Monday, December 29, 2008

Detroit - Part I

'D' IS FOR DISASTER... -- So reads the headline on Drudge Report tonight after the venerable Detroit Lions lost their 16th game of the season, setting a new NFL record. Tomorrow I'm sure we can expect the obligatory columns throughout the sports world and beyond about how the Lions are the worst team ever in the worst city ever that makes the worst cars ever. The day after will bring rebuttals extolling the virtues of the other sports franchises and how kind the people of Detroit are. They all miss the point.

I'm not from Detroit and I've never lived there. There is a great deal that I don't know about the city but even a fool could see that something amazing is happening here--provided he could be coaxed off the highways for a moment. The transformation of Detroit is so important from a planning perspective that I believe we must understand it if we are to succeed as a nation.

First a bit of background...

The development of Detroit is entirely and unsurprisingly based around the automobile. There are no substantive differences between the vast majority of the city (around 1 million) and the metro area (over 4 million) in their development schemes. The strip malls get nicer, parcels larger, houses bigger, streets more curved the farther you travel from the city center, yet the layout is virtually identical. Masses of impenetrable tract housing blocks are carved up by a tangle of highways and a mostly square grid of collector routes where commerce occurs.

Outside the small downtown core, no part of the city is in any way walkable. A bus system that offers palatable service to the few lucky enough to be on a route is the only form of public transportation. The towering remains of the old Amtrak terminal loom over the Corktown neighborhood as a lasting reminder of a by-gone era.

So here we have a city, funded by the automobile, built around it, drained by it and left to rot along with it. Yet a drive or stroll through some of the Detroit neighborhoods most drastically affected by the shift to the suburbs, the riots and the corrupt governance reveals something entirely unexpected. These places are not the slums of the outer reaches of the city (or soon the inner suburbs). Their residents are not desperate or destitute. These are some of the strongest people you will ever see and they have learned a powerful lesson that must instruct the rest of us. They have learned how to unslum the suburbs.

I am not talking about the beautifully renovated neighborhood of Woodbridge or the old money of Indian Village. I am talking about North Corktown and the east side. Places where is not uncommon to see one, two or no houses on an entire block. These developments were among the first suburbs, thrown up to house the factory workers of the early auto industry. They proved insufficient to retain the newly emergent and union backed middle class which was siphoned away to ring after ring of suburbs. They became slums, they burned in the riots, they fell victim to drugs and racism in an endless downward spiral.

But people aren't trying to leave these places anymore. The in between spaces are filling in with row upon row of vegetables. Chickens and goats now mingle with guard dogs. Pheasants (known locally as "City chickens") roam freely. The lax code enforcement and inexpensive real estate have drawn a crowd of motivated young suburbanites searching for something beyond the bland dullness of their childhood. One particularly involved suburbanite exclaimed to me that, "In my 30 years here, I've never felt that anything good was happening until now."

As the era of the ever expanding suburb comes to a close, the rings of development march towards their inevitable demise. They are no better equipped to maintain their residents than were the suburb-esque developments of interior Detroit. Yet if they pay close attention, they will hopefully learn to cope with their lot with the least amount of cost and trouble.

Stay tuned because I'll be speaking with some Detroit residents over the next couple days and hopefully have some insight to share.

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