URBAN JOURNAL: What I saw in Detroit

BY MARY ANNA TOWLER

It’s risky to visit a city for a few days, see only part of it, and then draw conclusions. But you can’t visit Detroit  – as we did earlier this month for our alternative news media convention – and not be stunned by the devastation: the result, physical and human, of years of abandonment by residents, by manufacturing, by investment.

City block after city block of empty, weedy lots, boarded-up houses, fire-scarred apartment buildings. Spectacular, thriving downtown buildings nearly cheek to jowl with tall, hauntingly empty ones. Signs in a middle-class neighborhood announcing that it is patrolled by a private security force. Concern about crime so serious that convention-goers were warned, by the convention hosts, to take a cab, not walk, from our hotel to the MGM Casino five blocks away.

(You can get a look at some of the abandonment in these photos from “Lost Detroit,” a book focusing on abandoned Detroit buildings. And here’s one of those spectacular, thriving downtown buildings, the Guardian Building.)

Detroit has a lot going for it. The Detroit Institute of Arts’ Diego Rivera murals alone make the museum worth visiting. The city’s rich collection of important architecture includes Mies van der Rohe’s beautiful Lafayette Park and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dorothy Turkel House (recently privately restored).

And despite challenges that would snuff out the hope of many Americans, Detroit is fighting its way back, in big ways and small. Campus Martius Park becomes a lively, people-filled, downtown community center over lunch hour. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert not only had his company build a new headquarters downtown but has been convincing other companies to follow his example. Renaissance Center, the sports stadium, restaurants, hotels: there’s a lot going on downtown.

There’s plenty going on in Detroit neighborhoods, too, led by residents themselves: community gardens, neighborhood preservation, outdoor art….  The afternoon we went to see the Turkel House, it was hosting a fund-raiser for the Woodward Avenue Action Association, a neighborhood group whose work focuses on everything from public safety, street beautification, and code enforcement to community organizing.

What Detroit residents and community leaders are doing is impressive. And yet Detroit has lost so much. Its population is now less than 750,000 – down from a peak of about 2 million. The result includes residential blocks where well over half of the houses have been demolished, commercial strips dominated by deteriorating buildings, a high poverty rate, and a city government that strains to provide basic services.

What has happened to Detroit is unconscionable. And Detroit is not alone, of course. It is simply a particularly stark example of what happens when a nation decides that cities are no longer important and that their decline has no consequences. (“Syracuse Will Be Broke Within Three Years,” read a recent Syracuse Post-Standard headline.)

Detroit’s effort to survive and thrive, against soul-killing odds, is inspirational. But I have to admit that it was really, really good to get back to Rochester, where the decline has not been as severe (relatively, at any rate) and the odds against recovery aren’t quite as large (relatively).

A few days after we got home, we went to the kick-off party for the Jazz Festival, which this week is again packing downtown streets and concert venues with ecstatic people of every age and ethnicity. (Look what we’re doing in Rochester! Success!)

At the kick-off party in the Eastman Place atrium, the Jazz Fest’s founders talked about this year’s event while across Main Street, men were rhythmically leaning and straining, pulling on ropes and raising the festival’s Big Tent by hand.

That is how America’s cities are being saved, by individual people leaning and straining and pulling by hand. This nation has abandoned its cities, emotionally, financially, morally. Cities are having to survive on their own, because we have no urban policy, not at the federal level, not at the state level, not at the county level. And the work for Detroit, Rochester, Syracuse, and far too many others – the work for their residents, their business owners, their public officials – gets harder, not easier. Because we have decided that cities are no longer important.

7 comments

  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    The comment in City that the new intermodal station, which recently received a $15 Million federal grant, was losing support misses the point. It is the ill-conceived, single-use bus center on Mortimer Street thast is a waste of $45 Million taxpayer Dollars. It is the wrong project in the wrong location. No excuses justify bad transporation and urban development planning!

  2. The Fast ferry. Renaissance Square. Paetec Tower. The “re-watered” Broad Street Bridge. The Sibley Building repayment fiasco.

    If Rochester manages to survive economic implosion and devastation it won’t be because our elected officials and civic “leaders” (and their cheerleaders in the media) didn’t give urban suicide every opportunity.

  3. Detroit has a vibrant, world-class jazz festival on Labor Day weekend. Festivals alone aren’t going to save cities, especially ones like Detroit where the collapse of the auto industry was the most significant factor in its problems.

    Detroit is trying, and their festival shows it.

    For eight of the last 11 years, I hosted a national jazz radio conference here (the JazzWeek Summit) during the last three days of each year’s XRIJF, hoping to help showcase Rochester. I was looking for nothing from the festival, but the festival and Visit Rochester weren’t really interested whether our folks were here or not — even though they filled a number of downtown hotel rooms and bought tickets and club passes.

    Detroit, on the other hand, has actively sought us. We were able to get a better deal on hotels and our attendees will be receiving VIP credentials in Detroit, an invitation to the Detroit Jazz Festival’s kick-off party, and a media brunch provided by the Detroit fest. They will also be invited to introduce acts on various stages.

    As a more than 30 year Rochester resident, it saddened me to move my conference to Detroit. But they really wanted us and put out the red carpet for us.

    1. Ed – As recent events have proven, if you want publicity in Rochester you need a violent viral video on YouTube. Might I suggest something along the lines a sax player duking it out with a trumpeter over whether Charlie or Louis had the greatest impact on modern American jazz.

  4. b sarbane · · Reply

    Detroit’s problems come in part from the demise of the American auto industry, but mainly from much more. 50 years of corruption (the last Mayor is in jail and they are still finding the “deals” he had), long-time Mayor Coleman Young’s hatred of white people and their hatred of him, out of control unionism that produced work rules which ensured virtually no one worked, mind-boggling incompetence of politicians who promised benefits the City can never hope to pay. In short, Detroit did not die because anyone ignored it. Detroit died because its own people killed it.

  5. j.a.m. · · Reply

    If you’re wondering about the inevitable end result when you mix liberal big-government ideology, unchecked unionism, racial politics, and corrupt Democrat machines, Exhibit A is the wasteland formerly known as the Motor City. It’s all so tragically predictable: Anyone with an ounce of self-respect — let alone ambition — just gets the hell out.

  6. Rhubarb66 · · Reply

    Aaaah, Detroit…

    A city where a “living wage” ordinace pays public employees and private contractors well above the federal minimum wage.

    A city where the school system spends significantly more per student than the national average.

    A city where the public employess in the school system and government earn exceptional pay, benefits and job security.

    A city where the tax system aggressively redistibutes income from business and the wealthy to the poor, as well as government.

    Detroit, progressive and liberal nirvana. Great to see it’s working out so well for the “Motor City.”

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