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: