Through Bankruptcy and Boom: What's Really Happening in Detroit?

Through Bankruptcy and Boom: What's Really Happening in Detroit?

After exiting bankruptcy at the end of last year, Detroit has suddenly become something of a boomtown in the eyes of the media. Discourse now talks about Detroit Rising, the "Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit". Rents are rising, private investment is flowing into the city, and institutions that left the city for the affluent suburbs are now relocating back into Detroit proper. Too long used only as a cautionary tale, the new focus on the reality of Detroit and free flowing money opens the door for architects and urban planners, not to mention the wider community, to begin thinking about how they want to rebuild Detroit, and who they want to rebuild it for.

It’s the perfect opportunity to formulate plans that will genuinely aid Detroit, involve the community and create a revival that really achieves something. But as it stands, the "revival" forming in Detroit, aided and abetted by media coverage, will not improve conditions for the vast majority of Detroiters and will not create a sustainable platform for future growth, instead benefiting only the private investors and those rich enough to benefit from what is currently classic, by-the-book gentrification.

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Renaissance Centre, a previous attempt to revitalise Detroit. Image © Flickr user paul bica

Between the demands of bankruptcy, the often-unsupportive state government, and surging private sector, the revival in Detroit has not only sidelined local government, but removed them from the equation entirely. Media coverage has praised investors for achieving what the government couldn’t and heralds the rock-bottom prices in Detroit as removing the barriers for entry into investment. To this school of thought, removing elected government is a genuinely desirable outcome, but private investors will only ever do what can bring them profit. In Detroit, this involves a boom for the very center of the city, leaving an impoverished ring of the city between the center and the suburbs.

Racial segregation in Detroit according to the 2000 census. Each dot represents 25 people: Red for White, Blue for Black, Orange for Hispanic and Grey for Other. Image © Eric Fischer

Rents in the center have already soared, prompting evictions of the poor and elderly in desirable city center property, which is then refurbished and let out to wealthy tenants for whom rents are a bargain (yet still unreachable for the vast majority of Detroiters). As a result, in Detroit the movement of wealth which was characterized by the “White Flight” of the post-war decades is now running the other way in the city center, making the city center an increasingly wealthy enclave surrounded by the untouched, still collapsing middle ring of the city. In a classic Moses vs Jacobs problem, the freeway running between the rich suburbs and city center has been blamed for connecting only the city center and the suburbs, bypassing the middle ring of the city and helping siphon money and people away from the communities that most need it. Furthermore, this freeway is increasingly becoming the only way to navigate Detroit, as rich and independent suburbs have begun turning the political border between Detroit’s middle ring and the suburbs into a literal boundary - blocking off access roads to Detroit with barriers (and, in one case, a farmers market) in order to keep the poor, often unsafe middle ring isolated. Much-vaunted transport projects serve only the wealthy city center, leaving the middle ring without transport and a density too low to attract private investment to an area where a large chunk of the inhabitants can't afford cars.

A rendering of the proposed M1-Rail Project. Image Courtesy of Eisbrenner Public Relations.

Bubbling underneath all the headlines about investments and blockbuster developments in the city center, though, the population of Detroit has continued to work under, alongside and behind the private boom to try and improve conditions for the bulk of Detroiters, rather than just those who can afford to buy in.

The central core of Detroit currently undergoing a boom. Image © Flickr user Barbara Eckstein

Cultural Renaissance

While the mainstream developers are focused on profit, a number of groups in Detroit are hoping to create a more "humanized" gentrification by (carefully) embracing the arts. Wayne State University is already a big draw for the city, and cultural groups have surged. Many of the people drawn to Detroit as it is now are coming from previously gentrified, heavily arts influenced neighborhoods in the bigger coastal cities; something that has forced developers to take notice and begin restoring buildings instead of demolishing them, in hopes of attracting younger, urban clientele. Creative workers can finally afford housing and community space in Detroit’s cheaper climate, and Detroit gains a tax base and something very useful to the city’s PR: an air of "cool."

Detroit School of Arts, using Knight Foundation Funding. Image Courtesy of The Knight Foundation
One of PowerHouse Productions homes. Image Courtesy of The Knight Foundation

At its best, the artist bloc in Detroit is a huge component of the community fightback against the new, private city in central Detroit. Power House Productions have been working in the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit’s middle ring to show how art can provide a social and visual transformation of vacant areas and have bought several empty houses to make spaces for visiting a local artists to work, powered by sustainable means. It’s the flipside to a larger national problem, as creative workers priced out of other cities follow Patti Smith’s advice and “find a new city.”

The Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art project inspired by and protesting the deterioration of the city after the 1967 riots.. Image © Flickr user Nic Redhead

But for every positive project in Detroit are another four wealthy creatives who, with the best of intentions and nowhere else to go, only push natives out of the city center. Mainstream art galleries and exhibitions have been booming in the city, with plans from large organisations to invest in museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art bringing rumblings of the Bilbao Effect. Even if community spaces are expanding, it may be a shame for Detroit’s "radical" cultural scene to simply recreate Brooklyn in the private city center.

Overgrown sidewalks have become impassable. Image © University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment

Eco Renaissance

While cheap building rents appeal to cultural groups, it’s the lack of buildings that appeals to environmental ones, with a variety of groups taking advantage of the large expanses of empty land in the middle ring of the city and turning them into community-led agricultural projects. Some of this has fallen victim to the same private boom mentality, as with Hantz Farms’ 10,000 acre private landgrab that has been accused of speculation for little public gain. But other, more radical farms linked to the environmentalist movement go far beyond using the land as a temporary solution. Instead, they use Detroit as an opportunity to advocate an alternative to the conventional idea of cities.

© Flickr user Matthew Berggren

This movement has taken off, with non-profit The Greening of Detroit estimating between 1,500 and 2,000 gardens and farms of varying size and intentions. Some of the most radical projects aim to create a self-sufficient and sustainable version of Detroit that doesn’t require the kind of investment boom and new, private city in the center in order to be considered successful. For them, agriculture is a permanent part of the economy, providing jobs, green housing and alternative to corporate farms and grocery stores and has proved just as capable of attracting forms of money and employment to the city. This attraction, sadly, does present a problem. These radical environmentalist movements are often led by well-intentioned outsiders and appeal to people who view Detroit from the outside as an opportunity for them, rather than from the inside as a series of problems facing the existing population.

That said, exiles from San Francisco are far from the only people involved. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, for example, was formed in 2006, as a response to the large number of well-intentioned newcomers who were creating a small eco-gentrification themselves. The Network has worked for nearly 10 years, gradually expanding their operations from a small community garden into a project offering education, growing space and healthy, sustainably grown food all led by members of the pre-existing community and serving their distinct needs. Where the realities of private investment has led to many local grocery stores closing, the Network filled the gap, providing a co-op store and the means for many members of the community to grow their own food.

Earthworks Urban Farm, which serves the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, a local farmers market and Gleaner's food bank.. Image Courtesy of A Healthier Michigan
The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network's D-Town Farm. Image Courtesy of The U.S Department of Agriculture

Community Renaissance

A small community garden on a vacant lot, maintained by a nearby church group.. Image © University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment

This native-led ingenuity has led to some incredible innovation. Other community-based groups are literally taking the results of the private boom and using them for community gain. Recycle Detroit, for example, is taking the city-ordered demolition of vacant houses and making them into a resource for locals to use. Led by Christopher Siminski, the project grew out of undergraduate work classifying waste materials. Siminski set up a live map, still being populated, which highlights where the otherwise wasted materials from the demolished houses have been dumped and providing information on how they can be used for community construction projects. These materials are filtered back into projects across Detroit of varying sizes, often worked on by volunteers hoping to help Detroit and with Siminski’s goal of sustainable solutions as a guiding philosophy. Providing community planters out of CMU blocks and bicycle parking from reclaimed tires is a very different approach to central Detroit’s cycle of evict-refurbish-rent.

According to Siminski, reception from the local communities has been fantastic. "I find myself having random people come to help and volunteer their time" he says. "I am also involving schools in the area to bring volunteer help, and the response so far has been great. Most of the people who volunteer with me are those who care about Detroit and care about our environment." These local organisations are building trust and faith in the future of Detroit just as much, if not more, than private investment, and are essential to the city's comeback. "We see our goals as being positive to not just the neighborhood, but also a solution that could expand exponentially through the city," adds Siminski.

Detroit's Brush Park neighbourhood in Midtown. Image © Flickr user Stephen Harlan

Reclaim Detroit goes one step further, stepping in before demolition to deconstruct buildings piece by piece, directing materials to salvage yards and providing skilled employment for the local community. This focus on vacant buildings is common in Detroit’s community groups - and understandably so, with around 78,000 homes and business standing empty across the city. As a result, planners and architects have often gone in treating the city as a blank canvas, assuming that demolition is both inevitable and the best outcome, an approach that goes beyond top down thinking right into offensive. Removing blight is all well and good, but there are rarely plans to replace the buildings with anything other than fields or even remove the rubble. Debris that is removed by these private contractors and developers often finds its way to illegal dumping sites, and the buildings often have tremendous architectural and cultural heritage, such as the old Tiger Stadium. All this neglect combined can, as noted by Siminski, be just as harmful to people: "People will evolve based on their exterior environment, and if their environment is designed poorly, or is not managed, or is left in disarray, then those people will regretfully respond in that matter." Getting a united community effort that acknowledges and attempts to tackle Detroit's crime rate and reputation would also go some way to soothing the fearful suburbs and correcting their often inaccurate perceptions and harsh, anti-Detroit policies.

Detroit's Brush Park neighbourhood in Midtown. Image © Flickr user Stephen Harlan

Besides this, these empty buildings could be a tremendous asset if used properly, something that both the private boom and community groups understand; the city center’s rocketing rents have been propelled by refurbished, not demolished properties. Community schemes in Detroit’s middle ring plan to take advantage of this as well, with programs such as the Write a House project, which purchases and refurbishes vacant homes using local workers before giving the homes to writers who pledge to remain in the city for a given length of time. As Sarah Cox from the Write a House project says, "Any responsible neighbor is happy to see a vacant house become an occupied one. People committed to the neighborhood want there to be more responsible residents of any profession." In one swoop, this scheme sends money toward local businesses and brings vacant properties back into use, while giving Detroit an eventual tax base and providing a means for writers to write.

Siminski says that "the future of Detroit is that which we make of it" and, for all the innovation that the boom in central Detroit is credited with, it’s these local groups that are creating truly innovative solutions to their issues. The investment-led boom may transform the center of Detroit without the consent of Detroiters, but the middle ring is creating its own, community-led and community-centric responses that actually help people, rather than profits. Alone these groups can’t save Detroit - the city needs massive public investment, a tax base and most importantly the involvement of the wider architectural and urban planning community if it’s going to compete with the gradual creation of a new city that systematically excludes such smaller-scale initiatives. But with the city government working in concert with the state government to remove residents and make way for the expansion of the private boom’s new city, they’re the only groups that provide a vision of Detroit to save.

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Cite: Dario Goodwin. "Through Bankruptcy and Boom: What's Really Happening in Detroit?" 19 Jun 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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