Something's Brewing in Detroit

Something's Brewing in Detroit

I touched down on Detroit Metropolitan Airport a hot and humid late summer’s day. I had come searching for people and stories that could defy the dire portrayals of the city fed to me by the media.

Detroit has been on its knees for decades, scarred by political mismanagement and corruption, racial violence, physical segregation, auto industrial restructuring and rapid suburbanisation. This former healthy pumping industrial muscle of the United States of America - an emblem of productivity and ingenuity - has become a symbol of deindustrialisation and depopulation, a faded memory of the iconic city it once was.

I stayed in Corktown, once home to Irish immigrants and one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Detroit. On my first day, early a Tuesday morning, I ventured out for breakfast to find the six-lane Michigan Avenue quiet and empty. One could cross it sleepwalking. Topless Venus at the junction Michigan Avenue/Wyoming Street promised lap dancing and T-bone steak for a reasonable $12.50. Opposite, the imposing Michigan Central Station - the former grand entry point to the city - stood empty and lonely in a newly and lovingly planted prairie landscape courtesy of a group of enthusiastic volunteers.

I walked on roads made for driving, across broken sidewalks overtaken by tall grass and flowers, through roundabouts and vast parking lots sparsely dotted with cars, past empty Art Deco skyscrapers and whole neighbourhoods reclaimed by nature. Some areas have an eerie feeling of abandonment, of a place left behind. But a magnificent and desolate grandeur speaks of the city's faded glory. This was an American giant, the birthplace of the middle class and the American Dream.

Detroit is built to serve a population of 1.8 million. Today, around 700,000 residents remain, not nearly enough to bring in sufficient tax revenue to support the most basic of city services, such as street lighting, public transport or waste removal. The city’s infrastructure is crumbling and overgrown, oversized and underused.

Many Detroiters live in the city because they have no choice, whilst some have made a conscious decision to live here to play a part in its rebuilding. My friend Bill Burdett explains: “My mom always encourages me to move to [the affluent suburb] Gross Pointe, because it's easy, it's wonderful, it doesn't cost you any money other than the cost of your house. And it's a very pleasant community, whereas here in Downtown, it’s difficult. Your car can be broken into, you pay higher taxes, services don't work. How you fix that, I think, is you stay here. You become politically involved, talking to other people, bringing in other people to participate, get people to live here and spend their dollars here.”

Michigan Avenue during morning rush hour

Michigan Avenue during morning rush hour

This run down and unfortunate place can offer what few other cities can: affordable space and endless opportunity. As many American cities have become too expensive and too draconian to accommodate the next generation of entrepreneurs, Detroit offers a compelling alternative. There is no shortage of creativity and enthusiasm here, which instils a sense that anything is possible. And since Detroit is lacking many facilities and services, chances are your business will be the only one of its kind and therefore also the best in the city.

A general lack of governance has given birth to a myriad of self-regulating structures. This is a place where residents have taken matters into their own hands and where you as a citizen can help shape the future of one of America’s great iconic cities. It's the wild (mid)west, the last frontier. Where there is no school, they'll build one. If there is no food, they'll grow it. Residents have taken upkeep and maintenance of the city's public realm into their own hands. Private enterprises are training and employing homeless people. This is a community that no longer expects the aid of the local or federal government but that creatively seeks solutions to their obstacles on the way to recovery. It has given rise to a mentality that merges the traditional European values of community with the American entrepreneurial spirit. The authorities couldn't give a damn if someone refurbishes a derelict building without permission. In fact, this do-it-yourself culture is encouraged and supported - it is a small but steady force that is rebuilding Detroit neighbourhood by neighbourhood and that in the long run could have the capacity to change the future trajectory of the city.

Panic in Detroit

Detroit's success has throughout modern times been intrinsically linked to the success and wellbeing of the auto industry. With the introduction of the assembly line in 1913 and the increasing affordability of the car, production reached an all time high. The city depended on a constant influx of immigrant workers, and between 1915 and 1926 the city near tripled in size. Many who came were African Americans who fled the Rural South for the more egalitarian North. With inner city neighbourhoods filled to the brink, developers bought up land on the outskirts of the city for new working class neighbourhoods that typically consisted of simple wooden buildings raised on stilts, barn-like in appearance with pitched roofs and front porches, each with an assigned plot of land for crop cultivation. They were copies of the southern homestead, but built cheaply and quickly, not meant to last.

People started leaving Detroit in the 1950s when industrial production halted. Factories that didn't go bankrupt restructured as a result of changing technologies and manufacturing processes; it was no longer efficient to be located over several storeys within a dense urban area, and with land abundant outside the city, the industry and the lifeline of the city relocated to the suburban region, creating one of the most sprawling job markets in the United States. Increased car ownership and the newly constructed freeway system enabled easy commuting for the middle class family and those who could followed the jobs.

During the 1960s, an estimated 10,000 people left Detroit each year and the cultural make up of the city shifted from predominantly white to predominantly African American. The 1967 riot had a brutal effect on the city. Retail closed down. Businesses relocated. Infrastructure and services suffered from chronic underinvestment. The streetcar network was dismantled and sold to Mexico City. A diminishing job market and the lack of education continued a relentless cycle that passed from one generation to the next. A great divide emerged between Downtown and the suburbs. Bill describes it as a “West Berlin/East Berlin situation”.

Diane and Ernie, founding partners of the architectural practice Zachary & Associates, have a deep-rooted connection to the city and a genuine interest in its renewal process as initiators of several projects that is transforming Detroit’s neighbourhoods. They describe this tumultuous period.

Says Ernie: “There were riots in many cities across America in the 60s. We had a big one that terrified people. Suddenly there's this explosion of violence in the city and people are killing one another. Even though it might not happen in your neighbourhood, it's in your city. And then you had realtors knocking on people's doors telling residents that ‘you'd better sell your house because the black people are coming’. People went to jail over that, but it happened a lot. In the 60s, in America, in Detroit and in the world there were strikes and stress and everything was changing. And this city went along without much change from World War II. Everybody was working, everyone was doing well. Underneath all that was the problems of race and the economic problems, the inequality. Those things were brewing, and suddenly it was exploding.”

Says Diane: “By the time I was in high school, kids just started to leave. Four years later, by the time I was in college, it was over. They were all gone! It was amazing how quickly that neighbourhood completely flipped. And my parents lived there for another ten years. Eventually their house value did go up, but there was a period of time when they couldn't sell the house. This is where so many things turned upside down. And the economic structure that had been fairly stable was completely lost. There was nothing to keep people here. I bought a house in Detroit in the late 70s, in a neighbourhood over by Brightmoor [a derelict residential area west of Downtown]. We had our little enclave there, and it was still a nice little neighbourhood. But by the time I had my daughter and it was time for her to go to school, I had to think about where she was going to go to school? What was I to do? I was a single parent, and it was the security of it all that concerned me. It takes a lot to keep people in the city, when you have to worry about all these different issues. There was no economic value to those homes – there was nothing to encourage people to renovate one of those little houses and stay. So, the poorest of the poor moved. That's what it got to. I was teaching in that neighbourhood and I couldn't believe how bad it was getting. They [the houses] would go up in flames that fast [Diane snaps her fingers]. They were like tinderboxes.”

Two of a few remaining houses occupying an East Detroit residential block.

Two of a few remaining houses occupying an East Detroit residential block.

The residential neighbourhoods that surround Downtown and Midtown are some of the hardest hit areas in Detroit, where the financial hardship and population bleed of the past few decades has had a devastating effect. Detroit News reported that over one third of all houses (139,699 in total) were foreclosed since 2005 and that 84,000 homes are on the city's blight list (Detroit News, Volume of Abandoned Homes Absolutely Terrifying, Joel Kurth and Christine MacDonald), meaning they stand empty and abandoned and left to crumble. Many buildings are long gone, victims of arson or general decline, leaving behind approximately 20 square miles of vacant land (roughly the same size as the island of Manhattan) that is being reclaimed by wild nature at a steady pace.

A porous and untamed structure remains - a challenging living environment made even more problematic by a general lack of services. The vast infrastructure network that was designed for one of the largest cities in America is old and expensive to operate, and with many residents failing to pay their utility bills, basic services such as water and street lighting has been switched off in many neighbourhoods, causing a national and international outcry.

With high unemployment rates and financial devastation a sad reality for many families, vacant homes are vulnerable to crime which exacerbates the rate of neighbourhood decline. The city is home to so many poor people, desperate enough to risk their life on stealing metals from electric wiring. If one property becomes derelict, it has an impact on the neighbouring property, and soon the whole block or area can be affected and head towards a downward spiral.

The Wild Mid-West

Brightmoor lies desolate, tranquil, blossoming. The area has declined beyond blight, and taken on an almost rural character that is yet again starting to attract residents. A group of war veterans are tending a small allotment garden. It is part of a project called Neighbors Building Brightmoor which is founded and driven by Riet Schumack, the primary force behind this born again neighbourhood. Proud residents have actively chosen Brightmoor for it’s strong community spirit, the opportunities to live close to nature and to grow your own vegetables. One of them is artist Nick Tobier who moved from the affluent Park Lafayette, an exemplar modernistic neighbourhood in central Detroit designed by the architectural giant Mies van der Rohe. He settled in Brightmoor to provide a good home for his young family and with a desire to make a difference for a neighbourhood in need of some help to get back on its feet.

Says Nick: “Riet Schumack called me and said ‘come on out to Brightmoor, we can do stuff together!’ I think that's a Dutch thing. They have an attitude that is so much more communal. There are so many things going on. The Neighbours Building Brightmoor project engages kids from the neighbourhood to work Saturdays and summers holidays, when about 60 students get paid to work in the gardens, with the woodworking group, with the bikes, or with the screen-printing. It’s really incredible.“

Nick is taking me for a walk through the area to show me some of the projects that he is working on together with the local schools. The projects are designed to teach children extracurricular skills like woodwork and gardening, whilst at the same time help regenerate and beautify Brightmoor. This might sound superficial or low key, but Nick and the school children are providing essential building maintenance and upkeep of the public realm.

“Isn't it beautiful! It is like the country and there are good things and bad things to that. In the summer, it's overgrown. In the winter, the city services are stretched so they don't pick up the trash and they don't plough the snow. It’s really hard in the winter. It’s just depressing, treacherous. The streets are covered in sheets of ice. There is no way to navigate, you see people trying to walk in the middle of the road, older people falling.

I think the vacancy levels are okay for those who've actively chosen to stay. But if you can't move because your money is locked up in your house and you have no opportunities, it might seem like punishment to live here. I can imagine that for some people, a city that looks like the countryside is a failure. I love this. I like the way it looks. It's pretty peaceful, don’t you think? This is a rare type of environment in this city. It has a good neighbourhood spirit. If you have the same degree of abandonment, without the same care paid to the spaces that have been left in between, things would be a lot different. Here, people like taking care of things. These are all un-owned plots, but there’s enough people around willing to cut the grass.”

One of Brightmoor's many garden projects created and maintained by Nick and his students.

One of Brightmoor's many garden projects created and maintained by Nick and his students.

Nick is pointing towards a densely planted garden:

“These are the signs that the students made. They have an after school woodworking project so you start to see these signs all over the neighbourhood. Patrick [Crouch from Earthworks Urban Farm] organises the plant and seed distribution. So if you're a Detroiter who wants a garden, you can sign up for that scheme. I think it's $8 a year, and you get seeds in the winter, and crops to plant from seedlings. It’s called the Detroit Agriculture Network, and it's also part of the ‘Greening of Detroit’. And it's citywide. You see this little yellow house. They produce their own food, so that you can feed yourself and your family. Then you are less reliant. The ultimate goal for the neighbourhood is to have a greenway or a farmway of tended land that connects different areas so that you can walk from one to the other.”

A fire ravaged and abandoned house turned student art project and free library in the Brightmoor neighbourhood.

A fire ravaged and abandoned house turned student art project and free library in the Brightmoor neighbourhood.

The City of Tomorrow

In 2012, The Strategic Framework Plan was initiated and part funded by a consortium of private foundations that include the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Its main aim is to help Detroit rebuild its economic and cultural vitality, and to provide some physical structure to that endeavour through a series of recommendations that if delivered successfully will make the city more functional and liveable over the coming five decades. One of the more controversial recommendations is to allow approximately one third of the city's land area to revert back to nature or productive landscapes in the form of urban farms, woodlands, orchards and reservoirs that could help decontaminate the post-industrial soil and sustain residents with local food. To enable this, residents are encouraged to relocate to more densely populated residential neighbourhoods in an attempt to restructure and consolidate the city as a more functioning urban area that is easier to manage and service, ultimately creating more prosperous neighbourhoods where residents can live in safer and better environments.

Benjamin S Kennedy is the managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program, the body that oversees grant-making and social investments to help Detroit grapple with a wide array of socio-economic issues.

“With decreased federal state and local funding flows, and deeply limited public sector capacity particularly at the local level, the foundations and private sector, philanthropic institutions and non-profits, although they may not be giving dollars, are the implementing infrastructure. They are really filling in where the public sector created some space or where their absence has created a need. I think that we have become vital in terms of the role we play. The genesis of the project and its foundation goes back to a vision, actually a drawing, that was drawn by our chief executive officer here at Kresge, Rip Rapson, in 2009. He spent some time trying to make sense of the challenges and opportunities in Detroit for a variety of reasons. In part, he wanted to articulate to our board how we were planning to deploy capital, resources and staff to Detroit to deal with the set of increasingly complex problems here. In 2009, we were getting more attention from the federal government. Detroit's problems started to grow in terms of national profile and folks would approach him and say: ‘I see that there's a lot of problems, effort and positive and interesting stuff happening but I have no sense of how it all fits together. It's incoherent to me, and I don't know who to connect through and how to connect to people on the ground.’ And I think what Rip in part wanted to do was to create some clarity and coherence, to literally draw a visual depiction of the large bodies of work that were in motion in Detroit. There had been a lot of conversation about land use reform in Detroit. It is an obvious issue. But at that time there was no thought given to the future of Detroit's physical form and its utilisation of space. By highlighting the land use issue alongside entrepreneurship, sustainability, green economy, the Woodward Corridor [commercial area], public transit, the arts and neighbourhood development, the Detroit team were forced to start thinking about how we give some shape to that effort.”

Parts of Midtown remain scarred and desolate.

Parts of Midtown remain scarred and desolate.

Architects, urban designers and planners are skilled at planning for growth, but urban shrinkage poses an array of different challenges. The Strategic Framework Plan quite rightly suggests that the city of Detroit should contract to a reduced and more appropriate footprint. This presents some great challenges for professionals and residents, in particular when it comes to the aspirations to re-house people in high vacancy areas. There is a law protecting residents against displacement, and those who wants to stay in their homes will be entitled to do so. The city will be required to provide basic services, but the residents that stay in high vacancy areas will need to accept that their living environment will look very different. The proposals have been met with opposition from some resident groups.

Says Benjamin: “I'm not convinced that resettlement in the city and a reconfiguration of neighbourhoods is strongly opposed in the most disadvantaged and disconnected communities. My sense is that when you get down to it, people just want to live on functional streets with street lights, good schools and the basic services that they simply aren't getting today. The nostalgia and the attachment to a place that was their parents or grandparents is actually not there, or quite so present or quite so important. There are a lot of people who'd say: ‘You want me to move from my neighbourhood that is unsafe, unhealthy, without services, without amenities, without schools, without lights, and you want me to move to a more densely populated neighbourhood that will have all of those things and maybe more. And you're going to help me do it. Well, I'm not loving it but do you know what, I'm there.’ But then again I don't think that is in the best interest of some political leaders. They've been in this city for a long time, and so they exaggerate the opposition to the notion of reconfiguration. Again, it's all about the details and the implementation. The opposition to the notion I think is less than certain folks make it out to be.

No one wants to impose their will on other people, so I guess the way to think about it is not relocation, but to create places that people want to move to. A resettlement by choice, not forced resettlement. There is just such an insanely negative history in this country and around the planet with dislocation and relocation, forced marches and people being literally pulled from their homes to make way for some new highway or arena. So viscerally, we all react negatively to the idea of making anyone move from a place. Even the notion of asking people to move, or encouraging people to move, feels like just one step away from forced relocation. It's a frightening notion for folks and I think that's why we all freeze up at the idea that there can be any kind of reconfiguration of a place.”

The crumbling Roosevelt Park is slowly being transformed by an enthusiastic group of volunteers.

The crumbling Roosevelt Park is slowly being transformed by an enthusiastic group of volunteers.

A lot of cities in the United States and the world are facing similar challenges - decentralisation, sprawling metropolitan regions at the cost of Downtown areas. Detroit could set a precedent for other cities, by identifying and test running strategies designed to turn this downward trend around?

Benjamin: “Detroit will be precedent setting, in good ways and bad, but it won't be the only precedent and it won't be the first. There are cities like Pittsburgh and even Philadelphia that were in a very very challenged place and executed their own turnaround. We borrow from their playbook, and Detroit will be added to that list of places. I think what is precedent setting about Detroit are a few things. One, the scale. Both the scale of the place, so much bigger than Pittsburgh, and the scale of the challenges, so much deeper and broader than Philadelphia. Pittsburgh had its own extraordinary fiscal crisis and in fact New York had its own fiscal crisis that we're hearing more and more about these days. Detroit is quite extraordinary, and it will literally be precedent setting in terms of the way these fiscal crises are resolved going forward.

I do think that Detroit has a profile on the global stage again for reasons that are good historically, cars and Motown and techno and all other sorts of interesting things, but also because of the scale and the depth of the challenges and the extraordinary blight that is captured and presented all around the world. Detroit has an image and a profile that Pittsburgh didn't have. Because people see Detroit as so devastated, I think that the notion of bringing the city back offers a really interesting study in hope, collaborative transformation and generational, complex transformation efforts. It offers a really interesting example to other ‘post’ places, whether they are post-natural disaster or catastrophy, post-crisis economically or politically or otherwise, post-conflict, places where the fabric has been destroyed. How you pick yourself up and bring yourself back. There are other places around the world that have done that. Europe did it, right, after World War II. So it's not unprecedented but I do think there is something to be said for a constant update to the model. The apparatuses you had in post World War II reconstruction you don't necessarily have today. Maybe there is a greater private sector involvement required in any effort in this day and age. So Detroit could become a model for how a community picks itself up and transforms itself over a couple of generations. So my hope is that it will be precedent setting in that sense.”

Although Detroit's future relies on one strong and joined up vision, some scepticism is brewing against the Strategic Framework Plan and the top-down approach it advocates. In the shadow of political corruption, general mismanagement within the local government and what could be perceived as the federal government's failure to act, Detroiters have developed a mistrust towards authority and a general belief that change will only happen if you deliver it yourself. There is an apprehension towards private dollars funding strategic and city spanning endeavours and Detroiters have questioned whether the plan can be autonomous of its investors, the private multi-billion foundations.

Boggs Centre to Nurture Community Leadership was founded in 1995 on Detroit's east side to honour the cause of political activists and writers James "Jimmy" Lee Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs. This grassroots movement strives towards self-reliance and independence from corporations and the local and federal government, relying instead on new forms of work, community production and engagement. It is passionately fighting for the rights of Detroit citizens, and was strongly opposing the austerity measures introduced by emergency manager Kevyn Orr in his quest to balance the books and allow the city to emerge from the Chapter 9 bankruptcy (which it did on December 10, 2014).

Richard Feldman is a prominent and vocal figure within the organisation. Born and raised in New York City, he moved to Ann Arbour, a university town west of Detroit, in the 1970 when the city emerged as a centre for left-wing politics, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. As a student at the University of Michigan he got involved in The Students for Democratic Society and the Black Power movement, and after graduation he moved to Detroit to initiate and lead the ‘Next American Revolution’. Richard has a strong view on the Strategic Framework Plan:

“Nothing changes because someone puts on a black board that it should change or comes up with a masterplan. That's not how change occurs. Change happens because people have taken on the responsibility to make that change, and taken on the responsibility of creating that new culture that respects nature, human beings, family, community. It's a process of multicultural revolution and a political transformation that’s taking place. Martin Luther King said that the darker the world gets in terms of a crisis the more clearly you can see the stars of the future. Detroit is at a place now that, if you look at it from five years ago, and you walked up to folks and said that the jobs are never coming back, they would say ‘what do you mean?’. Now, a growing number of people understand that the jobs are never coming back, the government will never save us, the corporations will never save us. This is a very different moment. And it's a different moment because of the global economic collapse of 2009 shook the rest of the world to recognise that what was happening in Detroit is not a Detroit phenomenon. It was a national global phenomenon. We're in that process of how do you change the culture so there is a self-governing community. How does the community decide what will be a community land bank where the people are making the decisions to have a playground, to have a workplace, to have a restaurant. There are people who are returning citizens from prison who are involved in some of these projects as well as high school educates. That's just on the east side, and it's happening all over...  Brightmoor has its own section. Detroit is unique because from 1980, when the global collapse really starts and the multinational, global, corporate expansion takes place, and the technological displacement takes place, and the outsourcing of jobs in the United States to India, Brazil, China, and the rest of the world, capitalism did not want Detroit. It only wanted a little area Downtown. So, during that time, we had the opportunity to build these alternatives. Nobody cared. We started this group called ‘Detroit Summer’ in 1992, which was a way to involve young people in the rebuilding, re-spiriting, redefining of our city. They were involved in murals, rehabbing homes, planting gardens, hooking them up with the African American Gardening Angels. And that was the beginning of the birth that you see many years later. I'm not trying to say that those that started this programmes are responsible for the 1,600 or 2,000 community gardens [in the city], but the ideas and the possibilities have emerged from a particular story.”

Detroit, and in particular east Detroit where the Boggs Centre is located, has seen the emergence of small scale businesses and enterprises that are founded on a desire to rehabilitate the city and reengage its citizens in meaningful employment. Many provide services and products that the city has not enjoyed for decades, some of which are essential, such as local schools and food, some of which are life enhancing, such as a hairdresser or a coffee shop. Many speak of a commitment to play their part in recreating Detroit and to give back to its community. For Amy Peterson, my Airbnb host and co-founder of Rebel Nell, a jewellery business that trains and employs homeless and disadvantaged women on Detroit’s east side to help them build a life of independence and self-reliance, this commitment is one of the company’s founding principles. Rebel Nell is just one of many altruistic enterprises.

Says Richard: “There's a young woman who we met when she was 16 in 1992, Julia Putnam, who started Detroit Summer as a first volunteer. This week she opened up a school, right here on the east side with 50 little kids, kindergarten to third grade. It will become a kindergarten to 12th grade, based on the ideas of Jimmy and Grace Boggs: critical thinking, compassion and commitment building. It's going to be a very different school. 20 years from now, will that be the model upon which rich public schools are built? Possibly. Or will it continue to be just an experiment that gave people hope?

Avalon Bakery came out of the struggle against the casinos here. The founders, Jackie and Ann, were inspired by a speech that Jimmy Boggs gave, that said that we have to rebuild our cities based on small businesses. And that speech came about because Coleman Young said to us that we were all naysayers: ‘You're against casinos, you were against GM plants being built in the 80s – what are you for?’ So Jackie and Ann learnt how to be bakers not for the sake business but so they could build community. They've become successful because they're in the area of Wayne State University, and now they're providing their baked goods to Henry Ford Hospital. They opened up a factory on the east side to produce bread, and want to establish more bakeries on the east side. We are not against investment and growth, but what are the social responsibilities and relationships that people should form?”

Much of the city could be changed and improved with support for bottom up change, including funding and enabling structures that facilitate planning approvals for individuals and small organisations. Whilst not wholesale in character, we should not underestimate the power of small-scale renewal and its potential rippling effect. Corktown and Brightmoor has experienced how something as simple as a new bar or restaurant or a series of community gardens can change perceptions and lift a neighbourhood. These small actors can help build local leadership, strengthen neighbourhood character and diversify the economy to provide the resilience and flexibility that was missing from the vulnerable mono economy that was Motown. Because what the city truly needs is a diversified economic landscape. With new business comes spin off secondary business, more jobs, an increased tax base, better services, more people, new homes, an improved urban landscape...

Michigan’s Right to Farm Act has seen derelict residential areas transformed by verdant urban farming communities.

Michigan’s Right to Farm Act has seen derelict residential areas transformed by verdant urban farming communities.

The culture of giving back has generated self governing systems that provide goods and services in absence of a functioning private market and local government. Local food grown by the city's many urban gardens and small scale community farms has allowed residents to provide for themselves and their families and entrepreneurs to sell produce to the wider city either directly or at local markets. Urban farming is enabled by the Michigan’s Right to Farm Act which was enacted in 1981 to protect farmers from residential encroachment impacting their agricultural operations, and it applies to crop cultivation in urban settlements. The result has been a resurgence in farming operations that are steadfastly moving Detroit away from its food desert status. One of the few supermarkets in the city is Whole Foods, who took a gamble and set up a smaller shop in Midtown in 2012. It was an experiment that paid off. The store is working with local food producers and has lowered their standard prices in a city where one third of the population live below the poverty line with the mission to overcome the growing dietary gap between rich and poor and improve the health of all Detroiters.

Volunteers tending the crops at Eartworks Urban Farm in Detroit's sparsely populated East Side.

Volunteers tending the crops at Eartworks Urban Farm in Detroit's sparsely populated East Side.

Patrick Crouch runs Earthworks Urban Farm on Detroit’s east side, which comprise of three organic vegetable gardens tended by a group of volunteers, many of which are unemployed or between occupation. The harvest is prepared and served up to the homeless community in the on-site Soup Kitchen daily. Hoards of hungry and tired men are waiting on the street outside for lunch.

Patrick: “Farming is not new to the city of Detroit. People have been farming here for a long time. My neighbour has been doing it for many years. It's the extent of Earthworks that is unusual. This is small scale farming and I don't imagine that Detroit will ever become self-sufficient in terms of food production. Our focus is on education, sharing experiences and giving something back to the community by retraining people and bringing them back into employment. And we are cutting costs by removing the middlemen so that our food goes straight to the consumer. There is no commerce involved.”

I ask Patrick about his view on the plans to contract the city, the challenges and opportunities it could bring.

“I'm curious to know what has been done to look at the city from a regional perspective? I imagine nothing. Instead of contracting the city, we should contract the suburbs. People who live out there have huge properties, and the density is much lower than that of semi vacant neighbourhoods in the city. They should relocate, and start living in the city so that we can bring some people back and achieve a higher density. We could then use the suburban belt around Detroit for farming. It has been sprawling out of control, and no one seems to have stopped to think ‘should we contain the city?’. You know these silly diagrams that you see everywhere that shows Seattle, New York and San Francisco all fitting into the city of Detroit. I hate those. Why isn't New York sprawling? Water. Why isn't Seattle and San Francisco sprawling? Water and mountains. We don't have those natural boundaries.”

 “The cities that we love are not those that are well planned. The well planned ones we tend to dislike. I think that change needs to come from the people, and it needs to grow organically. But there needs to be a regional strategy that bottom up growth can fit into.”

Rebuilding a Great American Icon

Whilst small-scale change is slowly rippling through the outskirts of the city, one major player has taken on Downtown. Few venture capitalists invest in Detroit. Too risky. No return guaranteed. But Dan Gilbert is different. He made his fortune as one of the founders of Quicken Loans, the second-largest online mortgage lender in the United States. Originally based in the Detroit suburbs, Gilbert consolidated his locations and established a headquarters in Downtown in 2007, bringing 3,600 employees with him. Through his role as a principal of Detroit Venture Partners, Gilbert's support of tech start-ups has spurred the rise of one of the city's emerging new economies. As more and more companies actively chose Downtown Detroit as their base, empty streets and dormant buildings are brought back to life and much needed tax dollars are injected into the city. His employees are encouraged through various perks to reside Downtown, to keep the area alive and vibrant.

An organic community garden in Downtown - one of the city administration's incentives to revitalise the area.

An organic community garden in Downtown - one of the city administration's incentives to revitalise the area.

With Downtown still a relatively desolate and unattractive environment, Gilbert is on a quest to regenerate it, upgrading squares and parks as well as providing transport for his employees; his shuttle bus service is a common feature on the city streets and team members have exclusive access to bicycle and car sharing schemes to make the city more accessible and liveable. The historic Campus Martius square in the heart of Downtown has been transformed with an urban beach, a bar/restaurant and a programme of regular events. Other projects include the upgrade of nearby Cadillac Square and the reintroduction of the Woodward Avenue streetcar.

Matthew Roling was Quicken Loans' Head of New Business at the time of my visit. He moved to Detroit in 2003:

“I lived a couple of blocks from here. It was very different back then. I didn't really have any of the baggage that many people my age did. I though it was exciting, I thought it was fun, I thought it was like a counter-culture. And I worked for a big corporation [General Motors], so it was nice to have that balance. Then the city hit rock bottom in 2008/2009. Detroit was hit especially hard. Unemployment was around 25-30% and home prices were in the gutter. The bankruptcy of the automakers… People were really fearful. It was certainly the bottom. There was no development for three or four years. Nothing. We got excited about a drug store, a bar, because there was just nothing. But over the course of the last 20-30 years there have been so many people who've been toiling away here, do-it-yourself-ers, people who saw a need, had something that they wanted to do or really cared about. And they just did it.”

Gilbert had the foresight to grasp the development potential of Detroit early on. And he has a small private fortune to invest, which has led him to purchase an impressive number of properties in Downtown, including several of the city's majestic skyscrapers, many of which remain empty awaiting refurbishment when the market is right. It is a clever but long-term strategy that has made him one of the city's single largest commercial landowner according to Forbes Magazine[1].

“Yes, we own One Woodward [Avenue], First National [Bank}, 1001 [Woodward Avenue], Chase [Tower] right here, the Casino. So he [Gilbert] owns 7 million square feet of real estate in Detroit. We are slowly redeveloping it. The amount of money that has been invested in this city is just ridiculous. Dan has out about a million dollar of his personal wealth into this city. We are also the driving force behind M1 [Light] Rail, which is privately funded except for some federal dollars. When Dan went on a tour around North America to visit cities that have been successfully redeveloped, one of the constant themes was public transportation. So that's why we’ve been so adamant in establishing some form of transportation in Detroit apart from buses. We're using the private sector to solve public sector problems, because it's really easy for us, and it's faster.”

Although concern is frequently expressed over Gilbert's monopolisation of Downtown, there is no doubt that he is the single most powerful instigator of positive change in the city. As great thinkers are plotting the future of Detroit, Gilbert is making it happen and there is much to admire in his determination to make Detroit a place of choice. For the first time in decades, bars and restaurants are opening up and occupancy in Downtown is on the rise. Services that the city authorities are too financially distressed to offer, Gilbert delivers. The fear of developing a dependency on one single financial force is understandable considering Detroit's history, and there is a brewing frustration over the authorities readiness to unconditionally support the big players, allowing organisations like Quicken Loans to get ahead in the real estate market whilst many smaller but prospective competitors are left in the backwaters.

“The criticism that I get is that we're creating an environment for young, white people, which is not necessarily something that everyone welcomes. And all the parks and the beer gardens and the colourful stuff – there's a lot of people who find it a little off-putting. We're doing our best, trying to listen to the community, and listen to what people want. Most people that live Downtown are generally young or empty nesters, and I think that we’re doing a lot, from a philanthropic standpoint, for the neighbourhoods.”

“Everyone in America wants to see Detroit win, because Detroit is emblematic of the middle-class and to see Detroit fail, I think for some people, is just one step removed from seeing the middle-class fail in America. Everybody likes to kick Detroit, and everyone likes to raise up Detroit. But our sales pitch is: San Francisco is awesome, New York is awesome and Chicago is awesome. San Francisco, New York and Chicago are going to be awesome in ten years. But you can change one of the most famous cities in the world if you come here. You can be part of reinventing Detroit and if you really want to do something different, you should come here. I think that message resonates with people. People love it, and you either get it or you don't. I think there are a lot of people who'd just say ‘let's just make it like Chicago’ or ‘let's just get it back to being a nice city’. And my argument is that if we were to do that it would be a complete failure because we have such a unique opportunity here to just do what we want and we need to make a city for the next 100 years, not for the last 30 years.”

Dan Gilbert is slowly but steadily acquiring some of the most prominent buildings in Downtown.

Dan Gilbert is slowly but steadily acquiring some of the most prominent buildings in Downtown.

Gilbert has seized a moment in time when anything seems possible. Out of the deprivation has sprung endless opportunities for new business and incentives. In a city that has so little in way of services and activities, new offerings are a blessing, whether it's new public transport links or an espresso bar.

But aside from being an excellent opportunity to acquire real estate on the cheap, this is a chance to rethink one of America's great icons, and it should be done with care and consideration towards the unique qualities that makes this place special and that sets it apart. Its eclectic cultural mix - a melange of the rich history of the Deep South and the traditions imported with the European, Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants that settled in Detroit from the late 1800's and onwards - should be celebrated and nurtured. And with the influx of a new type of resident, the young and aspirational urban dweller looking for financial breathing room, Detroit has the chance to correct the mistakes of the past and become a racially integrated city that caters for the newcomers as well as those less fortunate who have persevered when everyone else moved away. This is a predominately African American population battling substandard services, soaring unemployment rates, depressed property values, abandonment and a crime and drug epidemic that prompted the FBI to label Detroit as the most dangerous city in America. To this day the city remain one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.

It is questionable whether Detroit will or should ever grow to the size of its bloated heydays. The city that we know today is the result of the explosive and to some extent uncontrolled growth of the early 20th century, and the deflation that accompanied the emergence of the suburban metropolitan region, the escalating violence and the deindustrialisation. Even during its most successful era, this was a city that could not provide quality housing and services for many of its residents, and that have fallen into disrepair in part due to a lack of care and maintenance, but also in part due to a lack of resilience in its built fabric. This is particularly true of the residential neighbourhoods surrounding Downtown, many of which are now consumed by nature and the hands of man.

The city feels empty, ghostly at times. Like it's wearing an inherited and all too large suit. Many cities have been forced through the same painful but unavoidable process to reinvent themselves and live on - Manchester, Bilbao, even New York City. Detroit has a spirit unlike no other place. Although the city is scarred and torn, generosity and kindness exists everywhere.

I left Detroit with a lingering and unfettered optimism. The creativity and positivity of the people here has sparked a revitalisation process that is mesmerising the world. To some extent, the city provides a test bed for a new economy and a new urban future. This is the time to pause and reassess, to lead the way for a different kind of city. This takes bravery, something that Detroit has in abundance.

Copyright © 2019, Telling Tales by Cecilia Lindström. All rights reserved.

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