Thursday, January 7, 2010


After two years blogging at Think Detroit, I’ve decided to start fresh with a new blog hosted at its own domain: Rethink Detroit <>.

The focus will again be on the revitalization of Detroit, but I’ll be taking a more personal approach, writing about life in Detroit as well as the emerging trends that promise to transform it, from creative enterprise to rightsizing. As a young person living in Midtown and a serious student of Detroit present and past, I hope I can offer a fresh perspective on the city, at once honest and optimistic.

Thank you for reading Think Detroit. I've appreciated every visit and comment I've received, and I hope you'll follow me to the new location as the blog continues to evolve!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Two healthy ways to reclaim vacant lots

Vacant lots aren't just good for urban gardens and art installations. These two projects are the kind of simple, low-cost solutions that anyone in Detroit -- with or without the help of outside volunteers -- can carry out in their own neighborhood with some courage and imagination.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking for the "real" Detroit

Lately I've been struck by the almost schizophrenic portrayal of Detroit in the national media.  The story we hear most often is that of the dying auto town. Detroit is cast as poor, segregated, abandoned and doomed. Inevitably, photos of the Packard Plant and Michigan Central Station figure prominently. Then there's the quieter but insistent counter-narrative. Detroit is called a hot-bed of creativity; an urban frontier; a city of urban gardens and resilient neighborhoods.

The two story lines are so different it's jarring. In Toby Barlow's world, Detroit is a city of unparalleled potential. Artists are snapping up $100 houses; entrepreneurs are biking to work and banding together to open new businesses. In Shika Dalmia's world, Detroit is terminally ill. The government is a farce, jobs are scarce, and the city is unlivable for "most ordinary folks with families, children and regular jobs" who'd rather not live with "rats, fires, garbage, druggists, prostitutes and weirdos."

So who has it right? Both, to some degree. Like any big city, Detroit is a completely different place for different people. At Third and Peterboro, a desperate crowd of drug addicts and the long term homeless gather on Detroit's skid row to collect aid. Just a few blocks up the street, the neighborhood is being transformed. Just this fall, four new businesses catering to the young and creative have opened in Midtown: Good Girls Go to Paris, Leopold's Books, the Burton Theatre, and City Bird. Both groups occupy the same Cass Corridor, but for all effective purposes, they are in different worlds.

I personally find Detroit inspiring and sobering at once. The hardship the city faces is raw and undeniable: 27% unemployment, 70,000+ vacant lots, $100 homes. Yet the sense of community is palpable, and the struggle to revitalize the city goes on, whether that means drawing young people to Midtown or planting community gardens on the East Side. To be clear, Detroit is emphatically not a "blank canvas" or a lawless frontier. As the Let's Save Michigan blog emphasizes, Detroit is better than that. It is a deeply troubled city but also one with unique assets, a rich history and culture, and, for those willing and able to see Detroit anew, incredible opportunities.

Thus the schizophrenic news coverege. Detroit can't be reduced to a single narrative. It's a messy, complicated, fascinating place, at once depressing and inspiring, and that's why I continue to write about it, whether the wider media can figure out its story or not.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Woodward Avenue in 1917

I've been staring at this amazing photo of downtown all day. It's like a completely different city. Almost all of these buildings were later replaced with skyscrapers, and those skyscrapers now mostly stand vacant, or in the case of Hudson's, demolished. Also, note the sign on the Hudon's Building: "Hudson's Grows With Detroit." Now we know it also shrinks!

(Hat tip: Detroit Yes!)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Talking rightsizing

There were two good interviews this week with leaders on land use. The first, posted at the new Let's Save Michigan blog, is with Dan Kildee, the founder of Genesee County's innovative landbank. The second, a two-part interview on Time's Detroit Blog, is with Deborah L. Younger, the executive director of LISC. She's the treasurer of Detroit's new land bank and an influential voice on community development.

Both speak to the growing consensus that Detroit needs to rightsize itself -- not just by streamlining city government but by consolidating neighborhoods. The Free Press endorsed the idea for the second time today, and half the candidates in Tuesday's election expressed support in a Model D survey. The big question is how. Should the city actively vacate its most depopulated neighborhoods? Or will that only usher in further decline elsewhere? Can the city openly target resources to its stronger neighborhoods without writing off the rest? How do you make rightsizing fair? No one has the answers yet, but Kildee and Younger's thoughts are both worth listening to.

Some Detroit inspiration

The opening montage makes me think of the 80s-era educational videos I had to watch in high school, but the message is right on:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Talking with Time

The Free Press hosted a great conversation today with Dan Okrent, author of Time's much-criticized cover story on Detroit. Even John Dingell signed on to ask questions (I take it Okrent's criticism stung). The transcript's worth reading.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The wrong way to rightsize

Every week it seems someone new writes a column on rightsizing Detroit. Darrell Dawsey at the Time's Detroit Blog is the latest to endorse the idea:
So since the city is shrinking and de-industrializing anyway, why not attempt to exercise some control over the contraction, make money from it even? Target areas that have been largely abandoned and provide incentives for those who remain to move elsewhere in the city. Then fence off giant swaths of Detroit. Turn huge portions of the land over to nature, create preserves and parks and lease other portions to farmers who could use it to grow the fresh, affordable food -- and jobs -- that many of our communities could sorely use.

The simple truth is that no one in America should have to live with such blight, and the city's hand in creating it is shameful. That doesn't mean Detroit shouldn't pursue rightsizing, but if it's going to clear land, it needs to do something with it as it awaits redevelopment. Detroiters deserve better than this.

Update: For better photos of the neighborhood, go to Sweet Juniper. The contrast from the 1950s to the present is shocking.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The right pitch to suburbanites

The words "white flight" are rightly found in every story on Detroit's decline, but the parallel phenomenon of black flight (mostly of the middle class) is routinely ignored. Yet it's the latter phenomenon that's driving the city's present population loss. Just look at the numbers*. In 2000, there were 775,772 African Americans living in Detroit. In 2008, there were only 651,762. That's a decrease of 16% in just 8 years.

If the city hopes to stem the tide, it needs to assuage the concerns of people like John Simpson. In a column on Gotryke (recently posted to DYes), he explains why he lives in the suburbs despite his love for all things Detroit, from Aretha Franklin to Faygo to Coleman Young. In three words: he had kids. So he moved to a better school district with safer streets. Sure, he'd love to be back in the D, and he might pitch in if the city were really on the rebound ... but until then he'll sit on the sidelines and watch from the suburbs.

For a committed Detroiter, it's a frustrating sentiment to hear. If he cares so much, why doesn't he move back now and work to make the city better? But the unfortunate truth is that the burden lies on the residents and leaders who remain -- not to fix all the city's ills, but to change the trajectory of the city from unremitting decline to hope and rebirth. Johnson writes, "I would move home in a heartbeat if I believed that Detroit was moving in the right direction, was meeting those challenges head-on, and was on a path toward better schools, safer streets and 'a better quality of life.'”

He's not a lost cause. He's not harboring racial animus. He's not pining for the return of Hudson's and other relics of the past. He just wants a good neighborhood where his kids can learn and play safely, and there are many others who only ask the same.

What the city needs to do -- what residents and leaders need to work toward -- is proving, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, that Detroit's becoming a better place to live. Not that it's perfect, not that's it the same as the suburbs, but that it's moving in a direction worth committing oneself to. Then Detroit will have a story worth telling to all the people who'd like to live in Detroit, if only.

*The estimate for 2008 comes from the American Community Survey. I note this because it pegs Detroit's current population at 777,493 -- far below SEMCOG's estimate of 830,000 and even farther below the U.S. Census estimate of 912,062. If the ACS is lowballing the population, then it's also exaggerating the extent of black flight. The phenomenon is still real, but the rate of flight may be less than 16%.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Everyone files a Detroit story

The wall-to-wall coverage of Detroit this week isn't limited to Time. NPR's "On the Media" added two stories: an interview with Time journalists and a critique of so-called "ruin porn," photos that glory in Detroit's destitution. The New York Times also published two: one on Time's Detroit project and one on Dave Bing's sober realism. The Wall Street Journal, alas, only mustered one: a precis of the city's history through the prism of one home on Boston Boulevard.

If you're a national jounralist without a Detroit story yet, don't fret. Detroit Gorilla wrote the perfect primer on how to go about it. You'll be up to speed in no time.

Artists may not save Detroit ...

See this smart and biting column in Forbes for several reasons why. But if the Heidelberg Project weren't proof enough, these awesome videos show yet again the power that artists have to reinvent ruins and bring life back to dead spaces. Check it out:

COMBO a collaborative animation by Blu and David Ellis (2 times loop) from blu on Vimeo.

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hello, media. Please be kind.

It has begun. On Monday, Time Inc. debuted Assignment Detroit, a yearlong series of stories to be published in Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, CNN Money, and Fortune. There's a cover story in Time this week on the city's decline and another on Dave Bing. There's a cover story in Sports Illustrated on Illitch and the Tigers. There are video interviews on CNN Money and a daily blog on Time's website.

The level of coverage is impressive -- almost unseemly. Although so far, though solidly written, it's mostly been said before. Daniel Okrent's cover story in Time isn't terrible, but it repeats some common misconceptions on the city's decline (i.e., the riot caused white flight, when in fact, it began fifteen years before) and is generally inferior to the excellent story on the city's revival that Time published back in March. The blog (which, surprisingly, seems aimed at local readers) has a wide-eyed post on the city's dropout rate, news that has long since circulated nationally.

But the project has a year to go, which means these journalists will have to get digging, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. I know many have doubts about all the attention Detroit's getting (this essay on Gotryke explains the discomfort best), but frankly, we could use some national sympathy, not to mention some local drive. This year Detroit will not be ignored.

Monday, September 14, 2009

MCS cleanup backfires for Moroun

Back in July, I interviewed the organizer behind a student-led cleanup of Michigan Central Station. With the owner's consent, dozens of Summer in the City volunteers entered the station to sweep and clear out debris. Unfortunately (but to no one's surprise), WXYZ now reports that some of that debris was laced with asbestos. The cleanup has stopped, and so has the good PR for Moroun.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Visiting Detroit's urban gardens

On August 5, I was one of more than 800 people who set off by bus or bike from the Catherine Ferguson Academy to see some of Detroit's urban gardens and farms. The Detroit Agricultural Network hosts the sold-out tour every August.

My tour group hit the West Side. First stop: D-Town Farm. Run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, D-Town Farm is a 2-acre farm located in Rouge Park in northwest Detroit. The farm includes "organic vegetable plots, two bee hives, a hoop house for year round food production, and a composting operation" and "is grown using sustainable, chemical-free practices, and sold at D-Town farm, Eastern Market, and urban growers markets throughout Detroit."

Then we stopped at the Brightmoor Community Garden, a market-garden operated by thirteen youth ages 9-17. Last year they earned $1,500 selling some 1,200 lbs of produce. The photos are from a beautiful family/community garden just down the street, complete with a hen house!

Our last stop was Eden Gardens, a pair of large gardens on either side of Strathmoor Street.

Finally we returned to Catherine Ferguson Academy for a delicious vegetarian meal made from all local ingredients and cooked by chefs from Detroit restaurants.  I wandered the grounds as the sun went down, admiring the goats and horses.

It was a remarkable tour. All told the Garden Resource Program now supplies 244 community gardens, 517 family gardens, and 48 schools, and it's changing the face of Detroit.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The D's Next Decade

Crain's Detroit published a great set of articles this morning on the revitalization of Detroit. "The D's Next Decade" looks at ten major factors in the city's redevelopment, including urban farming, greenways, mass transit, historic preservation, and right-sizing. Most of it has been discussed before, but it's always encouraging to see the full sweep of efforts underway in the city. And there are some great new initiatives in Midtown, including coordinated efforts to lower crime and get 15,000 young professionals to move in.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Some essential reading

I've been preoccupied with other projects in the past few weeks, so I haven't been updating nearly as often as I'd like. I likely won't get back to blogging full-time until the start of September, but in the meantime, here's some informative and/or provocative reading:

  • Conservative writer David Frum published an editorial recently analyzing Detroit's decline. He makes a few good points (especially about the city's tragic disregard for historic preservation) and a few points that are so far off as to be offensive (i.e., "The second factor in Detroit’s decline is the city’s defiant rejection of education and the arts." What city is he talking about? Yes, DPS is in shambles now, but it was once a model district, and we've always championed the arts.)
  • The Detroit News counted 48 vacant buildings in a useful, well-researched inventory of downtown  Detroit. I just wish they hadn't maligned many of our best skyscrapers as "blight" and "eyesores." They may be empty, but they're still beautiful.
  • Vice Magazine notes (hypocritically, and with insufferable smugness) the media fatigue many are feeling around town as one journalist after another comes to town to do a snapshot portrayel of the city's struggles. But one media outfit seems prepared to go in-depth: Time Inc. will embed a group of journalists in Detroit for a year.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Can farming save Detroit?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Link Drop - July 29, 2009