really working to bridge the city-suburb and racial divides that plague the city.

Here also is an interesting video about Riet Schumack and the youth gardening program she’s part of there. It’s an interesting window into an aspect of the urban agriculture movement that might be bigger in Detroit than anywhere else. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).


Religion and the City
Desolation Angel
Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?
Faith and City Planning

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Detroit Future City

Last week the Detroit Works Project released their long awaited strategic plan for the city. This is the one led by Toni Griffin that produced a lot of public controversy because of suggestions it would result in the planned shrinkage or decommissioning (or even forced residential relocations) in sparsely populated neighborhoods.

Called “Detroit Future City,” this plan doesn’t shy away from facing the tough realities that face Detroit, but its recommendations are somewhat muted with regards to shrinkage. Nevertheless, the message is clear: in a broke, declining city, neighborhood triage is a must.

The full document is 184 pages. I perused it, but wasn’t able to review at the level of detail I normally like to. Partially this is because it was published in a hyper-annoying “cinemascope” type format that makes it almost impossible to read on screen without magnification and lots of horizontal scrolling. This aspect of the plan’s publication was an immediate knock against it in my view. However, it will share a few observations I gleaned.

Neighborhood Development

The plan is notable for admitting that Detroit can never be repopulated. In fact, its only goal is to stabilize population loss 20 years from now, and settle in for a population of 600-800,000 people, or approximately the same as now.

The plan is frank about the scale of the challenges, including 150,000 vacant and abandoned parcels, empty land equal to the area of Manhattan, and vastly oversized infrastructure relative to the population and industrial base, along with poor service delivery in areas ranging from public safety (Detroit has the second highest violent crime rate in the country) to street lighting (about half of the street lights don’t work).

Part of that does involve identifying how to deploy infrastructure in neighborhoods. Here’s a graphic on that which will no doubt get some airplay:

Some areas are slated for upgrades, others reductions, and some perhaps “decommissioning.”

The strength of the plan, however, is in its approach to development in which the core concept is to develop a multi-nodal network of neighborhoods, and to have neighborhoods that are strategically differentiated from each others. This is very different from the core-centric or “hub and spoke” model that exists today, and is somewhat similar to my “100 Monument Cirles” concept for Indianapolis. Suffice it to say, I like it. What was missing from this was strengthening neighborhood identify, something Pete Saunders identified as a key weakness of the city.

A lot of the content behind this is disappointingly standard, however. The focus is green infrastructures, transit, mixed use neighborhoods, etc. This is basically planning conventional wisdom that would be at home in lots of different cities.

I was pleased to see that they de-emphasized rail transit. Only the M-1 light rail on Woodward remains. The rest of the core network would be BRT. I’d argue that reliable and higher frequency “plain old bus service” is the core need, however. There’s the proposed transit map:

Some may decry this, but in a city that’s over-infrastructured as it is, the last thing you need is more physical plant to maintain over time.

And perhaps the focus on green is to some extent understandable given the vast quantity of vacant land in Detroit. One of their intriguing concepts is “landscape as infrastructure”, though it didn’t fully connect with me. They did talk about ideas like medium intensity agriculture and new urban forest typologies. The Hanzt Farm example shows this already underway.

Lastly, the focus, and especially the near term recommendations around, regulatory restructuring is critical. Detroit benefits today from a sort of laissez-faire environment because government is so ineffective. If government effectiveness were restored, it could easily strangle the good things happening in Detroit, which are largely non-conforming. The answer is to get the regulatory system up to date with what we want to see. I would have preferred to see some types of harder targets around this, such as “85% of new development approved as of right.”

Economic Development

The plan considers boosting the number of jobs in Detroit as the most important mission. The city today has the 5th lowest number of jobs per resident of any of the top 100 cities in America, this despite large population losses. Jobs in the city are needed both for residents and rebuild the tax base.

The numbers on this seemed a bit squishy though. The report says that there is one job for ever four residents of Detroit. As there are about 700,000 residents, this would mean about 175,000 jobs. Yet they say there are 350,000 jobs. (If the resident figure included only working age adults, the projected number of current jobs would be even lower than my estimate).

The goal by 2030 is to increase this to between 2 and 3 jobs for every resident. This implies simply staggering job growth. Their mid-point population estimate for 2030 is still 700,000, so to go from 0.25/1 to 2/1 or 3/1 implies 700-1100% job growth. This is a CAGR of 11-13% – off the charts. To put it in perspective, metro Houston’s job growth CAGR from 2000 to 2011 was only 1.3%.

I may be totally off base on what they were getting at in these numbers, but having solid and realistic projections is critical, and, alas, all too rare. Unrealistic growth rate assumptions are common in civic plans, as I highlighted in the example of Cincinnati’s Agenda 360 plan.

[ Update 1/16: I was contacted by someone from the study's technical committee indicating that the 2 or 3 jobs per resident figure was an error in the PDF that was not present in the official version of the plan. There are apparently about 193,000 jobs in the city, with the plans actual goal a doubling of that over 30 years. Still ambitious, but not mathematically impossible. ]

The job growth is projected to come from four key target sectors: eds and meds, digital and creative, industrial, and local entrepreneurship. These sectors are reasonable as these things go given where Detroit is, but seem unlikely to drive the major growth they seek, excepting possibly entrepreneurship.

Neither Wayne State nor Detroit’s health care/life science infrastructure is nation leading. Every city and state in America is chasing eds and meds, and as I noted, the great growth curve in these industries may be over. Additionally, the trend nationally seems to be towards more decentralization of health care infrastructure in metro areas. While I’m sure there will be some growth here, I’m not optimistic about major expansion.

Similarly, digital and creative jobs are the fad du jour. I strongly doubt anyone will even consider there to be categories of jobs called “digital” or “creative” by 2030. These will be absorbed into industry generally. These are also the same types of sectors being pursued everywhere. Detroit certainly has a concentration of these because of its auto design cluster and just simply being a big city. But other than autos, does it really have a competitive advantage here? The big expansion opportunity would seem to be mostly suburban relocations of the type spearheaded by Dan Gilbert. I wonder how much gas is left in that tank, however.

The other two are more promising. Local entrepreneurship is a catch-all, but clearly indigenous startups are a great way to boost the economy. The report’s focus on equipping and facilitating minority entrepreneurship was especially relevant. Given the collapse of the city, Detroit’s residents have had to become innovative and self-sufficient of necessity. These skills from the school of hard knocks are in many ways worth much more than formal education when it comes to starting a business. If the city can figure out how to marry these “survival skills” of residents with a commercial orientation, it could be powerful. The same recipe of figuring how to do business in unstable and tough environments is common in the Middle East, where there’s a longstanding entrepreneurial and trading tradition. Unsurprisingly, Middle Easterners have been prominent among those who’ve thrived in Detroit. The challenge is how to activate the similar skills in other ethnicities for business purposes.

Industrial employment would also seem to be a possible area of growth, but not in the way envisioned in this plan. Industrial employment has been in decline, and new industrial facilities have tended to locate in outlying areas, not traditional urban manufacturing zones.

However, there are types of industrial businesses that can have a hard time finding a home. For places that are willing to welcome them, there could be opportunity. I noted this around the heavy industrial zone in Northwest Indiana.

This involves being willing to take on more brown than green industry, however. And it raises a whole host of issues around environmental justice, etc. However, Detroit, as this plan notes, is desperate for jobs. Trade-offs at least need to be considered. Rather than “focusing on the look and feel” of industrial areas, as the plan put it, why not roll out the red carpet for businesses like tanneries, scrap metal processing, etc. that are increasingly unwelcome in places like Chicago? Being friendly to to these types of businesses is probably the most likely road to success in industrial employment.


On first read, there’s some interesting stuff in here. They plan is less creative than I’d hoped overall, but probably takes the most aggressive line that was politically realistic. The real questions is, what happens next? Can any of this actually be actioned, or will fiscal and other problems effectively render it a dead letter? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Detroit – America’s Whipping Boy by Pete Saunders

[ Pete Saunders has another great article for us on Detroit. Don't forget to check out his blog - Aaron. ]

The “Detroit” we’ve all come to love — and expect

Every so often, Detroit seems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way.  Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City.  Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit.  The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement. 

But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go.  America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy. 

Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England.  I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:

They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.

Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of
the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for
something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince
would not make the same mistake again
(emphasis added).

If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.

I grew up in Detroit.  Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family.  I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams.  I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet.  And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city.  I heartily root for the city’s revitalization.

I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path.  As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix.  I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings.  I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking such a defiant political stance on most issues that he may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion.  And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”.  That kind of environment might prompt – did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better.  I was first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.

It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did.  The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape.  It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.

In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions.  The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit.  The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling.  The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother.  And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise. 

Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit.  Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings.  Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing.   Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”.  The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy.  At worst, they are poorly educated and isolated miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th (“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.

There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America.  You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville.  You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix.  You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.  And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.  You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country.  Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?

The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here.  City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling
infrastructure.  By doing this they can garner support for (or just as likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city?  We could become like Detroit!

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad, or even worse, in their own communities.  I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip.  No one immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit.  Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it.  Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions.  Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing.  Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions.  Or the Big Three.  Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters.  Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption.  And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people.  We are not you, they say, because we made better choices.  But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives.  This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.

Detroit needs a reprieve.  It needs a second chance.  Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future.  There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them?  There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products.  There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick.  There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back.  Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.

More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique.  It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large.  America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city.  Detroit has paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.

By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems.  There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership.  Dealing with foreclosures.   Crushing income inequality and economic disparities.  Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads.  Crumbling infrastructure.  Unsustainable sprawl development.  The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt.  That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.

But I look at Detroit like this.  To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on October 16, 2012.

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Film Review: Detropia

Trailer for Detropia. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

I was lucky to get to see Detropia, a buzz-laden documentary about Detroit, at the UMass-Boston film series, where Heidi Ewing, one of the film makers, was present for a post-screening discussion. Ewing, incidentally, grew up in suburban Detroit.

The title is an interesting word play. It’s a portmanteau of ambiguous meaning. It could be a combination of “Detroit” with either “utopia” or “dystopia,” though as the bleak civic outlook suggests, the latter is far more appropriate. The film provides a look into the lives of various Detroiters. There’s no real story here, no narrative, just a look as if through a window into a portion of the civic experience. The lack of any real relatedness between the characters fuels the sense of disconnectedness in the film. Though billed as a sort of cautionary tale about America, and explicitly intended to provoke political discussion per Ewing, it isn’t exactly clear what conclusions we are supposed to draw from it, or how it would inform any real debates or decision making as the core conflicts and issues are not addressed in sufficient depth to enable that.

The story focuses on three black principals: Tommy Stevens (the backbone character of the film), owner of a blue-colar blues bar called the Raven Lounge; George MacGregor, president of a UAW local; and Crystal Starr, a barista and video blogger. They are all thoughtful and likeable characters. A corresponding trio of white minor character groupings fill out most of the rest of the cast: an newly arrived artist couple, a group of metal scrappers, and the Michigan Opera Theater (admittedly shown in a multicultural way, but I think representing a stereotypically white endeavor and with a healthy dose of white faces).

The film has gotten good reviews, and most of them have heavily focused on the expert and stylish film making. It’s well done on many levels. I won’t repeat all those other reviews here, but suffice it to say that the film is worth seeing on an aesthetic basis alone.

However, being beautiful is only part of a film. The story you are actually telling is important too, particularly in a documentary work. Detropia, while it has some very strong points, also has a number of weaknesses that have been overlooked by the critics.

The biggest win for the film was its prescient prediction of the failure of the Chevy Volt. Stevens’ bar, the Raven Lounge, is only a few blocks from a shuttered GM plant. The plant closure naturally hurt his business. When he hears that the new electric Chevy Volt will be built there, he’s excited at the prospects. However, on checking out the Volt at the auto show, he notices serious problems, notably the short distance it can travel on a charge, and the high price tag, particularly in comparison to new Chinese competitors. He’s very clear that he thinks that dog won’t hunt – and he’s right.

Ewing uses that to great effect to show the hope springs eternal nature of Detroit’s civic thinking, in which the Big Three are perpetually just one new hit car away from being “back.” Not only is this “next big thing” thinking a failure in its own right, but the hits never quite come. That a bar owner can instantly see this while GM’s executives apparently could not is telling.

Similarly, as some New York Times commenters noted, the young men who raid abandoned buildings for scrap metal seem to have a much firmer grip on economic reality than auto company executives. They know the current market prices for their goods, and even understand how their work fits into the global supply chain. Presumably they also make a profit.

Another standout, and moving, scene was that of MacGregor’s UAW local receiving news of American Axle’s new wage proposals, ones that include big pay cuts for people who are barely earning a living wage as it is. Some workers would have seen pay drop from $14.35/hr to $11/hr. $14.35 is only about $30,000 a year – hardly the wage of a labor aristocrat. Imagine trying to support a family – housing, transportation, food, etc – on only $11/hr. Here we see the destruction of the American middle class as a real life work in progress. This a type of scene that’s been replayed far too often across America. (The UAW rejected the proposal outright and the plant closed).

However, the labor scenes also show the weakness of the film. There was a clearly one sided presentation of the facts designed to elicit maximum labor sympathy. Detropia mentions a Cadillac plant that closed and was, according to the UAW rep, moved to Mexico. However, GM also built a new state of the art Cadillac plant in Lansing in recent years that makes the CTS we see MacGregor driving. That wasn’t mentioned. The film notes the large pay cuts new UAW workers are expected to take, without showing how existing workers emerged from the bankruptcies with far less damage than other stakeholders. Delphi’s union retirees, for example, got a special pension top up from a bankrupt GM to keep them 100% whole while non-union retirees were out of luck and saw their pensions slashed 70%. The UAW came away owning a good slug of GM, and the hourly wages discussed in the American Axle example don’t fairly represent what Big Three assembly workers enjoy. The presentation was so one-sided and with an obvious political ax to grind it’s no wonder no company representatives would agree to be interviewed by these film makers.

In the Q&A, UMass-Boston film curator Chico Colvard keyed in on the role of the artists in the film (and a pair of briefly-featured Swiss tourists in town to check out “decay”) as ambivalent figures. On the one hand, they represent new blood for a city that desperately needs it. On the other, they are seen as interlopers or even parasitical, making their art and career from the wreckage of other people’s cities.

I thought this was very effectively communicated visually. The artists treat Detroit like a gigantic stage set. They seem oblivious to and disconnected from the experience of Detroit, except inasmuch as it provides them with low-rent opportunities to experiment. The scenes of them in gold gas masks, used heavily in promotional materials, reveal them as an almost literal alien presence in the city, invaders from outer space.

Ewing enthusiastically endorsed this analysis. She said that hearing the term “blank slate” used in reference to Detroit “pisses me off” as Detroit is a richly historic city. She also railed against NYT style romanticizing of the city’s new artistic arrivals.

Alas, Colvard failed to ask the obvious follow-up: What makes Ewing any different? How is her film different from the rest of the ruin porn review? She gave no indication that she’d ever considered this question.

Indeed, Ewing and co-director Rachel Grady are exactly like that young artist couple, except that those artists actually live in Detroit. They are using the raw material of that city and its residents to make their art and reputations. Colvard described Detropia as the “hottest film on the indie circuit,” so this seems to be working out for them. If their film seems less creepy than avant-garde street performances in gas masks, it’s only because they have more flair and a stronger commercial orientation.

I’m not necessarily saying that Ewing and Grady deserve to be castigated for making this film. But based on this discussion, Ewing at least seems oblivious to being a part of the very system she seems to view with ambivalence if not outright negativity.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and potential conflict in telling the stories of Detroit, to say nothing of actually turning it around. This was explored in the film but is something that deserved more attention, as solving it is the key to moving the city forward.

Ewing’s own reaction to the blank slate meme, and some of her subjects’ reaction to the idea of shrinking Detroit, bring out the “It’s our city” attitude that so many people have towards Detroit. Young upscale white knowledge workers and not-from-Michigan artists are seen as invaders. The shrinkage plan is seen as a way to turn over large tracts of the city to white investors. And there’s an element of truth in these.

Yet, unless someone from the outside sees in Detroit an opportunity for themselves, either personally or as an investor, how will the city ever come back? Ewing decries the paternalism that left the city dependent on the fortunes and good will of three major employers. But what to replace it with? Without that indigenous paternalism, it seems impossible that Detroit will ever see the investment needed to start a turn-around without a new group of stakeholders who have their own ideas about the city and what it should be. People are not just going to mail Detroit checks.

This will be a very bitter pill to swallow for many people who have stuck it out in Detroit through the decline, only to see opportunists swoop in. The high profile and racially charged debates over the Cobo Hall renovations, a state receivership, and a state takeover of Belle Isle all illustrate this. Successfully navigating this will be an enormous challenge, but is clearly of huge importance to the future of the city. Detroit needs new blood and new investors. But where is the benefit to the city if the people who live there are excluded? Cities are, after all, about people, not buildings. The people of Detroit are not wholly innocent in the matter of their city’s decline. Yet as with a Greek tragedy, the punishment is excessively disproportionate to the transgression.

Speaking of which, Ewing attempted to encourage the crowd with what to me was a startling statement. She said, “Young people in their 20s are talking about the heydays of Detroit as if they lived them. I can’t think of any city with a stronger sense of nostalgia.” She intended this as a positive but it is clearly one of the reasons the city has gone down the tubes. Nostalgia to any degree of excess is a profoundly corrosive force. It locates the apex of a civilization in an imagined past that never really was, and often inspires bitterness at the supposed forces that destroyed it. The decline of manufacturing would have been an enormous challenge to the Midwest in any event. But when it is populated with people who cling stubbornly to any lost threads of a disappearing past rather than turning forward to make a new future – and the “next hit car” and “it’s our city” ideas are both part of this – that makes success nearly impossible, as Detropia makes that all too clear for the Motor City.

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A few recent news stories caught my eye that I wanted to highlight.

Transport Tax Crushed at the Polls in Atlanta

The proposed sales tax increase in Atlanta that would have funded a large capital program for transit and highways went down to a bigtime defeat. This was interesting since capital referendums generally seem to do well.

There’s still a lot to process on this. Richard Layman had some thoughts on his blog that are worth a read. A couple things stuck out at me.

First is the unlikely anti-tax coalition of the Tea Party, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP. When I noted how the Tea Party types and the NAACP had joined forces in Cincinnati to oppose a streetcar, I was assured by locals this was not the start of a trend but came from the personalities involved. But here we see it again. I’m not sure if this is the start of a trend or not, but it’s something to watch. I’ve noted for a while now that the populist wings of the left and the right are fed up with the establishments of their respective parties. At some point could there be a left-right populist alliance against the big money interests? I’m not saying that’s the case here, but there are interesting points to ponder.

The second is where this leaves at Atlanta. As I noted in my piece “Is It Game Over for Atlanta?.” this is a troubled region that lost huge amounts of jobs, saw the worst erosion of per capita income of pretty much any big city, and even saw per capita GDP declines. And it’s choked with traffic and other assorted infrastructure ills. Meanwhile, places like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Nashville offer a lot of the Atlanta experience without the same level of problems. Atlanta is no longer the only game in town in the Southeast. Maybe a big infrastructure program isn’t what Atlanta needs, but if not, what’s the plan?

Lastly, with the federal spigot drying up and states broke, urban regions are going to have to find ways to invest in their own highway and transit infrastructure the way they’ve largely invested in their own airports. We see many cities stepping up and voting in infrastructure spending (albeit excessively skewed to transit in my view) while others vote it down. If this keeps going, we’ll get a real life test of where the choice of investment vs. disinvestment gets you.

Google’s Motorola Mobility Unit Moving to Downtown Chicago

In the wake of Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility, it is moving the headquarters and 3,000 employees downtown from suburban Libertyville. This is being touted as a huge coup for Chicago’s tech hub ambitions.

From a regional perspective, this is a net nothing. However, it clearly goes to show the ongoing power of the Chicago Loop not just as a tourist and quasi-public sector downtown like so many, but as a bona fide commercial powerhouse. I can’t prove this with data, but it seems to me that Chicago may have the strongest trend of any city in America of corporate relocations from the suburbs to downtown.

This is also a tribute to Rahm Emanuel’s star power. Economic development via Rahm’s Rolodex appears to be working. He started courting Google’s then CEO-Eric Schmidt for major investment in the city some time ago. This goes to show the advantage a city like Chicago has. Very few cities have mayors that can get any CEO in the country on the phone whenever they want. Chicago does.

On the other hand, I can’t agree with the schadenfreude some are feeling over the prospect of wind swept parking lots at vacant suburban office complexes. This is really no different than suburbanites who left rejoicing over the city’s ills. Ultimately, Chicagoland is a single economic region. And I hate to break it to you, but while moves like this make huge headlines, the majority of the economic and population growth will continue to be in the suburbs. At some point the burbs may get fed up with Rahm’s poaching, and that would bode ill for the type of regional cooperation that’s critical needed to move the area forward. I think Rahm should think about bringing his era of active recruitment of suburban firms to a close in the reasonably near future.

Why Detroit Deserves to Lose

Yet another saga out of Detroit illustrates why this city and region have fallen so far. The city has been hemorrhaging people and jobs for decades, has likewise been mis-managed for decades, and is flat broke. Basically, the city would go bankrupt without state financial support. Unsurprisingly, when the state gives you money, they put strings on it. This has resulted in a big tussle back and forth over the degree of state control, some of which is legitimate and natural.

But a recent debate over the future of Belle Isle, a Frederick Law Olmsted designed park on an island in the Detroit River that’s owned by the city, has shown the type of attitude that’s held Detroit back so long.

The city is broke and can’t afford the park anymore. The park also needs major repairs. The state said they’d take it over under a long term lease as a state park and make the investment to fix it up. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Apparently not to Detroit’s leadership, which has gone apoplectic. Saying “hands off our island” they are protesting state control over the park. What do they want instead? It’s pretty simple. As someone put it, “state support without state control.” In other words, give us your money and go away.

This is the exact same attitude Detroit has taken on everything. It’s why, for example, the Cobo Center sat in a decrepit state for so long with no action, for example. Detroit wanted suburbanites to pay, but wanted the city to retain control of the asset. We’ve seen where this has gotten Detroit.

Regarding Belle Isle, Mayor Dave Bing said, “I have never in my 46 years in this city seen a governor of the state of Michigan involved in city politics like this one.” Given the state of Detroit today, one can’t help but ask, what took the state so long? It should have intervened long ago.

As always, Detroit’s leaders continue to try to point the blame at outside people and forces instead of taking a cold hard look in the mirror. These guys just aren’t serious.

Louisville Aging Cluster

The New York Times has a piece on Louisville’s efforts to build an economic cluster around care for the aging. I can’t say how successful this is likely to be, but I think it illustrates good thinking. Everybody and their brother is saying their economic future is some variant of life sciences (and high tech, advanced manufacturing and logistics, and green tech). They can’t all win in those general markets. And Louisville in my view really isn’t that well positioned.

So rather than try to make some big generalized push, the idea is to look for a specialized part of the industry where you do have more leading capabilities, and try to focus on that. That’s exactly what Louisville is doing here with aging care. There are supposedly something like 500 local companies doing work related to that. It’s also right down the rails of the demographic changes happening in America and the world. We’ll see how this plays out, but this sort of more specialized thinking is how cities ought to be looking at economic development strategies.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Detroit Rising

I’m assuming most of you by now have seen Atlantic Cities, the new urbanism focused site from the Atlantic magazine. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should. There’s tons of good stuff there, the biggest problem with it being that there’s so much, it’s hard to keep up.

They just finished up running a five part video series called Detroit Rising that’s worth a look. Here’s the intro piece on the state of Detroit featuring Richard Florida. (The video won’t display in Google Reader, etc. so click here to view it).

For the rest of the series, please kick over to Atlantic Cities. Remaining parts are:

Detroit’s Creative Potential
The Faces Behind Detroit’s Rebirth
The Businesses That Will Lead Detroit
The Future of Detroit

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Detroit: A Biography – A Review by Pete Saunders

[ You may remember Pete Saunders from his piece on the reasons behind Detroit's behind. I've long found Pete's insights provocative. I'm glad to report he is now blogging himself on his own blog called "The Corner Side Yard." Today he graciously shares another Detroit piece for us here, this time a review of Scott Martelle's new book, "Detroit: A Biography" - Aaron. ]

When I first got my review copy of Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle, I did the unthinkable: I started by reading the epilogue. I wanted to know right from the start where the author stood on the future of Detroit. Did his research suggest that revitalization is approaching, or even possible? Admittedly, my first reading of the epilogue seemed to be a repudiation of Detroit, that the city’s legacy has condemned it to failure.

Such is the defensive posture of a native Detroiter.

Reading the book from start to finish is an entirely different experience. Martelle constructs a well-detailed and finely crafted narrative of Detroit’s history, from its founding as a French outpost in 1701 to the present day (although Martelle glosses over much of the last decade or so, likely believing that the city’s die had been sufficiently cast). The book reads a lot like Detroit’s history – slow yet building over the city’s first two centuries; fast-paced and chaotic after the introduction and rapid growth of the auto industry; slower-paced, exasperated yet reflective as decline sets in. The historical narrative is interspersed with chapter interviews of native Detroiters who offer their insight on the past, present and future of the city. Martelle brings liveliness to the narrative, and his meticulous research is evident. It truly is a biography.

Detroit’s early history was really no different from its Great Lakes peers of Buffalo, Cleveland and Milwaukee, which all had varying degrees of French settlement, British rule and American growth. There is a lot of discussion about the French role in the creation of development patterns in Detroit – the ribbon farms – that led to a highly privatized riverfront. Once the French were gone and the British took over, there is similarly a lot of discussion about the contemptuous and oftentimes violent ways the British military elected to engage southeast Michigan’s Native Americans. The French and British did more to shape Detroit’s character than most realize.

Detroit, like the others, transitioned from regional trading center specializing in iron ore and lumber, to becoming a craftsman’s heaven building horse carriages, stoves and other metalworks. Interestingly, the author notes that late 19th and early 20th century Detroit was known as a top cigar-producing center. Who knew? But the number of skilled workers in the carriage-building and metalworks industries set the stage for the development of the “horseless carriage” industry in Detroit.

Of course, the singular power behind the founding and growth of the auto industry in Detroit is Henry Ford. Martelle is quick to make the well-known point that Ford did not invent the automobile; there were a number of “tinkerers” around the world, even others in Michigan. But he was in a position to take advantage of the local capital and skilled workforce to get the Ford Motor Company off the ground.

Martelle also alludes to the fact that as Ford the company grew, Ford the man’s flaws took root as pathologies to Detroit’s character. Ford’s aggressive business policies were well known and emulated; his racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic leanings are acknowledged; his staunch anti-union sentiments led to bloody battles between the company and workers; his unwillingness to leave lasting institutions in Detroit, like an Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh, set the template for other Detroit industrialists.

The author paints a picture of Detroit breezing through the first third of the 20th century as the Silicon Valley of its time. Most people likely believed that economic growth alone would solve whatever underlying problems may exist, and there were many. Tensions grew as southern and eastern European immigrants competed for assembly line jobs with longer-established Scotch-Irish and German immigrants. Tensions further grew as African-American migrants moved up from the South for jobs, particularly during and after World War I.

Job competition intensified as the Great Depression emerged, and the rigid but informal segregation patterns in the city led to housing competition as well. The boiling tensions made Depression-era Detroit one of the most brutal places to be in America. The tremendous population growth of the previous decades was not supported by similar housing growth in Detroit, which made the city’s Depression housing shortage one of the most acute in the nation. The collapse of the auto industry at the same time made Detroit’s unemployment the worst in the nation. And the union battles of the time made the labor situation one of the most contentious in the nation.

This was Detroit’s second critical moment, after the explosive growth of the auto industry. City leaders and industrialists elected to let the economy sort out the city’s growing pains when things went well, and they again elected to let the economy do its thing as the city faced its first existential crisis. They were right – in the short term. Detroit emerged as the “Arsenal of Democracy” that built the armory that saved America and Europe. However, the lack of action by city leaders and industrialists had long term impacts that became evident after World War II.

It is at this point in the book that a fascinating set of what-ifs are implied by the author:

• What if there had been better early cooperation between the auto industry and unions?
• What if the industrialists like Ford had established enduring local institutions?
• What if the housing and overcrowding issues had been dealt with differently?
• What if Detroiters had had local representation (i.e., wards or districts) that could have represented the wishes of diverse residents and forestalled or diffused tensions?
• What if Detroit had become a defense contracting center that could’ve led post- World War II growth?

Unfortunately, Detroit’s leaders did not appear to be asking themselves these questions at the time.

Martelle then argues that Detroit’s path after 1950 is one of social and economic decline. Detroit becomes the epicenter of a Supreme Court legal battle on housing racial covenants; efforts by white residents to violently intimidate blacks from moving into all-white neighborhoods become commonplace. White flight has its start in Detroit well before it does in other major cities. The Auto Big Three (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) decide to control more of the manufacturing process themselves and put the squeeze on auto parts suppliers. They begin to shift manufacturing jobs first to the suburbs, then to the South, then out of the country. Finally, the riot of 1967 begins to solidify the image of Detroit as being out of control.

The author is clear about the challenges that face Detroit today. Racial animosity and mistrust, usually couched in city vs. suburbs terms, is at a level virtually unmatched in the nation. Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, is often viewed as the wedge that widened the divide between white and black in Detroit. However, Martelle portrays him as someone who wanted Detroiters to directly confront its racial legacy, but was still nurturing the resentments of his segregated upbringing. Meanwhile, he paints many whites as believing that past indignities experienced by blacks are indeed past, and are resentful of the management of the city after they left it. But who can manage a city when jobs and middle class residents flee?

I read the epilogue again after reading the rest of the book. The second time around it read like a lament, a cry of sorrow and anguish for the city that gave us not only the automobile, but the idea of a stable middle class. Martelle clearly demonstrates that Detroit was uniquely impacted by national and global trends and policies, and that any city established in the same fashion would have suffered the same fate. Sadly, however, he says that the nation has left Detroit behind, and wonders if the nation will ever repay the debt it owes to the Motor City.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

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.

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Detroit on Film

The power of “Brand Detroit.” I’ve talked about it many times. It’s the power of a city that draws the world’s attention. Not all of it good, but attention nevertheless. In a region of cities that all too often see themselves as lacking identity to themselves much less a brand in the world, Detroit stands apart. Like a Chicago or Los Angeles, the stories of Detroit overflow the page. This is a place with resonance. A place that matters.

One way this manifests itself is in the huge number of books, articles, photos, and films that have been made of the city. Recently Brewed Fresh Daily out of Cleveland pointed me at a Buzzfeed thread that had a collection of short films about Detroit. Some of these are longer than you might be used to watching in an internet video, but they are well worth checking out when you have the time.

Lemonade: Detroit

The first one is an inspirational video called “Lemonade: Detroit.” I’ll leave the description to the film maker:

Bad news is sensational. It’s the stuff of prime time exposés and gotcha news hours. People are attracted to bad news for the same reason they slow down past car accidents and watch horror movies: It’s impossible to turn away.

Thankfully, the same can be said for good news. Instead of sensationalizing blight, one new film will sensationalize hope. “Lemonade: Detroit” is about the disarming resilience of a city that is searching for an identity beyond a single industry, as told through the intensely personal stories of people who are actively reinventing the Motor City.

There have been far too many films about what’s wrong in Detroit. Far too many journalistic opinions claiming to offer hope that in reality glorify ruin. “Lemonade: Detroit” will make hope, optimism, and positivity as intriguing to watch as a train wreck.

Every character in “Lemonade: Detroit” is beating heavy odds placed on them by a world that expects failure. Documenting the struggle isn’t the point. Overcoming it is. These are the stories that must be told.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Real Scene: Detroit

Detroit has one of America’s richest musical legacies. The producers of this short film take a look at that history, focusing on techno, and especially on the scene around the music, not just the industry itself. Beyond the history, there’s also a bit of a look of what’s going on today. And it features a great soundtrack. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Detroit Bike City

Here’s a pretty good video talking about Detroit’s bike culture. The thing I love about this one is how it shows the diversity of Detroit’s biking scene that goes well beyond the stereotypical hipster fixie rider. If the video doesn’t display click here.

Detroit Wildlife

This last one I had serious reservations about including because it is sheer exploitation – ruin porn in its purest form. It’s called “Detroit Wildlife” and it’s most reprehensible for the way it equates the residents of Detroit both with the ruins of the city and the actual wildlife found there. This was apparently a type of “demo reel” the film maker put together to raise funds to make an actual documentary called “Detroit Wild City” that I’ve not seen. I include it here to show what it is Detroit has become in the minds of too many outsiders. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

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