Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Notes on the Motor City

Already overgrown.
Detroit is a big place with a vastly smaller future ahead. Don’t get me wrong – I had a tremendously enjoyable time visiting in early July, meeting many interesting and friendly people. There are some signs of hope around downtown, where many of its stately skyscrapers have been or will soon be refurbished, and it seems that the auto industry, which is still fairly active around the city, has recovered from its nadir. But Detroit will never approach its past glories. The process of demolition has already gone far. Derelict buildings remain, but now, for the main part, they exist singly or in pairs. Their neighbors have already vanished, leaving the city’s inner ring a grassy checkerboard of streets. Here and there, enterprising homeowners, whose houses are also lightly sprinkled about, have annexed adjacent vacant lots. Mostly, however, the old city simply relapses into prairie.

Corktown, north of I-75. Michigan Central Station is in the distance.
Curb cuts.
Telephone wires, street lights, and a fire hydrant.
Another view of Michigan Central Station.
The Book Tower is entirely vacant.
The base of the David Stott Building, almost totally unoccupied.
Detroit is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City ideal – an ordered, austere theory that imagined towers of apartments, separated by swathes of open greenspace. His reaction against the cheek-by-jowl industrial squalor of nineteenth-century urbanism profoundly influenced mid-century modernism, but Detroit is not evolving into a Radiant City by design. As older, lower neighborhoods flicker out, they leave tall, compact areas such as Lafayette Park, New Center, and the downtown as the city’s functional remnants. The city's many highways, rarely clogged by traffic, are actually quite efficient at speeding cars around the metropolis, despite their usual pernicious effect on neighborhood cohesion.

The Renaissance Center, built by GM in the 70s as a new headquarters and shopping center, is notoriously fortress-like.
An empty greenhouse. Several rows of vegetables were growing outside, however.
Many writers have expounded on the potential for urban gardening and art spaces to provide an economic and social spark for the city. Few farms were actually visible during our visit. Apart from the difficulty of training urban gardeners, rural producers pose daunting competition, especially those already established as sellers at Eastern Market, Detroit’s weekly emporium of produce. There’s more to be seen in terms of art and design, though I remain skeptical about their potential to form a regional economic engine. What entrepreneurs gain in cheap land by moving to Detroit they lose in access and connections to their clients. 

This house is part of the Heidelberg Project, the brain child of a local man to reclaim several blighted blocks. Arsonists have lately torched over half of the buildings that he transformed.
An artist's backyard. Note the full sequence of bike somersaults.
If Detroit were a country instead of a city – and it certainly is an unusually large for an American urban center – most development theorists would suggest that its competitive advantage lies in an abundance of cheap labor. Textbook recommendations would feature attracting footloose industries that provide lots of poorly paying jobs. Indeed, GM survived beyond its bailout by slashing wages and health care packages for new employees. However, labor costs are prohibitively expensive for any businesses that seek to move there because of minimum wage laws and the expense of providing mandated health care. The auto companies remain only because their sunk costs are so high: no one will ever build another vertically-integrated auto factory like the Ford’s River Rouge Plant in the United States.

A small section of the River Rouge plant. Ford is very proud of its green roof, but the project only covers the top of the building closest to the visitor center.
Corktown's main drag, with downtown in the distance.
One afternoon, Christopher and I visited Slow’s Barbecue, a relatively new joint in the Corktown neighborhood just west of downtown. Newcomers to the area will recognize the Michigan Central Station, at this point probably Detroit’s best-known landmark, which sits just across Roosevelt Park in a state of glorious decay. A pleasant, somewhat pricey spot, Slow’s anchors a block or two of new development that features prominently in documentaries and articles touting a Motor City turnaround. There’s a distillery, a chic second-hand clothing store, and a couple other restaurants that play heavily on historical themes. Close-up, this section of Corktown is on the move, and it’s a good thing that these businesses pull suburbanites back into the city. However, the block is simply a drop in the bucket – even within its immediate neighborhood.

Michigan Central Station up close. Note that workers are beginning to replace its windows.
Detroit does have a few other things going for it, which should be noted as its residents forge a new future. First, the abundance of open space is an opportunity for hard-working and creative minds – especially the former. Next, the city’s legacy of Americana and industrialism gives it a strong sense of authenticity and character. We noticed a number of t-shirts and graffiti that read “Detroit Against the World”, an exceptionalist statement of solidarity that suggests considerable pride of place, if also a willful ignorance of challenges elsewhere in the Rust Belt.

Comerica Park, a bulwark of the downtown.
Finally, in the admittedly limited five days I spent there, I was taken aback by the placid, cooperative nature of social relations. I had thoughtful and candid conversations about race with several casual acquaintances, in a way that I could not in Washington, DC or Baltimore. Locals know well how much the city has suffered and realize there’s more than enough blame to go around among its many constituencies. A legacy of several decades of black leadership in city politics, as well as a population that is 80% African-American, also relieves tensions, though I should note that animosity between Detroit and its far whiter and more prosperous suburbs remains strong.

The Packard Plant, looking south. This is only about half of the complex.
Let me conclude by relating a specific case-study about why I am skeptical of a Detroit renaissance. One afternoon, we visited the old Packard Plant, which shut down in the fifties and has remained derelict ever since. A couple miles northeast of downtown, it’s totally open to the public, with only a single security guard who advised us about parking and safety (explore at your own risk). A couple other groups were climbing around on the structure while we were there – the place exerts a strong fascination for tourists and locals alike. The site is vast, with a series of five-story buildings stretching about three-quarters of a mile, and its interiors are totally open, stripped bare of wiring and anything else remotely valuable, while the walls are splattered with graffiti and rubble from decay and dumping. The hundred-year old factory is literally falling apart.

Local social analysis.
Last winter, a Peruvian developer named Fernando Palazuelo bought the entire property for a few hundred thousand dollars, touting a plan to transform the complex into a mixed-use array of apartments, retail, art studios, and tech spaces (of course). Locals whom we met later on that evening were excited, or at least that was the impression they tried to give us. Palazuelo’s first project: draping fabric over a factory bridge so that it appears renovated. It’s only another $350 million, he estimates, to refurbish (refurbish?!) the whole plant. Good luck, Mr. Palazuelo.

An interior courtyard.

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