Detroit as Michigan’s Next "Suburb"? Pleeaase.

The Future of Detroit, According to Karen Dumas
Sorry about the recent lack of activity on the blog.  I took a few days off and now I’m ready to get back into the swing of things.
Detroit, Detroit, Detroit.  Every time I try to leave you, you pull me back in.
There was an editorial opinion piece in the Detroit News last week that really caught my attention.  It was from Karen Dumas, a former press secretary to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.  She brought up an important point that underscores the fear of much of black Detroit (indeed, blacks in many central cities), and exposes the general lack of knowledge about planning and urbanism best practices.
Ms. Dumas calls attention to the quiet conversation going on in many cities across the country, particularly those with significant black populations.  While it’s been slow-going and generally under the radar, Detroit has experienced an influx of young, educated – and mostly white – newcomers seeking to settle the new urban frontier.  They are bringing with them a collection of new ideas about community, the built environment and how to do business in the Motor City.  She also cites those she calls “native” Detroiters – mostly black, often undereducated and unemployed, who have been patiently awaiting the renaissance of the city.
This is where it gets tricky.  Ms. Dumas mentions that the newcomers enter the city with expectations of certain amenities: bike lanes on streets, bike racks at bus stops, outdoor café dining and upscale shopping opportunities, among others.  Then she says that the addition of these amenities ultimately make the city become more suburban.
More suburban?  Really?  REALLY?
The transformation is indeed underway in Detroit.  I haven’t been back to verify this personally in some time, but much of what I’ve read over the past couple years seems to confirm this.  Downtown has benefitted from an influx of corporate relocations spurred on by billionaire Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans fame.  Wayne State University, the Henry Ford Health Systems and the Detroit Medical Center have worked together to revitalize the city’s Midtown and New Center areas.  Yesterday’s announcement of $44 million in federal and state grant dollars to complete the Detroit Riverwalk is another indication of a positive step forward that could catalyze revitalization.
Calling these actions “suburban” is absurd.
As Ms. Dumas states, Detroit is urban.  In its core areas, the city is a mix of large and small homes, small apartment buildings and large multifamily developments, warehouse buildings, retail and office uses, and industrial sites.  In fact, in its core areas Detroit is definitively urban.
Detroit’s future is in embracing its urbanity and becoming even moreso.  The transformation taking place is allowing this to happen.  For Detroit to prosper, this transformation must happen, and quickly.
Among its myriad issues, I’ve long believed that Detroit city leaders have had an unwillingness to improve the city’s built environment.  Actually, phrasing it as an unwillingness is putting it kindly; it’s probably more correct to say that city leaders have been clueless on how to improve the built environment.  I’ve mentioned before in the article that led to the creation of this blog that much of Detroit suffers from a bland, rigid and numbing built environment of small homes, bleak commercial corridors and empty industrial sites.  But city leaders have done next to nothing to improve the appearance and cohesion of the city’s neighborhoods.  Instead, they’ve chosen to wait for improved economic conditions that would enrich locals, who would in turn make private investment improvements.
Where is the city leadership in that strategy?
In my mind, another deeply embedded reason why Detroit leadership hasn’t taken the lead on improving the city aesthetic is because it did not want to catalyze actual revitalization.  The elephant in the room is gentrification, which is perceived as a threat to the city’s power structure.
Now we’re getting closer to the heart of Ms. Dumas’ premise.  Sadly, that premise is uninformed.
First, there is nothing uniquely “suburban” about bike lanes, community gardens, and alfresco dining.  The fact is, you find very little of that in typical suburban locales, at least not surrounded by a parking lot.  Where do you find it?  In cities (and yes, some older suburban communities) that seek to employ their niche in the diverse tapestry that is a metropolitan area.  Adding these amenities is as urban as it gets.
Sometimes I feel that while Detroit has endured its decline over the last fifty-plus years, its leaders have chosen to turn a total blind eye to the urban planning policies and practices that have been proven to work in cities across the country.  Have they never heard of the values and virtues of New Urbanism or Smart Growth practices, or just blatantly ignored them?  I suggest the latter, judging by Ms. Dumas’ piece, because of feared loss of political power.
Seriously, Detroiters like Ms. Dumas must ask themselves:
Do they want more of this:
 Or more of this:

Both images are in Detroit — the first in Midtown, the second near my old neighborhood on the northwest side.  Detroit has little that looks like the former, and a whole lot that looks like the latter.

There are many things that Detroit needs to do, but if Detroit is to ever make a comeback it must do three things: 1) build a new economy that is enriching and sustainable, 2) embrace and build on its urban character, and 3) appeal to a broad and diverse range of “customers”. 
So many cities around the country have done those three things; why has Detroit struggled to do that?  Detroit has always waited for auto industry rebounds to determine its economic fortunes instead of using it as a foundation for other growth; the city has never embraced its “cityness” like others have; and it hasn’t brought in the amenities or improved its public infrastructure to offer residents a better quality of life.
“Native” Detroiters like Ms. Dumas will have to rid themselves of the divisive old-timers/newcomers dynamic and realize that change is at the heart of working and thriving cities.  They must assert themselves as part of the revitalization process, learn what newcomers have learned from other locales, and offer direction on how it can be used here.

One thought on “Detroit as Michigan’s Next "Suburb"? Pleeaase.

  1. That picture that you took off Cass is the location of Avalon Bread Co. One of the longer standing businesses in the neighborhood. Unfortunately the photo is misleading because it appears that the entire area is vibrant like the photo but unfortunately maybe only 4 stores make up that entire strip and it's a short block at that. I always see this location in photos because it makes the area appear to be bustling with retail. Even that small strip is an impressive and rarely walkable street scene for Detroit. If you lived in that neighborhood, you'd probably want more options along those lines after being there for a year. Most people would get tired of the same ole' and that's what the city is not offering… a lt of variety. I'm not putting down the area and its accomplishments but foot traffic is still at a minimum around Wayne State. It has picked up but it's still rather dead around the Corridor.

    However, I think Ms. Dumas is out of her mind. She was part of the stagnation problem that took place all of those years within the Kilpatrick posse.


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