Debating Detroit’s Redevelopment

January 31, 2008, 5am PST | Joseph Cialdella
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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.

 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.

 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.

 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.


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.

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