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Nothing stops Detroit

When I told my friends that I had booked a weekend getaway to Detroit, I got responses like: “By accident?” and “Why on earth would you want to go there?” But that’s exactly what I did last weekend. I went to Detroit.

I wanted to see first hand what was going on the city. I wanted to see if it really was the lost cause that the media makes it out to be or if it had the potential to come back. I had been following Dan Gilbert’s efforts to seemingly buy up every building in downtown Detroit and I wanted to see if those efforts were working. I’m an optimist, so I wanted to believe that they were.

I also have friends who live in the city and a friend who’s working on a number of urban renewal initiatives in the midtown area. It was a great opportunity for me to get a local point of view and also learn about what’s coming in the development pipeline. So I met my friend Alex – pronounced Ay-lex in Michigan – and I got the run down on Detroit.

Detroit is an absolutely fascinating city. As I mentioned before, it’s like visiting the ruins of a former empire, but one that’s recent enough to remind you of how ephemeral success can be. Whether it’s the death of Blackberry or the decline of Detroit, the mighty fall all the time. But it’s precisely this rich history that makes the city so interesting. When you walk inside some of the buildings built during the first half of the 20th century, you can’t help but be reminded of how important of a city Detroit was for America. Detroit was filthy rich.

But even beyond the showpieces like the Guardian Building and Fisher Building, the Detroit landscape is littered with office and industrial buildings that would make any developer want to line up. One neighbourhood in particular that stood out for me was Rivertown. Running along the water just east of downtown, the area is filled with old brick buildings and the right street scale for a magnificent neighbourhood.

However, I was told that this neighbourhood doesn’t really have a lot of momentum behind it. Most efforts are focused on the downtown and midtown areas. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine the area as a thriving mixed-use community. In the shorter term, I also thought the area could be really cool as an entertainment and nightlife district similar to Kuntspark in Munich, which was also a former industrial zone.

Downtown and midtown are where it’s most evident that change is underway though. “Opportunity Detroit” is the slogan of Dan Gilbert’s real estate company, called Bedrock, and you see it plastered up in all of the windows downtown. Offices buildings are now leasing up and new retailers are moving in. I was told that five years ago none of this was happening. Woodward Ave was empty.

As you move north towards midtown, you then discover a Michigan first: an urban depressed freeway. Detroit was the first city in America to build these and it’s certainly going to work in its favour as its city centre is reborn. I can only imagine how much more divided the city would be today had the freeways that wrap the core been built as elevated overpasses.

But that’s not the case. Downtown and midtown are decently connected, albeit different in feel. In midtown, the buildings are more midrise in scale, the streets are broader, and the retail appears further along. There’s a Whole Foods that just opened up and fantastic new coffee shop called Great Lakes Coffee. It was busy when I was there on Sunday morning and I was told that it’s really the first place in Detroit where people could go to hang out and work.

As you leave the core of the city things really fall off though. This is where Detroit becomes a prairie city and you see the one house on a block condition that the media likes to capture. It’s here where it becomes apparent that Detroit is simply too big, geographically, for its current population. You have infrastructure in place for 2 million people and yet a tax base of 700,000 people. No wonder it went bankrupt.

So like many others have suggested before, I think Detroit needs to figure out a way to shrink in order to eventually grow. Just like a company going through restructuring, Detroit has to rid itself of some its liabilities. It’s going to have to take that write-down.

At the same time, the population needs to be somehow consolidated and something needs to be done with all its excess land (urban agriculture is one idea). Jane Jacobs taught us that towers in a park don’t create urban vibrancy and the same can be said for houses in fields. Detroit is fragmented and divided. More so than dangerous, most of the city just feels eerily deserted.

However, despite these challenges, two things really stood out for me during my visit.

The first is that Detroit still very much has an ethos of production. It likes building and making things, and it’s visible in the emergence of brands like Shinola who are producing bikes, watches and leather goods right in the city.

The second is that there’s a palatable sense of possibility. Detroit hasn’t lost that entrepreneurial spirit that made it a leader in manufacturing, music and sports. A great example of this is the Green Garage in midtown, which is a former Model T showroom turned sustainable coworking lab for Detroit entrepreneurs.

But perhaps the best way to sum up this spirit is through a line I saw on a neon sign downtown on Woodward Ave. 

It read: “Nothing stops Detroit.”

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