New Detroit Vs. Old Detroit

Woodward Avenue in Detroit.  Source: bettercities.net

I am all for positive news about Detroit.  I truly want Detroit to become a success story once again and serve as a new model for Rust Belt recovery.  But the stories that come out of the Motor City should strive for some balance and a dose of reality, both in the good and bad.

Take this opinion piece from Robert Steuteville at bettercities.net.  In it, Steuteville rightly touts the growth of downtown Detroit and the Midtown area, despite the city’s bankruptcy filing:

The news has been mostly terrible coming out of Detroit: The city declared bankruptcy in July, the largest municipal filing in US history. The city’s population has been in long-term decline, and Detroit now has only about 38 percent of the residents that it had in 1950.And yet the central part of the city is surging. More than 10,000 jobs have been added to downtown in the last few years, and that number is expected to top 15,000 by 2015. Everywhere construction projects are moving forward, almost entirely under the initiative of the private and nonprofit sectors…Downtown enjoys a 97 percent residential occupancy rate. Midtown, just to the west, has seen 3,800 new housing units and $2 billion in investment since 2000. The (private sector funded M-1) light rail line will go directly through Midtown, which is sure to see much more development. Nonprofit developer Midtown Detroit Inc. has 20 current projects and 30 more planned.

Steuteville even sheds light on what could be the next phase of Detroit’s revitalization:

Detroit has a thriving “artisinal” economy. The Green Garage in Midtown is home to about 40 startup sustainable manufacturers. (Kresge Foundation president and CEO Rip) Rapson says there are 10 to 15 such incubators in the city, thriving on cheap space. A high-end watch and bicycle manufacturer, Shinola, has grown from 6 to 120 employees in Midtown in the last two years and has plans to double its workforce. High-tech firms are revitalizing the Riverfront warehouse district, north of downtown. Wedged between Midtown and Riverfront, the Eastern Market district thrives on the local food industry, with retail and wholesale distribution.

I wholeheartedly agree that Detroit’s “tinker” culture — Henry Ford was a tinkerer of sorts who built his first car in his own garage — will play a large role in the city’s comeback.  It’s not unrealistic to believe that “tinkerers” from around the nation will once again be attracted to Detroit because of its culture, cheap land and frontier mentality.
But what concerns me most are comments like those expressed in the very next paragraph by Steuteville:

Probably 90 to 95 percent of Detroit, by land area, is in decline. Yet that 5 to 10 percent is bursting with spirit and energy, despite the city government, which is flat broke.

We can quibble on the definition of “decline”; decline is definitely in the eye of the beholder.  But saying 90-95 percent of Detroit is in decline seems extreme.  In addition to large swaths of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, there are still many stable-yet-struggling intact areas that receive little recognition and even less support.  Much of the Motor City’s northeast and northwest sides are comprised of small homes owned by longtime homeowners looking for revitalization to reach them.  Neighborhoods like Bagley, Warrendale, or Regent Park that look like this:



As I’ve said before,  Detroit lacks the kind of pleasant commercial districts that often define neighborhood character, especially to outsiders, and because of that large parts of the city are painted with the broad brush of decline.  But even more, I’m concerned that a New Detroit/Old Detroit dynamic has emerged and will continue to grow, with little communication between the two.
Detroit’s green shoots look good, but we all recognize more work is needed.

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