Building New Detroit

I’ve finally reached the last stop on my monthlong journey. This afternoon I head to the airport for one last trip back home to Sacramento. On the one hand, I can’t wait to be home. On the other, Something very interesting has begun in Detroit, and I would love to stay and learn more about it. Visiting Detroit is essential to anyone who wants to really understand what is happening to industry and cities in the U.S. It is an extreme case, which casts light on what other cities face if they don’t address the continued concentration of wealth in the hands of investors.

I first visited Detroit in 1994, and was blown away by what seemed like a post-apocalyptic scene; the usual signs of urban decay were everywhere, but on a scale and intensity I’d never seen. In addition to the usual boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, there were deeper signs of collapse. Broad boulevards had very little traffic. Many buildings were standing burned but still open months later; some were partially or completely collapsed. On many blocks there were more vacant lots than houses. In one such area an artist had created the Heidelberg Project, a surreal art installation using scavenged objects – and an attraction to tourists from around the world. Most shocking to me, there were some huge abandoned buildings like the Michigan Central terminal, a 16-story high rise that sits on what was once one of the nation’s major transportation hubs.

Detroit is different now. It feels like the rate of collapse has slowed. There is more vacant land (whole blocks now returning to a forested state), and not as many half-collapsed buildings. Michigan Central is still there, despite the city council’s decision last spring to demolish it and bill the owner. So is Heidelberg, despite two city attempts to bulldoze it. The 38-story Book Tower, one of Detroit’s ten tallest buildings, was abandoned this year. There are a few pockets of near-normalcy, like that around Wayne State University. But even there, the streets and sidewalks are a wreck and the library stairs have mostly been blocked off to lessen the expense of snow removal. You have to spend a while here to see the scope of the depopulation and devastation, but a cheap substitute can be found in online maps, with which you can spend a while roaming around, getting a sense for how much vacant land exists, perhaps using this as a starting point.

More and more, Detroit is summed up by a phrase I’ve heard several times here: “blank canvas.”

In most places, we can still believe that the capitalist economy works, that the recession is over and good times will soon return. But in Detroit, it has quite obviously failed. That failure has prompted more and more people to consider new ideas and launch innovative projects. I was honored to speak last night at the Boggs Center, where I met with a group of people who are interested in figuring out what to do with Detroit now that the global economy no longer wants it.

Here’s a a sampling of projects underway in Detroit, some of which had people in attendance.

Hope District is a grassroots attempt to bring back one of Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods (and I use struggling as a compliment here, as it is a sign of life). They seek to “create jobs and housing for everyone.” They are working on revitalizing and cleaning the urban landscape, making pocket parks with scavenged materials and painting murals everywhere. They have also created Club Technology; this facility includes commercial kitchen, meeting space, a computer lab and other amenities.

Urban farming is huge here, with hundreds of community gardens springing up. Most of these are not part of the cash economy, but grow food to give away in neighborhoods where formal¬†economic activity has essentially ceased. Urban Farming has about 60 gardens going in the city, and dozens more from Los Angeles to New York. The Capuchin’s Earthworks Farm has 21 separate plots in a few square blocks, growing food for their soup kitchen. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has created a 2-acre farm called D-Town on what was once a city nursery in a public park.

Another project has potentially huge impact seeks to bring groceries back to the city. From what I hear, there are no longer ANY major grocery chains in the city of Detroit, and most neighborhoods have only limited access to food. Dollar stores and convenience stores are primary suppliers to many Detroiters. So along comes a model that I’ve been hoping would develop for a while now – I’m not surprised it started here. The Detroit Community Grocery Store Coalition involves 80 churches, working with the United Food and Commercial Workers, seeking to create community based grocery stores. I’ll write more when I know more, but it seems that they are considering three kinds of membership, for consumers, workers and supporting organizations.

So lets give it up for Detroit. They’ve got big problems, but they’ve got a lot of spirit and energy to tackle those problems. With any luck Detroit will continue to crank out models for how we all can address the serious and growing failures of the global economy. And if we pay attention to what is happening here, we won’t have to wait for economic collapse to start building our own new cities.

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One Response to Building New Detroit

  1. coopgeek says:

    Since writing this, I’ve been pointed to an article about plans to convert the Book Tower and five other downtown buildings into green housing.
    http://www.detnews.com/article/20091028/BIZ/910280442/1361/Green-renovation-plans-unveiled-for-Book-building-in-Detroit

    It’s good to know that someone is making a go of it. Downtown Detroit is really quiet at night, so it might be a longshot to get people to want to live there. On the other hand, that’s what Downtown needs. It is one of Detroit’s islands of viability and it could go either way.

    This is not the grassroots sort of revival that is my usual focus, but it could potentially be very helpful toward reconfiguring Detroit as a sort of walkable urban archipelago, along the lines of the Ecocity concept first developed for Berkeley.

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