Debating Detroit’s Redevelopment

After decades of decline, downtown Detroit is undergoing a broad redevelopment. City-led efforts focusing on attracting corporate dollars and new residents have noticeably changed the city and its economy, but some grassroots organizations say this method ignores the issues faced in Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods. Increasing collaboration among the advocates of these disparate strategies will be crucial to creating a socially sustainable Detroit.

Photo: Joseph CialdellaToday, Detroit is at a juncture in terms of how the city's future will be shaped by redevelopment. Downtown has arguably not looked better since the early- to mid-20th century. New stadiums, casinos, loft living, and the relocation of the corporate offices of companies like Compuware and most recently Quicken Loans are all providing new incentives for people to return downtown in what is reflective of a corporate development redux.

This model of "traditional" or corporate redevelopment has been the focus of a vast majority of the city's resources in recent years, and historically since the 1960s. Yet, corporations produced much of the post-industrial decay and abandonment found throughout Detroit, both downtown and in myriad neighborhoods, causing some to question the effectiveness of these tactics. "Cool Cities," the "Creative Class", urban agriculture, green collar jobs, and even the "Imagination Economy" are all concepts that challenge the traditional corporate-tax-break-downtown-centered paradigm. With a range of options, not only for redevelopment, but also in ways of conceiving the purpose of cities and society, the current debate over Detroit's redevelopment reflects an urban culture that has faced a grueling history of racism, class conflict, deindustrialization, and environmental degradation. Now, the city and its residents must come to terms with this past -- and the stark reality which it has left upon the city -- in order to reevaluate and recreate a new Detroit for the 21st century.

Photo: Renaissance Center
The Renaissance Center, once the epitome of redevelopment in Detroit. Today some are reconsidering this mode of corporate-only redevelopment.

Corporate Redevelopment

Primarily corporate projects such as Comerica Park, Ford Field, and the relocation of Compuware and Quicken Loans have played a significant role in creating a more vibrant downtown Detroit, with new lofts, residences and restaurants popping up nearby. However, these undertakings are also a deliberate choice to lure back the white middle class that fled the city, beginning after the Second World War and continuing today, by providing attractions and physical enhancements found in other cities. At the same time, these policies ignore many issues in the city's neighborhoods where residents, a majority of whom are African American, reside.

Status quo policies do not recognize the history of decline that formed Detroit's problems in the first place, and are ultimately rooted in much the same system that originally caused the area's demise. They possess (and rightly so) a sense of immediacy. Yet, the extent to which these solutions will remain viable in the long-term is unclear, particularly when alternatives are rarely given attention, let alone the same level of support by city government. Downtown may be the most visible symbol of the city, but it is far from an adequate representation of Detroit as a whole.

Some of the most popular alternatives to this strictly corporate, grandiose model of urban redevelopment are manifested in concepts such as the state of Michigan's Cool Cities program and Richard Florida's notion of the Creative Class. These ideas emphasize the link between education centers, a healthy middle class, and a vibrant "authentic" urban center, which caters to this crowd by creating a "people climate." They are based on retaining and attracting talented people through educational institutions and opportunities, rather than tourist-type developments such as stadiums and casinos. Cities like San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, and New York are successful examples of this strategy.

Detroit is striving to replicate the successes of these cities in some regards. The river walk, to some extent, is part of this notion, as are local restaurants, loft living, and the educational draw of Wayne State University. However, still prominent among these ideas is the underlying notion that Detroit and struggling cities in general can only be revitalized by attracting new residents, rather than going beyond racial and particularly class boundaries to invest in the people who have bore the human cost of urban decline.

New Solutions to the Urban Crisis

A growing number of people are in favor of a truly new means of thinking about how urban centers are redeveloped in a holistic way for an environmentally and socially sustainable future, with a focus in Detroit's neighborhoods. Advocated for by people -- such as community activists Grace Lee Boggs, "entrepreneurial socialist" Jackie Victor, and Capuchin Monks -- and organizations -- such as The Greening of Detroit -- this solution to the post-industrial urban crisis is rooted in the belief that residents, abandoned and forgotten by what Boggs calls the "dominant culture," must "grow their souls" by envisioning a new way of redevelopment which meets their needs. New ways of conceiving Detroit's present situation are manifested in the growing presence of urban organic farming in the city's neighborhoods, the business ethics of Avalon Bakery (an organic bakery opened by Detroit residents with a socially responsible mission and commitment to the local community), and even at the university level, where a group of students from the University of Detroit Mercy created the Adamah Project, a green and agricultural vision for the city's Eastside.

"Sustainability, local economy, and community are three pillars of the path not-yet taken in Detroit. A path that moves beyond downtown development, beyond ‘cool cities.' The Imagination Economy can be an authentic expression of who we are," writes Jackie Victor, co-founder of Avalon Bakery, highlighting not only her business model, but also broader themes of local reliance and self-determination. These themes are not present on the same level in city redevelopment policies, given the uneven focus on downtown, which, much like suburban sprawl, ignores, displaces, and perpetuates racial and class divisions in society that have been a part of Detroit's (and other cities) history for years.

Photo: Abandone Packard Motors factory
An abandoned Packard Motors factory in Detroit. It is on vacant sites such as these, large and small, throughout Detroit where new agricultural/environmental uses are being conceived.

The local government is overwhelmingly focused on attracting people to the city, but is not addressing the needs and assets of current residents. It is enthralled with the idea that jobs and community wellbeing can only come through corporations and physical improvements, and also unwilling, amid the continued despair of its residents, to equally seek out new solutions that would aim to benefit a larger segment of the city. As a result, a clear message of betrayal and hopelessness is sent to residents – the same people who have been at the bottom of this failed system before.

A Holistic Approach to Redevelopment

The community-based 'agri-urban' side of the redevelopment debate in Detroit seeks to rebuild the existing communities of the city in a holistic way, by linking education, environmental issues, and in the case of Avalon Bakery, business ethics. After a successful garden tour of the city in August 2007, one Detroiter commented:

"I got a sense of how important community gardens are to our city and how we need to replicate them all over the city. They reduce neighborhood blight, build self-esteem among young people, provide them with structured activities from which they can see results, build leadership skills, provide healthy food and a community base for economic development. People, especially young people not only learn where food comes from but how to prepare healthy food."

Without a doubt, Detroit is a stronghold of possibility. When the potential for collaboration and genuine dialog between these disparate groups advocating redevelopment is harnessed, Detroit can go beyond possibility to create a genuinely holistic redevelopment design that addresses historically rooted issues of race/class, and community degradation, while also contending with imminent issues such as environmental sustainability, to become the next great American city. To some, it may seem unreasonable that Detroit, a city that has unquestionably been affected by devastating Federal policies, should have to bear the burden of a radically different model of urban redevelopment policy alone. Nevertheless, if it does, Detroit will become the city that has taken the road less traveled, setting an example for the region as a cooperative metropolitan future becomes necessary, and that will make all the difference.

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Joseph Cialdella is a graduating senior in the Residential College at the University of Michigan majoring in Arts and Ideas in the Humanities, with dual minors in Urban and Community Studies and Environmental Studies. He is a lifelong resident of Michigan, and plans to pursue graduate studies in the field of urban, regional and environmental planning after graduation.

Comments

Comments

Detroit should give the status-quo a go

As a fellow Michigander and Detroit exile, I am thrilled to see an article that portrays Detroit's potential for redevelopment in a somewhat positive light. The city has long deserved its distinction as the poster child for urban decline and blight, but very little discussion of the city's recent successes has attracted attention beyond local media outlets and educational institutions. Many communities could learn a great deal from the city's attempts to right itself since the mid-twentieth century.

The observation that the city is in need of creative solutions beyond the status-quo is both obvious and correct, but I would like to make the point that a serious attempt at traditional redevelopment has been conspicuously absent from the city's efforts, both public and private. Agreed that the city's residents have been neglected in redevelopment efforts, and agreed that improvements in quality of life for residents is paramount to satisfying and attracting a tax base. However, Detroit's efforts to these ends have been far from traditional, ignoring the successes of other communities in favor of "anything is better than nothing" mentality.

In my opinion, the barriers to Detroit's much-needed neighborhood renaissance have been 1) political corruption, 2) unparalleled institutional failure, including rampant unemployment and the nation's absolute worst public education system, and 3) a general sense of hopelessness among residents, community leaders, elected officials, and the general public in Southeastern Michigan and beyond about the city's prospects for improvement. Racism is an issue, but Detroit must learn from the South: regular exposure and shared cause are the best solutions for bigotry.

I believe that the public efforts that would have the greatest weight in reversing the city's fortunes are 1) MAJOR improvements in the public educational system, 2) massive housing renewal efforts, focused on improving entire neighborhoods at a time, and 3) federally constructed programs to address homelessness and crime, and 4) a national advertising campaign focused on promoting the city's improved business district, school system, crime prevention, and neighborhood improvement. Due to their general hopelessness, current residents will not initiate any of these efforts, and they probably won't buy in until they see results. For this reason, public universities in partnership with private developers and the city are in the best position to initiate such changes.

Grassroots movements will be necessary, and creative solutions will probably be essential in order for the city to reverse its climate of decline, but comprehensive attempts at traditional neighborhood revitalization could do for Detroit what such efforts have done for Washington DC, the Bronx, Harlem, Cleveland, St. Louis and Baltimore.

There is nothing wrong with creative solutions, but the tried and true could make a difference if the city (or local universities) could produce the leadership necessary to continue downtown's momentum.

Sean Northup, Master of Urban and Regional Planning candidate, Ball State University, Muncie, IN

Major improvements to the

Major improvements to the educational system are clearly in an extreme state of need, along with housing and federal programs, I agree with all of this. However, Detroit has given much of the status quo (such as tax breaks and downtown only redevelopment) the spot light, without much input from local residents. This is where much of the hopelessness mentality comes from: a government that does not seem to have needs of residents in mind (Due to political dysfunction, an uncooperative metropolitan region, etc) The problem is that they are focusing on this status-quo only, rather than branching out to focus on the myriad other issues facing the city, such as education, thus forcing residents to conceive of their own solutions.

A better attempt at any comprehensive neighborhood revitalization plan would be positive, however issues such as gentrification should be should be seen as real concerns with "traditional" revitalization practices. The impetus for redevelopment solutions should come from local residents, which is currently not the case in Detroit.

Perhaps what Detroit needs most is an equivalent of the "Kalamazoo Promise," which would guarantee to pay for college tuition costs for graduates of Detroit Public Schools at any public community college or university. Indeed a brilliant way to replace hopelessness with hope, prepare residents for a "knowledge economy," and lure companies to the city. Perhaps the local and state governments in collaboration with private investments could give this some thought as well.

Thank you for reading and commenting, a positive and ambitious dialogue is always needed in Detroit!

Reframing the Argument

As a university student and lifelong resident of the Detroit area personally invested in the rebirth of Detroit, I am pleased to see that a fellow student, Mr. Cialdella, has contributed such a well-crafted piece that concerns itself with the needs of Detroit’s economically bereft population. Mr. Cialdella has framed Detroit’s current corporate redevelopment as counter to the needs of the city’s neighborhoods, but the dialogue on redevelopment in Detroit does not and should not be framed as such a war between low-income residents and big business. Comprehensive revitalization stemming from corporate redevelopment is the only way that we will ever see Detroit’s neighborhoods rebound; the city’s planners, leaders, and most importantly, its residents, must harness the benefits of the current downtown, business-led revitalization effort to improve the lives of the city’s least fortunate residents.

As is quite obvious, Detroit is suffering from an almost nonexistent middle class, an extremely poor and racially segregated population, high levels of crime, and numerous other burdens that create a negative image, a loss of hope, and a bleak economic outlook. Detroit is part of a severely fragmented metropolitan landscape that is indeed divided by race and politics, and the city’s revitalization has essentially been forced to take place without any contribution by the wealthy suburbs or state, despite the fact that Detroit’s revitalization is in the best interests of the entire metropolitan area and the state of Michigan. Detroit is therefore put in the position that it must generate its own redevelopment with its own financial resources and leadership, two assets that are intimately intertwined and which are currently lacking in the city.

But the plight of Detroit is not altogether unique; similar situations have existed elsewhere and have elicited exciting responses. Detroit can learn a lot from other cities that have successfully revitalized their downtowns and have seen the effects of downtown rebirth trickle into neighborhoods, one example of which is Providence, Rhode Island. Providence’s rebirth began just like Detroit’s has begun, with an intense focus on downtown revitalization with Federal transportation funding and private sector business leaders. No one who visits Providence today will refute the fact that the city has turned the corner, and a 2004 book by Frank Leazes and Mark Motte titled Providence: The Renaissance City details the trickle-down effects of downtown revitalization on the entire city. Although the effects of downtown revitalization on the city’s poor neighborhoods were not immediate and have certainly not been a silver bullet, there have been noticeable and real improvements for the city’s low-income population. The lesson for Detroit is that we need to be patient, since revitalization takes time, leadership, and financial resources.

We can basically look at leadership for revitalization in Detroit as coming from three potential sources: grassroots leaders, city government, or business. While grassroots leaders are certainly to be lauded for their efforts in Detroit, there is only so much that they can do under their limited budgets. City government leadership, despite the visionary orientation of the current and past mayors, has been dogged by constant corruption, abuses of power, and negative media coverage that undermine government officials’ ability to effect change in the city. And the city government is certainly not flush with financial resources; persistent budget deficits and employee lay-offs have crippled the city government’s ability to spend money on redevelopment programs and actions. Thus, the business community and its leadership (and, by extension, non-profit groups as Detroit Renaissance, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, etc.) have been left to redevelop Detroit, and we cannot argue that the efforts on the part of General Motors, Compuware, and other companies and their leaders have been outstanding. Recognizing that a vibrant downtown is vital to their own companies’ success, they have changed the physical landscape of Detroit and their efforts have been responsible for attracting middle- and upper-income residents back into the city.

Although it may not look like it, attracting new downtown jobs and middle- and upper-income residents to Detroit does benefit the city’s struggling population. The current era of downtown redevelopment, if successful and continuous, will produce significantly improved tax base for the city, thus resulting in an increased capacity for city government to improve the lives of its constituents. Any city needs tax base to support its population (especially if the population is as destitute as Detroit’s), and unless Detroit attracts big business and middle- and upper-income residents, its efforts to support its residents will be extremely limited. A comprehensive effort to improve the city’s neighborhoods will require continued leadership from grassroots community developers and business leaders, but will also require a more fiscally solvent city with elected leaders who truly support the interests of their constituents and do not carried away with abuses of power.

My post will undoubtedly enrage champions of low-income community development for its pro-business orientation, but we must understand the reality of the political and economic situation in Detroit. Grassroots efforts are not without merit, but when the city’s population is as impoverished as Detroit’s, grassroots efforts alone will not suffice. Leadership and financial resources have come together in the city’s business community, and only through the channels of corporate downtown redevelopment will there be any chance for leadership and financial resources to permeate to city government and grassroots efforts to improve neighborhoods. It is then up to grassroots organizers and city residents to ensure that the benefits of newly realized financial resources get into the hands of those who need them most.

Brian J. Connolly, Master of Regional Planning candidate, Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Far From A War

The argument does not present the issue as a war between big business and low-income residents. Rather, it suggests Detroit needs to go beyond this type of mentality, to realize a cooperative approach between competing groups for a new form of development that will move Detroit dramatically forward. A war-like mentality moves the debate and progress nowhere.
An important aspect of the argument is, however, that the local government is not fulfilling its fundamental role to all of its citizens by so overwhelmingly focusing on only large scale corporate only redevelopment, in the face of very immediate issues of homelessness, joblessness, and many other necessary community needs that Detroit's residents have lacked for years because of historical, institutionalized disadvantages which came from this same corporate/government model.

Businesses will be a necessary component to any redevelopment plan, however it is not the only component, and the government can (but does not) demonstrate this through its actions, such as encouraging more local businesses, like Avalon Bakery and not only corporations, and giving equal consideration and support to the ideas of local residents who are the city's constituents. Far from a war, what Detroit needs is genuine collaboration between the components which make up contemporary cities.

Detroit needs a system which can move its residents into the middle class and upper classes that can support the city, rather than solely relying on importing these groups and shuffling the socioeconomic/racial makeup of the metropolitan region. A socially sustainable future cannot come from this system.
New methods will take time, just as waiting for results to trickle-down will take time. However, when only one, primarily corporate, system is given precedence by the government, local residents, the constituents of that government, will never know if an alternate system could move them out of despair more quickly or if a combination of the two would be the ultimate revitalization tool.

Detroit's a mess

Detroit has unlimited potential and almost as many hurdles to overcome. It can be done, but the laser beam focus on the area from the entertainment district to the riverfront, has left the rest of the city to rot. Take a drive one day, the length of Livernois, if you don't agree. What citizens of this city have to live in, and deal with on a daily basis is unacceptable.

I don't know of any other American city to have made so little progress in redevelopment in the last decade. Until there is a commitment from a larger segment of the regional population Detroit's changes will be largely cosmetic, and relegated to a tiny portion of the city.

Detroit's population is small, resulting in a tax base too small for it's physical size. What Detroit needs is reverse annexation. Unfortunately who'd want what Detroit would get rid of?

Committing to Detroit.

I don't know of any other American city to have made so little progress in redevelopment in the last decade. Until there is a commitment from a larger segment of the regional population Detroit's changes will be largely cosmetic, and relegated to a tiny portion of the city.

I grew up in Warren. My dad had a large business in SE MI and more contacts than you could count. Many of his associates tried to redevelop in Detroit after Coleman Young. Trouble was, Young planted his cronies throughout the city and the path through their outstretched palms and paperwork was long and tortuous indeed. The commitment was there, it just went away in frustration.

Best,

D

Was offered a job in Detroit

Last winter, I was offered a job in Detroit, and when I went for a visit, I learned a whole lot. City government is corrupt, lazy, incestuous, and mostly unqualified. Many people hold jobs for which they are totally unqualified. I mean, I encountered people in management positions who lacked a high school reading level. It amazes me the city has not already collapsed. If Detroit doesn't get a Giuliani-Bloomberg, or at least a Cory Booker, soon it will end up an archeological site for Europeans to take pictures of, in fact, some would argue, that's what it is now. At the moment, I'm back in Detroit. Those who think of Detroit as New York in the 70's or Chicago in the 80's are mistaken. Detroit is far far beyond that. I don't think the densifying projects going on in Flint and Cleveland are a bad idea. If the city doesn't do it, the forces of natural decay will do it for them.

- EuropaNewYorkaChicaga

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