Four years ago this week, I put the deposit down on my first apartment in Detroit. I had been spending an increasing amount of time in the city on weekends, and every time I visited, I felt—at the risk of sounding corny here—a connection forming. The city had just plain gotten under my skin. Something was pulling me toward Detroit, and as I signed my name on the lease, my heart pounded with an exhilaration I hadn’t felt since leaving my parents’ home at age 18.
I moved to Detroit in the first half of 2009, when its prospects never looked shakier. Certain family members, friends, and co-workers struggled to understand my decision. Laying eyes on my “fortress of solitude” gated, high-rise apartment building along the banks of the Detroit River often blunted their misgivings, but still—why would I choose to relocate to a place so “bombed out,” so broke, so dangerous?
I was moving to Detroit from Lansing. If a city could be a piece of cardboard—flat, humdrum, boring—Lansing, to me, is it. I find Detroit to be its opposite: colorful; flavorful; never a dull moment. It’s a fascinating place unlike any other in both good ways and bad, but it’s never boring.
During my four years here, I’ve watched a steady stream of other young professionals fall sway to Detroit’s charms and put down their own roots. What I imagine we all have in common is a feeling of optimism about the future of Detroit. In my line of work, I meet some of the city’s best, brightest, and wealthiest, and I often have the pleasure of reporting the most positive stories about startups and innovation Detroit has to offer. I tell everyone who will listen that moving here was the best decision I made in a decade.
Terina Davis, my friend and a lifelong Detroiter who is in the middle of her 69th year living in the city, sees the past four years here a little differently. She’s watched the east side apartment complex near the corner of Harper and Whittier that she’s called home for 17 years disintegrate before her eyes. She’s moved from one apartment inside the complex to another as she’s watched a block that was once lined with beautiful, well-kept buildings fall apart under the perfect storm of an absentee landlord, squatters, drug dealers, a police raid, and fires. Two young men were gunned down in the middle of the night on the steps of one building about a year ago, but by then Terina’s surroundings had become so chaotic that the noise didn’t even wake her.
I began visiting Terina at her apartment complex in the fall of 2010, and I, too, can attest to the horror of its current condition, and how quickly it became that way. Once it became clear that nobody with any power was interested in the fate of this little block on Whittier, things went to hell fast. But the fact is, this type of spiraling neglect is replicated all over the city. In fact, in many parts of the city, this is simply everyday life.
Despite the positive things happening along the Woodward corridor in the city’s center and the emergence of a nascent tech scene, Detroit is also under the watch of an emergency financial manager, a supposedly last-ditch step to right the ship before Detroit becomes the first city of its size to declare bankruptcy. The murder rate in 2012 was the highest since the ultra-violent era a generation ago, when crack swept through and decimated the city.
In 2012, fire stations were revealed on the evening news to be seeped in raw sewage leaking from the pipes in bathrooms where firefighters were forced by shrinking municipal budgets to buy their own toilet paper. Streetlights are out in large swaths of the city, the buses are never on time (and are the settings for sometimes fatal fights), and the schools are among the lowest-performing in the state.
So, whose Detroit is the “real” Detroit, mine or Terina’s? How will we decide what course the city should take when it seems like Detroit is actually two separate cities? Is there any other city in the nation where a toxic stew of race, power, and provincialism does so much to impede growth, even as it’s so clearly in the interests of everyone involved to work together? Is Detroit doomed, or is Detroit shaping up to be the blueprint for what a truly progressive post-industrial American city can look like?
Checking in on the side of optimism are a pair of sprawling initiatives launched this year: Detroit Future City and Opportunity Detroit.
Detroit Future City’s Strategic Framework Plan is the culmination of two years of outreach, information gathering, and analysis by the city planners at Detroit Works. It’s a 50-year roadmap to Detroit’s turnaround, and its suggestions are as comprehensive as they are far-reaching.
Less all-encompassing but just as forward-looking is the Opportunity Detroit initiative announced last week. Led by Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Opportunity Detroit is a “visionary placemaking and retail plan for Detroit’s urban core.”
Whether you count yourself as an optimist or a pessimist about Detroit’s future, what most experts agree is that a healthy Michigan—some would even argue a healthy America—depends on a healthy Detroit. Detroit is an iconic city, once one of the wealthiest, most full-of-promise places in the free world, now struggling to survive. People have strong feelings about Detroit, whether for or against, but everyone seems to be waiting to see how we chart our course for the next generation and beyond.
Orchards, Ponds, and Housing Swaps: Detroit Future City
Detroit Future City’s Strategic Framework document is 345 pages of maps, graphs, charts, statistics, and well-informed suggestions for what a healthy Detroit could look like and how we might go about getting there. Some of the highlights include focusing investment on seven corridors where job creation is already happening by emphasizing entrepreneurship and digital, creative, and “eds and meds” job growth. There’s also an emphasis on improving public transportation, including the creation of a high-speed bus line; turning vacant land into forests, orchards, and ponds meant to keep air and water clean; creating dense, walkable neighborhoods; removing roadblocks to getting business licenses from the city; repurposing vacant land as a tool for neighborhood stabilization; a house-for-house swap program meant to shift the population out of vacant neighborhoods to those more densely populated; and mixing art and industry in “Live+Make” neighborhoods in functionally obsolete areas of Detroit.
The framework document is divided into chapters that take a deep dive into the topics of economic growth, neighborhoods, city systems, land use, public land, and civic engagement. The framework is the product of “30,000 conversations, over 70,000 survey responses and comments from participants, and countless hours spent dissecting and examining critical data about Detroit.”
One can read the entire Detroit Future City document online in English, Arabic, Spanish, or more than a dozen other languages, or walk in to the Detroit Works office in Eastern Market and … Next Page »
Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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