Monday, March 31, 2008

A better Detroit is possible

Last week I discovered The Motor(less) City, a thought-provoking blog with gorgeous photos of the city's crumbling architecture. The author has left Detroit and is unafraid to say why: "Long commutes, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of cultural resources, no mass transit, an over reliance on a single industry, and barely a plan in place to do anything about any of it."

His complaints are hard to deny, but his portrayal of the region bothered me. What is the value of such dialogue? I recognize that the region is deeply flawed, but I fear that reiterating its flaws without noting its progress only adds to the "black hole of despair and self-pity" that permeates the region. That's why I try to strike a balance on this blog. I hope to herald the region's faltering progress without sounding like Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, the caricature of middle-class America with a groundless faith in "progress." But I also avoid dwelling on the negative; some of the region's flaws are so glaring I feel they nearly speak for themselves.

Yet I sympathize with the blogger's rebuttal that what the region needs most is to coldly confront reality. What disheartens me most about this region and this state is its complacency in the face of failure. The city of Detroit has been declining for fifty years; the auto industry has likewise been shrinking for decades. Yet even today we respond to this crisis with passivity and cynicism. Local leaders like Brooks Patterson continue to reject regional solutions. Our legislature is an embarrassment, incapable of passing a budget, and our governor has shown no vision. No wonder then that college graduates are leaving in droves.

But I believe the status quo can and must end. We deserve better. And that's why I focus not only on the region's flaws but also on the efforts to confront and resolve them. A better Detroit is possible.

Also in the news

The News describes Kwame's rise and fall in depth and reports on Wayne State's new community-based research program in the School of Social Work, which will work with local agencies to determine best practices for confronting the major social problems in our area.

Crain covers an event urging cooperation with Canada, new tax incentives for urban brownfield development, and the many upgrades being made to hotels in Detroit. Also in Crain's this week: 20 in their 20s, profiles of young leaders in Metro Detroit that prove that not all promising college grads are fleeing, just most.

Detroit homes sold in bulk

Prices are so low that out-of-state investors are buying Detroit homes in bulk. The Free Press reports that as many as 100 foreclosed homes are sold together to local brokers for "pennies on the dollar." These homes are then resold to out-of-state investors who hope to sell them for significant gain in five to ten years when the market rebounds. In the meantime, they're marketing them as rentals.

The city needs to monitor this. Huge swaths of Detroit will soon be managed by out-of-state landlords with no knowledge of the city. That could be disastrous. But who knows, they may prove better landlords than the despicable local slumlords who flip owner-occupied homes to rentals and then let them crumble because they assume the property will be worthless in the future. Out-of-staters don't share the same biases that locals harbor against the city; they may actually care about the longterm value of the homes they buy.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cory Booker interview

This past week Bill Moyers interviewed Cory Booker, Newark's remarkable young mayor. He is both fiercely idealistic and committed to pragmatic change, a combination I would welcome in any Detroit leader.

I discussed Booker before after reading an excellent New Yorker article that examines the mayor in the context of racial politics in America.

Event: Regional transit meetings

For the past year and a half, John Hertel, the "transit czar" hired by the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council, has been meeting with area leaders to build consensus on a regional transit plan. Now he's taking public input at three open houses:

  • Tuesday, April 8, from 3-7 pm, at the SEMCOG offices in the Buhl Building (535 Griswold) in downtown Detroit
The future of this region depends on mass transit. That's why the Detroit News published an editorial today in favor of a strong regional transit authority that can move this plan forward.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Creative class" interview

Metromode has an interview of Richard Florida, the academic behind the "creative class" theory that says the survival of post-industrial cities depends on attracting creative types and highly-educated professionals. I didn't think much of the interview (he speaks in slogans like an advertising executive), but his influence is undeniable. The governor's Cool Cities initiative, for example, cites his work.

Update: As a counterpoint, here's a City Journal article that argues that only low taxes and basic services lead to job growth. An unimaginative and reductive argument, but it surely has some truth as well. Detroit may build a bohemian center amidst present-day decay, but the city cannot attract a flourishing middle class without efficient, effective governance. If taxes are going to be high (as they are in most major cities), they need to be put to very good use.

Redevelopment presentations

Many of the most interesting presentations given at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance's March 7 Regional Redevelopment Summit are now available online. The summit was geared toward preparing area leaders in government, development, real estate, and the non-profit community for the Brownfields2008 Conference, which will bring developers from across the country to Detroit from May 5-7 for a historic opportunity to make deals to redevelop vacant or abandoned property in Detroit.

Hat tip: Transportation Riders United.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Detroit fashion

The News reports on the fourth annual Detroit Fashion Week, which began Sunday and runs through Saturday at Asian Village (521 Atwater). The goal is "to bring designers, models, beauty professionals and businesspeople together to create a more cohesive and prosperous atmosphere for Metro Detroit's fashion industry." The official website isn't pretty but it has more information.

Focus: HOPE at 40

The News notes the 40th anniversary of Focus: HOPE, a great non-profit on the West Side with the perfect misson statement: "To use intelligent and practical action to fight racism, poverty and injustice."

Unfortunately, the organization is struggling to sustain itself. Its budget has fallen 75% since 2000, in tandem with the auto industry's decline. But co-founder Eleanor Josaitis is leading a new $100 million fundraising drive as Focus: HOPE seeks new partners and new initiatives to continue connecting residents to high-paying jobs.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Event: Meeting on Riverfront projects

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will hold a public meeting on the Dequindre Cut, Tricentennial Park, and the next phase of the Detroit RiverWalk at the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources (200 Walker Street) at 5:30 pm on Thursday, March 27. RVSP by March 26 to

Hat tip: Model D.

Talking points

The next time you discuss Detroit, ignore Kwame and cut the nostalgia for Hudson's. Recite this list instead. Model D has listed the sixteen coolest initiatives in the city. This is the future.

Also in this week's issue, eight ways the city is getting greener. Normally I wouldn't promote such pure boosterism, but frankly, in the current political and economic climate (read: bad bad bad), we need it.

"Good government in action" - in Detroit!

Lost amidst the mayoral scandal was a Free Press story on the notable success of the City-County Building downtown, which has reduced operating expenses from $15 million annually to $9 million.

Also to be filed under good news: assaults in Detroit Public Schools are on the decline.

City seeks "creative class"

Crain's Detroit discuses a group working to bring more creative types to Detroit. Design Detroit, a group of universities, creative organizations, and economic-development groups, has a $200,000 planning grant from the Knight Foundation to develop strategies to bring 1,000 creative professionals to the city. Enticements may include "instructor positions at area design schools, real opportunities to see their designs come to life and financial stipends of $5,000 to $10,000 in exchange for commitments to live in the city for a set amount of time." The group will hold a public forum on April 8 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. Stay posted.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Kwame, Beatty charged

The Free Press lists the charges: perjury, conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and misconduct in office. I hope the mayor has the dignity and humility to resign. The city deserves it.

Securing our cities

The Free Press has another powerful editorial in favor of a renewed urban agenda at the national level. This time the focus is on five key steps the federal government can take to reduce crime and violence in major cities:

• The next president must increase support for local law enforcement programs that work, especially to those cities that have a plan for collaborative, community-wide crime prevention programs. Such assistance should include innovative new programs, such as a national campaign to ensure all city streets are well lit.

• Second, the president ought to strengthen the federal government's commitment to prisoner re-entry programs that help hundreds of thousands of offenders adjust to their communities. In Michigan and other states, such efforts are reducing crime and recidivism. The Second Chance Act passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this month is a good start.

• Third, the next administration must make gun control legislation a priority, as virtually all big-city mayors and police chiefs have urged. At least, the president and Congress ought to renew the assault weapons ban, establish a national data base for guns and gun owners, and require background checks for gun show purchases.

• Fourth, Washington should encourage local rules that require police officers to live in the cities they serve. It could do so by making only cities with such residency rules eligible for certain grants.

• Finally, the federal government must do more to prevent crime. The good news is that, over the last 15 years, the U.S. Justice Department has started to focus on street violence, as well as white-collar and organized, crime. The best federal programs have partnered with local law enforcement agencies and community-based groups.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Detroit & Berlin

Real Detroit has an ongoing series of dispatches from Berlin, a revived city that can serve as model for Detroit's redevelopment. The first says we need hipsters and density. The second talks about cool uses for empty storefronts.

I don't know much about Berlin, but I agree with the premise of the series: Detroit can learn a lot from other cities. Planners and activists in Detroit should be mining other cities for ideas. What's working in Boston? What about Berlin? Detroit may be unique in the magnitude of its decline, but it is by no means alone. We should be experimenting with any successful model we can find as we work to create our own formula for revitalization.

Hat tip: Detroit Yes! forums.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Another new restaurant in Midtown

According to Crain's Detroit, Slows Bar BQ will open a second location next summer at the northwest corner of Cass Avenue and Alexandrine Street (map).

Public transit under attack

The Washington Post has a must-read article this week on the Bush administration's approach to transit policy. This is something we should all be aware of and worried about.

Bush appointees at the Department of Transportation are working to reduce traffic congestion by converting roads into privately-operated, for-profit toll roads. At the same time, the agency is reducing funding for mass transit, denying funds to new light rail projects, like the one proposed for Woodward in Detroit. Most fundamentally, the agency itself is being starved of funds. The gas tax has not been raised since 1993; assuming annual inflation of 3%, the tax rate today is therefore effectively 64% of what it was in 1993. The administration supports the continued reduction of the agency's budget because it will force the further privatization of transportation.

City Council corrects itself

According to the Free Press, a rule that would have denied CDBG funds to 105 Detroit non-profits won't go into effect this year. The council unanimously delayed the implementation of the new rule, which requires non-profits to have a majority of Detroit residents on their boards to receive federal funds, after realizing that major non-profits like Focus: HOPE and Greening of Detroit would be denied funding.

The case is another illustration of the region's dysfunction. The rule should have been phased in and framed as a measure to ensure the community's voice in the allocation of federal funds. Instead it was approved without forethought or discussion and then defended in a needlessly divisive manner. Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins said complaints about the rule were paternalistic and reflected a "slave-master mentality." What nonsense! Race resentment is real--Obama did a great job of confronting that reality this week--but it needn't play a part in every minor policy debate in Metro Detroit.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama on race

An incredible and profoundly honest speech. Please, take a half hour out of your day to watch it:

Book-Cadillac spurs more development

According to the News, the developer of the Book-Cadillac is working on two more projects downtown. The details aren't public and won't be until summer, but the developments are expected to bring more rental units downtown.

City Council calls for Kwame's resignation

The vote was 7-1. According to the News, Monica Conyers was the only dissenter on the non-binding resolution. The Council may pursue further action after Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announces her decision regarding whether or not to prosecute Kilpatrick.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Events: urban planning lecture, MOCAD fundraiser

Marygrove College's Institute for Detroit Studies will present “Planning and Race in Detroit: Past Struggles, Future Challenges,” a "Defining Detroit” lecture, in the Main Dining Room in the Madame Cadillac Building (8425 W. McNichols St.) on Thursday, March 27, at 7:30 pm. The speaker will be Dr. June Manning Thomas, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Michigan. Hat tip: Detroit Yes!

MOCAD will host the GOLD fundraiser on Saturday, March 29 (4454 Woodward Ave.). For $75, guests may arrive at 7:30 pm and enjoy a catered meal from local restaurants. For $15, guests may arrive at 9:30 pm when "Detroit musicians will play pop cover songs spanning the last 30 years in their band’s own distinctive style." Bands include T3 (Slum Village), The Go, Lee Marvin Computer Arm, Tyvek, Bad Party, Dark Red, EsQuire, Deastro, The Sisters Lucas, The Silent Years, and Dee Jay Frankie Banks. Hat tip: Detroit Metblogs

Goodbye Detroit Boat Club?

In the State of the City address, the mayor briefly mentioned a plan to build a boarding school on Belle Isle. Now that the uproar over Kwame's outburst has calmed down, the plan is finally getting attention in the News and on the Detroit Yes! forums.

The proposal is to build a military-style maritime academy for Detroit high school students where the historic but decaying Detroit Boat Club now stands. It's unclear whether the Boat Club would be rehabbed or razed, but many fear the latter and are outraged. My bet is the school will never be built, so it won't matter, but this serves as a reminder of the administration's a) disregard for community input and b) total lack of vision for the island.

Update: The News published an article last September that discusses the Boat Club's dismal future and its current state of disrepair.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More fine dining in Detroit

The News notes new restaurants and a grocer opening in Corktown, Downtown, and Midtown.

A rebuttal to resignation

I've heard a number of negative, resigned comments about the city in the past week, including the op-ed I linked to on Thursday. The sentiment is justified -- Detroit grinds people down. But working there can also be uplifting in a way that Jackie Victor, co-founder of Avalon Bakery, put best last summer in an essay called "Detroit Is a Spiritual City." Quoting excerpts doesn't do it justice; just read it.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

An idealist gives up

An op-ed in today's Free Press gives powerful voice to the despair felt by many frustrated idealists living in Detroit.

I commend the author, who is choosing to leave Detroit, for having committed herself so passionately to her neighborhood, and I sympathize with the frustration she feels. But I think part of the problem is her implicit notion that her individual effort would transform the city. Dedicated citizens have been sacrificing themselves for years to the cause of Detroit without getting anywhere. To effect real change, we need realistic expectations and a realistic time horizon -- transforming a city takes time! More importantly, we need community, both to multiply the impact of our efforts and keep each other sane as we struggle to revitalize this "dangerous, dirty, neglected and decaying environment" that we nevertheless love.

Condos vs. rentals

Metromode questions the peculiar absence of rental options in (Metro) Detroit. Developers only turn to rentals when condo or loft units aren't selling; there has been little push to further develop the rental market as such. But doing so might be the key to creating density and attracting more young people to the city who don't necessarily want to commit to living there longterm.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The city to the south

Windsor, that is. Easily overlooked by we on the other side of the river, Windsor is struggling with some of the same issues as Metro Detroit, especially in the past decade as the downtown has declined. I recently found a blog called Scaledown Windsor that advocates its revitalization, envisioning "a sustainable framework that leverages safe, attractive walkable neighbourhoods, dynamic public spaces, and local independent businesses and artists as cornerstones of our social, cultural and economic prosperity."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Food Stamps contribute to poor nutrition

Last night Mari Gallagher presented her report, "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit," at a community meeting at the UM Detroit Center. The findings are alarming, especially with regard to the USDA Food Stamp program:

The greatest contributor to the heavy concentration of fringe food options and to the negative diet-related health effects of food imbalance is not fast food, as we originally suspected, but USDA Food Stamp retailers. In Detroit, USDA Food Stamp retailers are primarily fringe food locations, such as gas stations, liquor stores, party stores, dollar stores, bakeries, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Only 8% of all Detroit Food Stamp retailers are small, medium, or large grocery stores or supermarkets by our definition. These fringe locations appear not to specialize in healthy foods but, instead, in the sale of 1) alcohol, 2) tobacco, 3) lottery tickets, and/or 4) a comparatively small selection of prepackaged and canned food products high in salt, fat, and sugar.
Many Detroiters depends on Food Stamps for grocery money, but that money is primarily being spent at gas stations and liquor stores on prepackaged and canned foods. This in turn has a measurably negative effect on Detroiters' health. The program needs to be reformed so that all Food Stamp retailers provide healthy food options. As it is, 92% of the retailers who accept Food Stamps sell primarily junk food and little else.

Hamtramck Blowout footage

In case you missed it or want to relive it, MyFoxDetroit has 33 videos of Hamtramck Blowout performances.

105 Detroit non-profits lose federal funding

The Free Press reports that 105 Detroit non-profits will be denied Community Development Block Grants because of a new residency requirement passed by the Detroit City Council in July. To be eligible for federal funding, at least half of an organization's board members must now be residents of the city. That means dozens of non-profits are currently ineligible. Focus: HOPE, for example, will lose $205,000 in CDBG funds; Greening of Detroit will lose $125,000.

This is a disaster. The City Council had good intentions -- city residents should control city funding -- but the rule is too demanding and gave no time for non-profits to react. Charities can't overturn their boards overnight. Hopefully the Council will find a way to amend the rule or delay its onset. In the meantime, smaller, community-based non-profits may rejoice -- with most major non-profits ineligible, the pool of CDBG funds leftover for everyone else just grew immensely.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Retail on Livernois, Downtown

According to Crain's, business owners along Livenois hope to restore the Avenue of Fashion. With the help of the Independent Retailers Association of Detroit, a new nonprofit, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, they are working to fill vacant storefronts and create a blueprint for revitalization that can be replicated in other areas of the city.

An editorial in Crain's co-authored by leaders of the Urban Land Institute Detroit call for a public-private effort to bring more retail Downtown. A similar approach is now being taken in the development of Eastern Market.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Good news in Gratiot Woods

The Free Press has a positive story on the turnaround of the Gratiot Woods neighborhood on the city's east side. The effort has been led by the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, one of the dozens of community development groups working with little fanfare to empower residents and revitalize neighborhoods (some, due to limited funding and capacity, with more success than others).

Can Kwame just go?

This isn't getting any better. The Free Press has the scoop.

To be fair, though, this doesn't really compare to the original scandal. Everyone who works with city government has a friend on the inside. This contractor is just lucky that his friends are Christine Beatty and Kwame Kilpatrick. And Kwame's right about one thing: this report is indeed a "fishing expedition." And the Free Press will keep on fishing until they find a keeper. Maybe a few.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Another test of regional cooperation

The Detroit Zoo is trying to create a regional authority with the power to levy a millage in Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties to finance the zoo's operations. It won't be easy:

Patterson acknowledged proponents face a tough sales job on a tax increase during a down economy, especially when property values are falling. They also face the challenge of trying to unite a fractious region that has struggled to cooperate on other important economic issues like expanding Cobo, control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the divvying of Homeland Security money.
Can the region cooperate to preserve this "cultural gem" (as all the politicians rush to call it)? The answer may portend whether we're ready for more important moves later on, in particular the creation of a regional transit authority and the passing of a local sales tax to finance a rapid transit system.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Detroit one step closer to transit

From yesterday's press release: DTOGS is "recommending a light rail transit (LRT) line along an eight-mile stretch on Woodward Avenue as the best opportunity to begin building a regional rapid transit system in the Detroit area."

The estimed cost is $372 million with 11,100 riders per day. Federal funds would pay for about 50-60% of that; the remainder would have to come from state, local, or private sources. Ina best case scenario, construction could begin in 2010!

DTOGS will be holding public meetings next week to get input on the proposal. Go voice your support! Transportation Riders United, as always, has more info.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The state of the music scene

The Free Press invited a few notables to discuss Detroit's music scene ahead of this weekend's Blowout. This is so true:

Becki: ... You can't go to a (rock) show in Detroit and see anyone dancing. ... People here, they want to look cool, stand up there with a beer.

Rachel: People from the outside, the statewide media, when people talk about Detroit, they always say it's a really critical crowd. You notice that when you go to a show: People will stand in the back and watch. You won't think that anybody's liking it, then afterwards they're like, "Oh, man, you were so great!"

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Upcoming events: food deserts, sustainability

The Skillman Foundation will host "Eliminating Food Deserts in Detroit: A Community Discussion" at UM's Detroit Center (3663 Woodward Ave.) on Monday, March 10, from 5 to 8:30 pm. Speaker Mari Gallagher will discuss her report, "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit," and other panelists will discuss community efforts to increase access to healthy food in the city.

The Model D Speaker Series will present "Building a Green City: Sustainable Urbanism in Detroit" on Wednesday, March 19, at 5 pm at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle (1 River Bank Road). Speakers "will discuss the principles of sustainable urbanism, and examine how areas like Detroit's Midtown are actively utilizing the ideas."

Eastern Market's future

Check out the draft of Eastern's Market ambitious new master plan at If followed through, the plan will create a thriving urban area to rival Midtown, Downtown, and Southwest Detroit as the most vibrant districts in the city.

Hat tip: Model D.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Last week's news

Here's a quick rundown of some stories I missed from the News and the Free Press:

Light rail rumors

Crain's Detroit reports again on rumored plans to build a privately-financed light rail line along Woodward. They first broke the story last week. Most of the details are still secret -- like who might foot the bill -- but it's exciting nevertheless.

This semi-secret proposal differs from the study currently being conducted by the Detroit Department of Transportation to bring rapid transit to the city. That study, called Detroit Transit Options for Growth, is following federal guidelines and would be publicly financed. My hunch is that DDOT's study is still the city's surest bet.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Guide to the Blowout

Detour has a useful guide to the Hamtramck Blowout complete with streaming audio and Myspace links. Metrotimes has the final schedule. Also worth seeing: the Black Lips on Thursday at the Magic Stick. A good week for music in Detroit.

Update: Motor City Rocks and Five Three Dial Tone also posted guides to the Blowout. Good luck deciding who to see.

Tax suburbs more than cities

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser (whose previous work I criticized) argues that the suburbs should be paying higher taxes for two reasons: 1) suburbanites pollute more and 2) don't contribute as much as city-dwellers to the welfare of the poor.

His point about urban poverty is worth noting. Some urban poverty is cyclical, denying opportunities to generation after generation, and society is to blame for not working to prevent this cycle from continuing. But urban poverty also results from urban success:

Urban poverty does not reflect urban failure, but rather the enduring appeal of cities to the less fortunate. Poor people come to cities because urban areas offer economic opportunity, better social services, and the chance to get by without an automobile.
Cities shouldn't be punished for this by paying higher taxes to care for the poor. Providing social services is a universal responsibility and the suburbs should share the burden.

Hat tip: Greg Mankiw.

Reflections on NYC

New York City was great: the diversity, the neighborhoods, the transit, the culture. But I also left with hope for Detroit. We can have what New York has in miniature: a thriving downtown, hip urban neighborhoods, immigrant enclaves. But we also have one great advantage that city lacks: space! Detroit has a chance to rethink and rebuild itself to a degree unparalleled in the world because it has both urban infrastructure built for millions and open land in every corner.