Free-Floating Hostility

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hostylefax: Adventures in Urban Renewal

Vassilis took a break from agitating on behalf of home healthcare workers Friday play tour guide as we walked around Downtown Detroit. I posed this question to him and open it up to any urban planners who might happen across this blog: Is there a tipping point for shrinking cities like Detroit, when land becomes so cheap and the available tax breaks so desperately generous that developers would be stupid not to try and build there? And is that going to be enough for the city to actually regenerate itself?

This was my first trip to my hometown since last July, which means I saw all the construction in preparation for February's Super Bowl, but had not seen the finished product. There's some fairly impressive stuff. At the center of the redevelopment is a downtown park called "Campus Martius." The park was at the center of a previous push for urban renewal. After the fire of 1805, someone named Augustus Woodward supposedly studied the stars and picked a specific location as "the center of Detroit." The new city was then laid out on a hub-and-spoke grid with all major roads leading to a specific spot (now the intersection of Woodward Ave. and Monroe Street). When Queenie worked downtown (pre-1998) it was the center of a traffic circle where lots of homeless people hung out. Now it's a grand-looking place, with a war monument, an Au Bon Pain, and a concert stage that turns into a skating rink in the winters. Around you facing north are huge impressive buildings, including brand new offices for Compuware and Ernst&Young. Facing south, the city has landscaped three blocks of Woodward into a grand avenue, leading past city hall to the river. It's really quite impressive. Here are other people's pictures of what I'm talking about. 1, 2, 3 (from the winter and sort of facing south).

Everywhere you look there are signs draped on buildings that advertise luxury lofts. I won't use numbers, but when Vassilis told me what a luxury loft goes for in Downtown Detroit, I stood there mouth agape. We are definitely living in the wrong place, cost-of-living wise. There does seem to be a different sort of energy downtown. On Friday the Lions were playing an exhibition game, and there were white people in team gear out drinking before the game. It does seem to score a point for those who argue that public funding of sports venues is good for a downtown. It should be noted, however, that the teams here don't control much of the parking. So there's heavy emphasis on getting downtown early, parking cheaply, eating and then heading over to the game.

On the other hand, when you get off the main drags, there are still just as many vacant buildings and homeless people in the area. Some show signs of being developed and others don't. Panhandlers are often quite aggressive (Vassilis: "Come on, at least tell me a joke. What's the best nation in the world? Do-Nation. I love that one"). And as we two white guys walked down a side street, someone called out "Narcos," and then walked inside a store. Whether he was talking about us, I don't know. But it does suggest a fairly well-considered open-air drug market.

I am, as ever, biased on this topic because I want the city to recover and find a way to thrive again. My fear is that Detroit is simply too spread out for much of this effort to actually reach the neighborhoods, in such a way that everyone prospers. In that regard, Detroit might just become New Orleans with shitty weather. That's probably a step up from where it was headed, but not that great an ambition, as far as aspirations go.

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