Friday, May 29, 2009

Detroit: City on the Move

Here's a video promoting Detroit's bid for the 1968 Olympics. Mayor Cavanaugh sounds so optimistic about urban renewal. If he only knew ...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Light rail plans (not) reconciled

Light rail is a go. That was the word on Thursday, when Matt Cullen told reporters that Detroit's two proposed rail plans -- one public, one private -- had reached an accord, freeing the private group to begin construction on the first leg, from downtown to New Center.

Now the city's saying not so fast. If construction begins on the private M1 rail before DTOGS (the public plan) finishes its environmental review, then the federal government can't accept the $125 million behind the private effort as part of the local matching funds that the city will need to qualify for federal funding. In other words, DTOGS would be dead, because neither the city nor the state is likely to come up with that kind of money later on.

As it is, the two plans don't exactly mesh. They use different vehicles, run at different speeds, and have different alignments (curbside vs. center of the street). Naturally, they also have different operators. So even if both are built, the ride up Woodward won't be seamless. Riders will presumably have to get off at New Center and switch trains. Still, I'd gladly take two systems over none. I just fear that soon we'll be settling for just the one -- and waiting half a decade or more to see any progress on its expansion.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cause for cautious optimism

Detroit's economy may be moribund, but thanks to some new initiatives, it may not remain that way forever. To start with, the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, a consortium of ten foundations formed last year, is putting $5 million behind a new training program for entrepreneurs that will lead to 400 new start-ups a year. The sessions will be hosted at Wayne State's TechTown and run by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the nation's leading foundation on entrepreneurship.

Three smaller initiatives are also getting great press. TechTown itself has been exceptionally successful, attracting eighty businesses and a long waiting list to its New Center location. Open City, a monthly meeting of Detroit business owners, was recently profiled by CNN for the remarkable collaboration and community it has sparked. Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert's Bizdom U has also gotten recognition for its free, two-year training program for select entrepreneurs. None of these are quick fixes for the ailing economy, but by focusing on the fundamentals, they should spark more job growth in the long run than ineffective tax incentives or the usual splashy projects, like stadiums and casinos, ever could.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Restructuring DPS

Big changes are coming to Detroit Public Schools -- and just in time. The News reports the district has now lost a shocking 44% of its enrollment since 2000 to charters, the suburbs, and other areas of the country.

On Tuesday, the state-appointed emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, announced the closing of 29 schools and the restructuring of 40 others deemed "miserably failing." On Wednesday, he took the unprecedented step of asking President Obama to issue a special emergency declaration to allow the district to receive emergency funding. (If granted, it would be the first emergency declaration not tied to a natural disaster.)

Obama's Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has promised to send millions of dollars to the district if it pursues fundamental change. Speaking in the city on Wednesday, he called Detroit "ground zero" for education in the United States. "Detroit is New Orleans two years ago without Hurricane Katrina," he said, "and I feel a tremendous sense of both urgency and outrage." He supports copying the model used in Chicago and letting Mayor Dave Bing take control of the district.

Both can be heard on Wednesday's edition of Detroit Today. Also worth watching: Geoffrey Canada at the New Yorker Summit. Liberals and conservatives alike (see David Brooks, for example) have championed his Harlem Children's Zone as the single best model for fixing urban education -- something Bobb and Duncan are surely looking at.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thoughts on Bing

So Bing is the new mayor. Now that Cockrel's trial-run is up, Bing gets his own six-month shot at the job. I greet this news with cautious optimism. Bing is confident and competent, and he seems to get that revitalizing Detroit requires both a big vision and a business-like focus on all the basics. Almost better yet, Cockrel is back at the helm of City Council, meaning Monica Conyers loses her soapbox and both sides of government are run by competent, serious people.

Yet I have my doubts. He's a member of the business elite and plans to govern like it. With any luck, that will translate into streamlined government and new investment. But it might also mean yet more emphasis on big downtown projects -- like stadiums and casinos -- at the expense of neighborhood revitalization. I'm also unconvinced he gets what urban life is all about. He lived his adult life in the suburbs (gated ones at that!), has little to say on preservation, and has called for suburban-style "cities within the city".

Does he get what Detroit is all about? Is he in touch with community groups and the concerns of ordinary residents? I sure hope so.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Taking a cue from Braddock, PA

If Braddock can do it, so can we. That's the message out of Metro Mode this week, which profiles a dying industrial town just downriver from Pittsburgh that's trying to reinvent itself as a dirt-cheap refuge for artists, urbanists, and environmentalists. The mayor, John Fetterman, who looks like he just stepped out of the Old Miami, has set up a website,, that sells the ruined city as "an unparalleled opportunity for the urban pioneer, artist, or misfit" to "create amidst destruction." He seems to be getting some traction, too, at least in the press and academy. He's been interviewed by the New York Times, the Colbert Report, the Daily Show, PBS, and NPR, and he recently spoke at U of M's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

I haven't read/heard it all yet, but I'd definitely like to learn more. What do the current residents really think of this all? Do they buy it? Are outsiders actually moving in? And, as Metro Mode asks, what can Detroit take away from this?

The photo, by the way, is taken from the gallery of "Ruins" on the city's website --- probably the only municipal website in the United States that not only openly acknowledges its urban decay (and its Crips affiliation!) but embraces it, too, as "malignant beauty."