Why Detroit Will Survive

Jon Stewart related news of the Silverdome’s embarrassingly low bid sale on his show this week. If you hadn’t heard, the 80,000 seat stadium sold for $580,000 – a price lower than many single family homes. While I realize that Pontiac is not Detroit, I know that the city will survive.

This week I attended a conference called “Finding Common Ground” at the Gleaners building in East Detroit. I met some people at this event who seem very willing and excited to change Detroit in meaningful ways. There were two Dans: Pitera and Carmody of University Detroit Mercy’s Architecture program and Eastern Market respectively. Their presentations on the possibilities that exist in Detroit’s future spoke to me in ways I had not imagined. I also met several young people working with Southwest Solutions who were enthusiastic about their organization’s community development mission.

On Saturday I found myself in Detroit again. The Detroit Urban Craft Fair was a fine example of entrepreneurship in action. Roughly fifty crafters of all kinds were selling their products in the Majestic Theater near Wayne State University. The space felt more crowded than a typical weekend mall sale. After taking a brief trip across the bridge and back I stopped at Eastern Market. Dan Carmody described the changes that his organization had overseen to the infrastructure of this enormous farmers’ market and I felt compelled to see the work in person. Even late in the afternoon the six sheds were crowded with shoppers and vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, cider, pine trees, and slabs of ribs.

A lot of media attention has focused on Detroit in hopes of documenting its funeral. I have bad news for these journalistic vultures, it’s not dead yet. The lesson that Detroit is learning (in  the hardest possible way), is that its future should not be intimately tied to a single industry. I am no political cheerleader, but the newly elected administration has brought in some talented staff who are willing to push cultural changes inside their bureaucracies to achieve city-wide goals. The barriers they are facing are well established. But the momentum for change is real and strong enough to be effective.

What will a non-dead Detroit look like? It’s hard to say. There are lots of possibilities in the approximately forty square miles of vacant land that exist within the city’s boundaries. Dan Pitera raised the examples found in Duisberg of industrial heritage landscaping. I got a chance to ask him why these innovative adaptive use concepts have not migrated to Michigan. He believes that the expectation that Detroit should be a “world class city” clashes too strongly with these concepts. However, as a visitor to the Ruhr region of Germany, I can testify that these spaces are breathtaking and in no way a contradiction to what it takes to be a globally desirable urban area.

The title of this article indicates that Detroit will survive. This past week has helped me believe that more firmly than ever.

By Nick Helmholdt

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Filed under Editorial, Good Ideas, Headline, Real Estate

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