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 view the Detroit Future City exhibition. There’s even a toll-free number (1-800-234-7184) people can call for more information on the Detroit Future City plan.
Detroit Works itself is not technically a city office, though it considers city government a major stakeholder in the project. The final Detroit Future City document is an offshoot from the 2010 “rightsizing” effort attempted by Mayor Dave Bing that outraged Detroit residents, particularly those living in neighborhoods targeted for resettlement. Detroit Works split from the city’s department of planning and went on to produce the framework plan.
Dan Pitera, co-leader of civic engagement for Detroit Works’ office of long-term planning and a professor at University of Detroit-Mercy, says now that the information-gathering and analysis portion of the Detroit Future City project is over, the next task is trying to define the tactics of engagement necessary to unpack it.
When the framework document was released in early January, the Kresge Foundation immediately pledged $150 million in existing grants for work that furthers any of the Detroit Future City objectives. “It’s not new money, and that’s a good thing,” Pitera says. “If Kresge would have put out a large sum, other foundations might not have aligned. It’s not about creating new money, but aligning in a new way.”
Pitera also wants to keep community skepticism that one community partner’s agenda will receive priority over another to a minimum because his office spent so much time building relationships and engaging with a variety of city residents. For instance, there was a “roaming table” set up on random street corners or places like the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown where Detroit Works staffers would hold one-on-one city planning conversations with whoever sat down and wanted to talk. To appeal to younger people, gaming and social networks were incorporated into the information-gathering process. Telephone town halls were held to appeal to those age 75 and older.
Pitera says the data shows the exhaustively inclusive process paid off: 14 percent of respondents ended up being under age 17, an “unheard of” number; a good thing since they’re the ones who are more likely to still be living here in 50 years. More than 20 percent were in the age 18 to 35 demographic, and 61 percent were female.
Detroit Works hosted meetings, but it also made an effort to go out and attend existing meetings held by block clubs, churches, and other community organizations. Detroit Works made itself part of the agenda, Pitera points out, and had three mandates: To be as transparent as possible, to be accountable, and to interrupt people’s lives as little as possible by going to them. The work was conducted much like a political campaign in terms of the amount of “shoe leather” expended and the effort to canvass every corner and demographic in the city.
The most surprising thing to Pitera about the whole thing was how enthusiastically people responded in a place that has already been “planned to death,” though often with hiccups along the way that eventually derail the planning. “To see people willing to engage and still be hopeful and excited drove our passion forward,” he adds. “A lot of the work was taking neighborhood-level engagement to a city-wide level, where the scale of the city can be paralyzing.”
Since so many of the Detroit Future City action items will require city participation and, often times, significant policy changes, Pitera says the Detroit Works staff held monthly roundtable discussions with government agencies. Detroit’s city government has the reputation of being a bloated, overly bureaucratic monolith, but he says that’s not entirely true.
“It’s not the folks in government who don’t want [reforms], but the systems in place that prevent it, particularly when it comes to land use,” Pitera notes. “There’s lots of criticism of our city government, so no plan should hinge on any one entity, including government—that’s really unsustainable.”
Marja Winters, deputy director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, says that when her office first began meeting with Detroit Works there were a few surprises, but along the way the framework’s findings “validated points we felt but couldn’t quantify.”
One such point was whether it was more important to create jobs within the city of Detroit, or increase access to other places in the region where there were already more jobs. “The community overwhelmingly said it’s very important to have jobs within the city limits,” Winters explains. “Now it’s not just us who thinks that, the community does too. That was an ‘a-ha’ moment.”
Winters says work is already underway internally to amend zoning documents, but she points out that any official changes to zoning ordinances will have to be approved by city council, which is always a dicey prospect in the highly charged political atmosphere of today’s Detroit.
“It’s good that we have the momentum of the plan being done,” Winters adds. “Along the way, there are things that can be implemented now through pilot projects. It would be to the benefit of the city and state to work within the confines of the [framework] document. More good can come from going down this path than not, and I think the state sees the value of this work.”
According to the framework document, what’s key to the city’s future is focusing support to three or four strong core clusters of business—digital tech, eds and meds, design, and manufacturing—instead of relying on one industry.
“We disagree with the idea that industry will be gone,” Pitera says. “It will be present, but in a different form. It can be a clean and green industry making solar cells for cars, or a food and beverage development industry. Think of Eastern Market as a hub for the entire state, and that’s where urban agriculture fits in—processing, packaging, all of that. That’s what industry means. It’s not just things that relate to building cars— these buildings can be repurposed for other things.”
Also, in addition to the traditional downtown-Midtown-Corktown axis of development, Pitera says there’s an untapped opportunity in the corridor of northwest Detroit that includes Marygrove College, the University of Detroit-Mercy, and Sinai Grace Hospital. “If they coordinate and buy together, that will spur housing and retail development,” he says.
Housing and retail development is exactly what’s planned for the Opportunity Detroit project announced by Rock Ventures last week. Building on what Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures founder Dan Gilbert has already done downtown—purchasing 22 buildings with a total of 3 million square feet of commercial real estate and investing nearly $1 billion in the city’s commercial core since 2010—Opportunity Detroit envisions creating six distinct destinations that will draw visitors to the city.
And the amenities planned for those destinations are exciting: a beer garden and temporary basketball court for pick-up games and tournaments in Campus Martius; art installations, movie screenings, and concerts in Capitol Park; and new retail and office tenants along the Woodward corridor.
“Detroit stakeholders need to know this vision is real,” Gilbert said in a press release. “It is a wildly exciting, incredibly well-thought out plan that will be activated immediately. Residents, office workers and visitors will experience a dramatically different Detroit in two years. We are committed to impacting the outcome and we are relentless in getting every Detroiter to join us in this campaign.”
No Detroiter Left Behind
Every Detroiter, even my friend Terina Davis? She hasn’t set foot in downtown in years, thanks to the fact that she doesn’t drive and has a bad back, a bad heart, and bad eyes. What does she think of what Opportunity Detroit has planned downtown? How does she feel about Detroit Future City’s idea of turning vacant land close to her neighborhood into ponds and forests?
“If they’re building something downtown, does that mean extra taxes?” she asks. “They’re trying to bring people back, but if they don’t have good transportation, how are they going to get there? And the police? Fuck it,” she says with a dismissive wave, reflecting the cynicism many residents feel about the department and its ability to keep people safe.
Seventeen years ago, Terina’s block held seven apartment buildings that were neat, clean, and full of tenants. Then, suddenly a few years ago, when something went wrong, the landlord stopped fixing it. The streetlights went out three years ago. Families with three or four kids began moving into one-bedroom apartments. As the buildings became noisey and crowded, those who objected moved out.
Since it seemed clear that the landlord wasn’t paying attention, squatters began moving in “and messed up everything,” she says, which drove more paying tenants out. The landlord came back and removed all the washers and dryers from the buildings. Scrappers came through after and took the radiators and the rest of the appliances. Soon, one building after another was taken over by drug dealers. During a police raid, a fire broke out that destroyed one building almost completely.
Now, there is only one habitable building left on Terina’s block where people pay rent. In another building, two former tenants-turned-squatters are living with an illegal electric hook-up but likely no running water, since one of the men showers at Terina’s apartment on the weekends. To keep other squatters out, they changed the locks on the front and back doors.
The rest of the buildings are utterly gutted—windows smashed out, trash piled everywhere, insulation and garbage billowing out of burned out hulks. Women and children avoid walking past them for fear of getting snatched and taken inside. If the rest of Terina’s neighborhood goes the way of her block, she could be looking at a city-sponsored relocation package in a few years.
“It’s downright disgusting,” she says of the current state of Detroit. “People don’t care. They won’t even give you a smile.”
But in the future Detroit imagined by the Detroit Works planning document, people do care. In fact, in that city, someone has built a thriving small business deconstructing blighted housing like the buildings in Terina’s crumbling apartment complex. The streetlights are back on, and you don’t wait an hour for a bus that takes you around the corner to the bank. I ask Terina to imagine it, and she does, hesitantly, and agrees that if it could ever be achieved, it would be amazing—like the Detroit of her youth.
Keeping people like Terina engaged is a major focus of Detroit Future City going forward. “We can never rest on our laurels,” Pitera acknowledges. “If we stop and say, ‘Now we don’t have to work,’ that’s our first mistake. I’m feeling more nervous about this since the plan was released because I want to make sure engagement continues to implementation, and make sure action occurs.”
Pitera says the plan will move forward by collaborating with and leveraging the resources of the 200 organizations that are stakeholders in the project, including corporations and foundations with real money to invest. “We’re convinced that if we don’t ignore the civic structure we built in the process and we let that become the infrastructure to implementation—that’s sustainable.”
Pitera believes that once people see good things happening, the momentum toward meaningful revitalization will build. The first things implemented will be small, but in five years, he predicts that things will begin to stabilize and people will see growth.
For a comparison, Pitera looks to Pittsburgh. In the 1980s, there were “little moves” being made toward rejuvenating an old steel town. Now, Pittsburgh is considered a bastion of arts, culture, and economic development. But in Detroit, it’s important to note, the city’s collapse has been much deeper and more widely felt.
“This work is unprecedented at this scale,” Pitera adds. “It’s not a civic engagement plan, or a land use plan, or an economic development plan—it’s all of that. I’ve been asked to speak all over the U.S., and I’ve met with people from Germany, Thailand, Japan, and Russia, and all of them are interested in this work for different reasons. We can be a premier example for people to follow. We say it’s a 50-year plan, but you don’t have to wait 50 years to get excited about the plan.”
Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or firstname.lastname@example.org.