Tag Archives: Detroit

Shared Responsibility for Detroit's Woes

Source: greatbigcanvas.com

As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I’ve heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be  pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’re a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that doesn’t mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation, we collectively turned our backs on inner cities and the residents thereof many years ago, only seeing fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods, leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
Source: detroittransithistory.info
Source: detroittransithistory.info
  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up and replaced by diesel-belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away from the city in the ’60s and ’70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions and returning to Detroit in the ’00s and ’10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one, the Pistons, still playing practically closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions, and rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions and decisions concerning Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures have been inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many great things about Detroit, and piling on does nothing to reverse problems: it only reinforces misperceptions and stereotypes.

Shall I go on?

– Rick Brown


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Filed under architecture, Crime, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Politics, Public Transportation, Race Relations, Real Estate, Sports, sprawl, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

A Detroit Band with Staying Power

Source: musicboxpete.com

If you have’nt heard of Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers (JH+TRS), don’t worry, because you definitely will. Like a breezy breath of cool, fresh air blowing off of our lovely blue waters, this band brings to life a captivating musical style and awesome songwriting both on the stage and in its recordings. Their shows are filled with superb music and musicianship, tons of rollicking good fun, an eye-popping blizzard of floral/Hawaiian patterns, hilarious/zany eyewear, colorful balloons, and bouncing beach balls. It’s obvious that JH+TRS are having a great time on stage and everyone in the audience is invited to join the party…and they most certainly do.


Source: joehertler.com

Outstanding and often poignant lyrics will captivate you and draw you into each song’s story. Many of the song titles and themes may be Michigan-based (Ego Loss on Grand River Avenue, Red Wings, or J.L. Hudson for example), but the lyrics are truly universal. Meanwhile the hooks, melodies, and guitar riffs will have you bobbing your head and dusting off your well-worn air guitar to play along.  Here is what many considered the band’s signature song (Ego Loss on Grand River Avenue) from the album On Being:

And here are two excellent recent additions to the band’s discography (Your Story and Hometown)

What’s most enjoyable about JH+TRS is the way each of their tunes seeps down into you and occupies your heart and soul.  You’re not just idly listening to music by JH+TRS: you are experiencing it, as they skillfully portray life’s ups and downs from a Michigander’s/Rust Belter’s point of view.  And it is nice to know that we Michiganders and Rust Belters have some really cool (and important) things to say–without having to move away to say it!

Rick Brown

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Filed under Art, Brain Drain, Featured, Great Lakes

A Newbie's Travel Guide to Detroit

Editor’s note: This post comes from Eric Noyes, who lives outside of Detroit.

Friends and family looked at me dumbfounded and slack-jawed when I told them I was moving to Detroit. “No one moves to Detroit, people move away from Detroit.”  But not too long ago people were arriving to the Motor City in droves. What happened, what went wrong, where are the jobs? My guess is that it wasn’t just one thing.

Detroit isn’t the first city I have called home that most people would consider “depressed.” In the last 15 years I have called Buffalo, Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and now Detroit home. Each city is unique and deserves to be visited, enjoyed, and respected. And each city has taught me that you cannot judge them based on first impressions; it takes time to find the gems or a guide. Maybe after a weekend you won’t think it is that crazy to move to Detroit.

When people come to visit, one of the first requests is usually to see the bad parts of the city, and this is the easiest request to check off. Detroit’s blight isn’t hidden or tucked away; it is on display for all to see. Almost proud of its scars, they are on every street in every neighborhood. The iconic Michigan Central Station beams as a beacon of blight as you approach Detroit from I-75. For those into decay porn, you probably already know this.

But along with the decay and hollowness, and often next to, there are some real treasures. The best place to stay to maximize your time is close to downtown. Most of the hotels are chains, and so if you aren’t into that sort of thing try, the Atheneum which is part of Greektown, or the St. Regis, which is part of Midtown. You will need a car: this is the Motor City, after all.

After checking in, you’re probably ready for a meal. Detroit is teeming with Coney Island restaurants. A Coney Island is a hot dog slathered with a chili-based sauce, topped with a variety of condiments. Like cheesesteaks in Philly people have tremendous loyalty to their favorite Coney Island. If you ask five people, you’ll get five answers. Coney Islands are budget-friendly and usually packed with Detroiters. At this point I should probably disclose that I am a vegan. And there are no vegan Coney Island establishments–yet.

Wake up early on Saturday and head to the Eastern Market. You will rub shoulders with Detroiters and suburbanites alike. This open-air marketplace is always buzzing with activity, whether it’s mid-December or mid-June, though Detroit is at its best in the summer. There are always plenty of tasty free samples and great people-watching at the market. If you need more substantial sustenance head to Russell Street Deli or Supino’s. Supino’s is great for thin crust pizza while Russell Street has excellent sandwiches and plenty of veg/vegan options. For something a bit more upscale, walk down to Roma Café, one of the oldest restaurants in Detroit, for Italian fare and great service.

One museum that you have to see is the Detroit Institute of Arts. This museum holds world-class fine art, including the amazing Diego Rivera murals depicting the inner workings of an automobile factory. It doesn’t get much more Detroit than that (wait–yes it does–you can still tour the River Rouge assembly plant on Saturdays). The DIA is located in Midtown and is within walking distance to many good restaurants, including one of the best and only vegetarian restaurants in town, called Se Va. For a more carnivore-friendly restaurant, try Wasabi, right next to the DIA. Wasabi offers Korean and Japanese fare, including sushi, and unlike most encompassing Asian restaurants, it actually does each variation well.

Hopefully you’ve planned your trip around one of the many Summer Festivals, like the Electronic Music Fest, Ho-down, Jazz Fest, or River Daze. There is hardly a weekend during the summer that doesn’t have something going on downtown, which makes your plans for the night a no-brainer. Besides these you can partake in one of the religious institutions celebrated in Detroit: Tigers, Lions, or Red Wings. But there is a new cult taking over: Detroit City Football Club. That is, the soccer kind of football. DCFC is a fourth division football club and made up of mostly Division A college players. When attending one of their home games at Cass Tech, be sure to stand with the supporters. Be advised you will hear colorful heckling, breathe smoke (not from cigarettes), and have a sporting experience unlike any you can have this side of the pond. After the game, head off with the hipsters to whichever bar is hosting the post-game party to continue the revelry.

For a night cap, Atwater Brewery is a great place to grab a beer. Jazzier individuals should check out CliffBell’s near the Fox theatre and the baseball park. Cliff Bell’s has live music and pricey drinks and is usually populated by couples. Neither bar really offers any pub grub so if you need something to soak up the libations head to Motor City Brewery and grab a pizza that’s better than you would think, coming from a bar.

That was a pretty packed Saturday, so sleep in a bit and then take a leisurely walk along the Riverwalk in downtown. This walkway hugs the Detroit River with great views of our Canadian neighbors. Runners, dog walkers, and bikers all use the Riverwalk.

Great Lakes Coffee will get you ready for the day. Great Lakes Coffee will remind you of your snarky, independent, hipster-filled, everyone-use-a-Mac coffee shop from back home. Avalon Bakery around the corner has a similar feel but with more edible options and less seating.

Belle Isle is the center of lot of controversy at the moment. This large city park might be sold/leased to the state of Michigan, which will take over the park and charge admission, with the promise of renovations and maintenance. This may make you think that Belle Isle is probably not a place to visit, but it’s actually one of the few things that anyone, including the state of Michigan, thinks is valuable–which is why the state is trying to buy it. The island sits in the Detroit River, offering great views of downtown Detroit and Windsor, Canada. Light traffic, trails, and an approximately six mile circumference make it ideal for runners, bikers, and dog people. If you’re traveling with children, Belle Isle is a great place, with a newly re-opened aquarium (although hours are limited), a small zoo, playgrounds, and a beach. Bring a picnic lunch and you are set.

More Food:

Roast – high end

Green Dot Stables – gourmet sliders

Slows BBQ – BBQ that is always busy

Orchid Thai – the peanut curry is great

Woodbridge Pub – seasonal menu with lots of meat/veg/vegan options

Al-Ameer – great Middle Eastern cuisine in Dearborn (the Detroit metro area is filled with amazing Middle EasternFood)

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Book Review: John Gallagher’s Reimagining Detroit

This post was written by Patrick Cooper-McCann of the fantastic Rethink Detroit blog. It was cross-posted with his permission.

The 2010 Census was unkind to the Rust Belt.  Buffalo, Cleveland, Flint, and Youngstown all posted double digit percentile declines in population, falling back to levels last seen a century ago.  Detroit lost a full quarter of its population.  Yet, if Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher is right, there is still cause for hope.  In his timely and optimistic book, “Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City,” Gallagher argues that although shrinking cities like Detroit face severe challenges, they also possess the space and opportunity to become greener and more livable, even if they continue to shrink.

The first step toward revitalization, Gallagher writes, is adjusting expectations.  At its peak, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States.  Its massive factories were booming and its streets were lined with shops and people.  Although segregated and polluted, Detroit enjoyed immense prosperity, and many people still judge the city today against this high water mark. To make any progress, Gallagher insists, Detroit has to stop looking backward and work with the city as it is now: a deeply troubled, depopulated place that urgently needs to rescale itself.

For inspiration, Gallagher turns to a host of other cities that have pioneered ways to make use of empty space and retrofit obsolete infrastructure.  In Portland and San Francisco, unneeded highways have been removed from the city center, enabling neighborhoods to reconnect to the waterfront.  In Seoul, London, and Zurich, streams that were once buried in the sewer system have been brought back to the surface, improving the environment while creating new parks and development alongside the water.  In Havana, an impressive network of urban farms, first created amidst the severe food shortages of the “Special Period,” are now providing most of Havana’s fruits and vegetables.  In Chicago, major public arts projects, like the oft-photographed “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park, have attracted tourists and catalyzed development downtown.

Many of Gallagher’s best suggestions are simpler interventions at the neighborhood level.  To beautify the weed-choked vacant lots that dot the city, Gallagher recommends the model used by Philadelphia Green: reseed the lots with grass or ground cover, plant trees, and install picket fences.  To rescale Detroit’s huge arterial streets, built eight lanes wide but now carrying little traffic, Gallagher recommends widening the sidewalks and reserving lanes for bicycles and buses.  These are affordable improvements that, added together, could make a dramatic difference in the look and feel of a neighborhood.

Some of Gallagher’s ideas for Rust Belt reinvention come from Detroit itself.  One of these is urban gardening, which has taken off dramatically in the past decade.  Since 2000, more than 800 gardens have registered with the Detroit Agricultural Network, and several large-scale farming operations are currently seeking city approval.  Gallagher sees great promise in this trend.  At the community level, the benefits are undeniable: gardens beautify empty land, bring neighbors together in a common pursuit, and produce fresh, healthy food—often a scarce commodity in the inner city.

Whether urban farming can turn a profit is another question.  Gallagher is a skeptic.  He notes that Detroit’s best-known farms are actually quite small; if operated strictly for profit, they would only provide a subsistence living.  To operate more profitably, urban farms would need larger parcels of uncontaminated land, a resource that is still easier to find on the outskirts of town than in the heart of the city.  For that reason alone, Gallagher doubts Detroit’s local food economy will ever reach the scale of Havana.

For better or worse, Detroit is also on the leading edge of another trend: the shift from public to private governance.  Nearly all of Detroit’s signature institutions now rely heavily on corporations and foundations for support.  The Detroit Institute of Arts, Campus Martius Park, and Eastern Market are all run by conservancies; Toni Griffin, the lead planner of the Detroit Works Project (Mayor Dave Bing’s signature planning initiative), and Robert Bobb, the former Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools, were both compensated by national foundations; and the first leg of the proposed Woodward light rail line will be funded by a handful of philanthropists.  A similar trend plays out at the neighborhood level, where parks and community centers depend on the labor of volunteers for the most basic maintenance, from mowing the grass to picking up trash.  Several historic neighborhoods, like Indian Village and Palmer Woods, even hire private patrols to supplement the beleaguered city police force.

Gallagher applauds this reliance on public-private partnership as a model of fiscal responsibility, and other cash-strapped cities will likely follow Detroit’s lead.  It is a dubious precedent though.  On the one hand, it is true that many of Detroit’s greatest gains, like the revitalization of its riverfront, would not have been possible without private support.  Urban farming, the most talked about trend in the city, is technically not even legal; it has spread in defiance of city codes through grassroots effort.  But Detroit is not a do-it-yourself paradise.  Volunteers do tremendous work in the city, but they cannot keep every park open nor keep every street clean.  Furthermore, while they are free to paint a mural or build a new playscape at the neighborhood school, they are powerless to keep that school open if the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager decides to close it.  Likewise, while foundations and conservancies have restored some of Detroit’s best institutions, they cannot be everywhere at once, and each time they step in, the public forfeits some control.  Public-private partnership may be necessary, but only as a complement to a robust, functioning government, not as a replacement.

With that important caveat, “Reimagining Detroit” is an excellent and inspiring book.  In clear, open language, Gallagher lays out an agenda for Rust Belt revitalization that is creative, audacious, and (one hopes) achievable.  Although he writes with Detroit in mind, his central thesis—that “a smaller city creates the canvas to become a better city”—should give heart to any city in the grip of Census-inspired despair.  The challenges are still formidable, but Gallagher makes it crystal clear that shrinking cities have a wealth of options to reinvent themselves as something new.

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What Separates Ruin Porn from Important Documentary Photography?

Along with numerous written articles, much invective has been bandied about in regards to the subject of so-called ‘ruin porn.’ Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in discussions centering on the conditions in Rust Belt cities. By now, we are all familiar with the more stereotypical ‘urban decay’ photographers and their (often highly similar) shots of such well known modern ruins as the Michigan Central Station, Gary Methodist Church, or the long silenced Carrie Furnace.

Could this Camilo Jose Vergara photo be considered ruin porn?

These ubiquitous shots of decay have rankled many a city booster and community activist. Not only does the emotional reaction that many pictures of decay inspire make them difficult to discuss, so does the meaning of the term ruin porn, a blanket description that is often used to describe all types of photographs of abandonment. For much like the definition of pornography itself, which former Chief Justice Potter Stewart famously defined by saying “I know it when I see it,” there is much disagreement over what constitutes ruin porn.

Photographer Ian Ference, in a recent response to an article highly critical of ruin photography by John Patrick Leary, entitled “Detroitism,” brings up a salient point about determining what is and what is not ruin porn: Is the photograph in question simply crass exploitation? He explains how the presentation of a photograph of abandonment is also important; crucial to this is the discussion of “the real and complex history and societal context of the structure.”

Photographers such as Christopher Payne and Clifford Zinc have provided invaluable documentation of historic, albeit abandoned, places that transcend the very limited notions of ruin porn. Even if we debate the merit of work that is heavy on shots of abandonment with seemingly limited historical context, like Charles Moore’s, Detroit Dissembled, ultimately, what criteria will be used to judge it?

Even if Moore is far less interested in people, they are present in some of his photographs. That’s more than can be said of most of this type of work. One of the best criticisms of photographs of abandonment, especially those made by photojournalists, is the failure to include people who live in these areas. There are still 700,000 plus people in Detroit, most of whom are African American. Their invisibility in photographic documentations is directly related to their invisibility in policy circles, or in discussions of urban revitalization. In a way, accentuating the lack of people leads to notions that no one lives in these areas. Ruins become more about the past and what once was, instead of the present.

Perhaps this is related to one of the more crucial and least discussed aspects of urban abandonment photography. Derelict sites attracting photographers in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, and elsewhere are in African American neighborhoods, and the vast majority of those taking the photos are usually white males from privileged class backgrounds. These cities are being viewed through eyes that can hardly be described as diverse; to me this may be far more of an issue.

As Vice Magazine correctly pointed in the article “Something, Something, Something, Detroit,” there is a connection between lazy journalism and ruin porn. Part of this has to do with quickly eroding budgets for documentary photography and investigative journalism. Journalists, like the neophyte working for Time in the article, who only has 24 hours to write a story about Detroit—with no car—are short on both time and resources. Such constraints undoubtedly make stories about Rust Belt cities more reliant on metaphors involving collapsing infrastructure and photos of urban decay.

Photography is of course inherently problematic even outside the realm of urban exploration. Susan Sontag’s eloquent and groundbreaking book, On Photography, is highly instructive in this regard. Sontag points out photography as a medium often fixates on the very beautiful, the very ugly and monstrous, the beautifully ugly, and the beautifully monstrous. Photographs of decay are a classic example. This by itself further blurs the line between documentation, art, and straight up exploitation.

The work of Camilo J. Vergara is perhaps the best photographic use of urban and industrial abandonment. His book, The New American Ghetto, charts the decay of specific structures and neighborhoods over time, giving the viewer a moving example of socioeconomic disinvestment and its effects. Vergara also includes the words of people who live in these neighborhoods as well as general histories of abandoned structures in American Ruins. He focuses more on people in How the Other Half Worships, which explores the religious sites and practices of the urban poor and working class. If viewed in pieces, Vergara’s work could be labeled as ruin porn. As a whole body of work though, his photography represents one of the best documentations of the ghettos and the inner cities of modern America.

Ultimately, what, if anything, can we learn from photographs of urban decay? According to Sontag, “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and they can help build a nascent one.” The best examples of urban decay photography can provide us with lessons, as well as provoke our outrage. For what is more outrageous, so-called ruin porn, whatever one decides that is, or a society that presides over numerous rapidly collapsing cities filled with gross inequities unknown among modern industrialized democracies?

-Sean Posey

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Filed under Featured, The Big Urban Photography Project

Brookings Report Says Rust Belt Succeeding at Attracting Skilled Immigrants

Look out, Silicon Valley.

Read the report from Brookings here, which notes the success Rust Belt cities have had in attracting skilled immigrants.

The report notes:

“Perhaps most notable is the very high concentration of high-skilled immigrants in older industrial metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast such as Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Syracuse. Detroit, for instance, has 144 high-skilled immigrants for every 100 low-skilled immigrants. Immigrants in these metropolitan areas tilt toward high-skill because they blend earlier arriving cohorts who have had time to complete higher education with newcomers entering who can fit into the labor market because of their high educational attainment. Several of the cities in these metropolitan areas also campaign to attract and retain immigrants, signaling appreciation for the small number of high-skilled immigrants they do have.”

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Do Casinos = Rust Belt Desperation?

The answer is: ‘Yes.’ That’s according to MinnPost writer Steve Berg in a column about a proposed Minneapolis gaming venture.

He writes:

“aside from Las Vegas, a fantasy island built on gambling and tourism, I’m unaware of any U.S. city that has built a casino for any reason other than desperation. Failing Rust Belt cities build casinos. Detroit and Pittsburgh have them. Cleveland and Cincinnati are joining the list. Saginaw and Lansing, Mich., and Rockford, Ill., want to build them.”

I’d also add Milwaukee; Gary, Indiana and Erie, Pennsylvania to that list. I’m sure there’s other cities I’m leaving out.

And it seems that casinos are often sold to these cities as a way to promote jobs and economic development.

But Berg says a casino just seems to smack of desperation. He also points out Vancouver recently rejected a casino proposal, somewhat on these grounds: “[It] doesn’t fit with Vancouver’s global brand as the world’s most livable city, as the green capital of the world, as a hotbed for innovation in clean and digital technology in resource management,” according to Vancouver’s mayor.

More info on the Minneapolis casino proposal is here.


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Filed under Economic Development, Editorial