Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Tour of Detroit–The Good, the Bad, the Bankrupt

 While I was home in the USA this summer, I took a tour of the city where my ancestors set down their roots in the 1860's.
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Just as I arrived, Detroit declared bankruptcy. A much reported fact was that 40% of the city’s street lights were out, a disturbing statistic. Yet from what I saw, Detroit is far from dead. It is down, but not out. The question is, will it ever be able to change into the city it wants to become?

Riding in from the airport, I saw a story in Hour Detroit magazine called “101 Things Every Detroiter Should Do.” I’ve bicycled on the River Walk, eaten Coney Island hot dogs (I prefer the cleaner taste of American over Lafayette,) seen the Diego Rivera working class mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and watched hydroplane races on the river. But I had never heard of the Detroit Bus Company tours. Online, I saw two tours that intrigued me.

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Adolph Schreiber was a confectioner.
Was he also one of the
Drunks of Antiquity?
“Drunks of Antiquity” is a historical tour linking Detroit’s past to its oldest and most notorious drinking establishments. According to the tour description, alcohol was “front and center” in many of the city’s defining moments, from its founding as a French missionary outpost through Prohibition and beyond. As a descendent of Irish and German immigrants who came to Detroit in the 1860’s, I probably have some of the alcohol my great-great grandfathers drank still running in my veins. Unfortunately, the “Drunks” tour was in two weeks, and I would already be back in Abu Dhabi.

However, there was another tour the very next day. “Paradise Paved,” a look at development successes and failures around the city, spoke to the geographer in me, and sounded really interesting. And they did hint that we might stop at a watering hole or two. As I was registering, Dad spoke up and said, “I might like to go too.” So I bought two tickets.

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Only after I had paid for the tickets online with a credit card did he ask, “Does this bus have a bathroom?” Geez, I doubted it. It was a refurbished school bus. And how hard would the seats be? Dad’s bony rear end gets awfully sore. How many times would we get on and off? Was there much walking involved? I woke up several times that night, worrying. What am I doing, taking Dad traipsing all over Detroit? Will there be some disaster?

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There was no disaster. It was a beautiful Saturday, and we arrived early at our meeting place at Detroit’s historic Eastern Market, another of the 101 things Detroiters should do. While we waited for the bus, which was late but that’s a long story that I don’t have room to tell, we walked through the market once and then watched hundreds of people, from all over the Detroit Metro area, coming and going with their bags of produce.

Finally aboard the bus, we wound our way east through town while our tour guide, Amy Swift, introduced herself. Amy is a native Detroiter, and here is part of her impressive bio from her Building Hugger website:
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Amy is an architect, writer, and artist living-working-advocating in the city of Detroit. In 2012, she formed Building Hugger to fill what she saw as a void in accessible renovation design focused on marginalized vernacular structures … currently lectures on the history and theory of 20th century architecture at Lawrence Technological University … completed a MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University in NYC … boasts 7 years of experience in architectural practice and has worked previously in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

What, you may be asking, are “vernacular structures?” As part of my graduate studies in Geography and Land Use Planning at the University of Nevada, Reno, we looked at the vernacular landscape.

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In essence, they are the everyday houses most people live in. No fancy architectural pedigree, just what people build when they need a roof over their heads. Think of a sod hut on the prairie, a shotgun shack in New Orleans, a humble bungalow, or a brick or clapboard box. Or this modest duplex on Ashland Avenue in Detroit, where my Dad grew up.

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This is what it looks like now. It was continuously occupied until recently.

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Our first cruise-through was Indian Village and the adjacent West Village, now part of a larger waterfront redevelopment area along the Detroit River. These two beautiful and proud historic neighborhoods boast an architecturally diverse collection of mansions, most of which have escaped the blight and obliteration of the vernacular structures just a few blocks away.

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Designed by a roster of the most famous architects of the time, these beauties were originally the homes of Detroit’s captains of industry and finance in the days before commuting was an option. Current owners are more diverse, yet united in their commitment to keeping their community vibrant. They even have an organization called HACK – Historical Area Cocktail Klub. I can totally respect that.

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A block or two away, we viewed an urban farming project which began as Hantz Farms and is now called Hantz Woodlands. 1500 mostly empty and derelict lots were sold to a developer who would turn it into a tree farm and agri-tourism business, providing jobs for locals and positioning Detroit as a leader in the Urban Farming Movement.

The lots are now being cleared of debris, and derelict structures removed, but as Amy pointed out, not much else has happened. The city’s planning and permit process (is it a process?) may have slowly ground down any innovative edge the project had compared to other cities, who are now jumping onto the urban farming bandwagon while Detroit falls behind. The politics of the project pitted the local residents, those who remained, against City Hall and corporate interests. So, as usual, there are hard feelings.

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Amy asks this question: Is this the best use of this prime land in the heart of the city? Where city services are available, and there is a still-vibrant downtown nearby, should these 1500 lots be downzoned to create a tangled woodland? Or should it remain a vernacular neighborhood, where people can afford to live and work in the city? You can’t create jobs in a city where there is no affordable place for workers to live.

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The tour lasted four hours. We passed many places Dad knew the history of. A friend or relative worked here, owned a building there, his father was baptized in that church, his grandparents had lived on that street.

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Amy took us to the Detroit Riverfront and its RiverWalk for a welcome bathroom stop, past “The Joe” Joe Louis Arena …

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… and on to the Michigan Central Station, where a doomed restoration has been in progress for years. The old post office where my Dad once sorted mail as a young man was across the street.

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We rounded a corner where Amy discussed the vacated CPA building that Dad’s good friend once owned and worked in as an accountant …

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… through Corktown with its Irish bars …

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… past the now-empty site of Tiger Stadium where a game of old-time baseball was being played, complete with period uniforms …

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… then into downtown, Hart Plaza, and Woodward Avenue …

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… into the partially redeveloped Brush Park neighborhood, Detroit’s deteriorated first “suburb,” where the classic beauties are stubbornly clinging on. Amy, who once lived here, told us that Tigers fans sometimes set up their tailgate parties on the porches of occupied homes, assuming the entire neighborhood is abandoned. It is not.


We finished the tour in cool, hipster Detroit Midtown, where Wayne State University is and Whole Foods has just moved in.

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We saw many vacant buildings. Amy told us stories of startups and NGOs that had moved in and tried to renovate, often with temporary success. She pointed out historic buildings that are victims of unwarranted demolition, redevelopments where historic buildings were tragically torn down, and historic buildings that are deteriorating and now unsalvageable.

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She spoke passionately about Detroit, and unabashedly about what she considers its “good” development and “shitty” development, the respectable developers who have the best interests of the city at heart, and the ones she doesn’t support, who are just trying to grab land without considering the long term effect on Detroit.

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Good development maintains healthy, vibrant neighborhoods with businesses open and people present on the streets. But Detroit’s downtown sports, cultural, and casino district, while it does bring people into the city, has created “dead zones” where the streets are empty between events.

Detroit 090One of the biggest problems is land speculators who buy property, making promises about what they will do. Then, they do nothing. Maybe they can’t get the permits they need. Maybe they never intended to do anything anyway. The building deteriorates, the tenants move out. The owner then claims he can’t afford the project any more. But he won’t sell the land, because he wants to hold out for a magic number, which seems to always be $1 or $2 million. Here is the story of the Wurlitzer Building.

The city itself is one of these major land holders, Amy told us. It owes itself millions in taxes. Civic cannibalism!

Detroit 105Wait. Yes, I did say that Detroit is not dead! We saw many places that were brimming with activity. We drove through pockets of cheerful new enterprises alongside the die-hard Detroit institutions and the nearby dross and despair. Is there hope for any big improvements in the near future? Most of the improvements that are now happening are at the grassroots level: small community gardens, neighbors getting together on projects, and often moving ahead without permits. Asking for forgiveness, not permission.

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We did, finally, get to a watering hole at the end of the tour. The entire group, 11 of us plus Amy and the tour conductor, bellied up inside the Temple Bar and ordered pitchers while the bus driver waited patiently. Chatting with the others, we found that they were an eclectic mix but none were tourists – this was not a touristy tour. Everyone there, as Dad later said, “Knew what they were getting into.”

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We arrived home just in time for the all-important cocktail hour. At 4 p.m. sharp each day Dad and I meet Bob, the 93-year-young next-door neighbor and former B-24 bomber pilot, on Bob’s patio. Dad makes himself a “see-thru,” a gin martini on the rocks with onions. It’s been his signature drink since I was small enough to sit on his lap where I could pluck the gin-soaked onions out and pop them into my mouth.

Dad and Bob shake their heads about the bankruptcy. It’s been a long time coming, and no big surprise to anyone who has been watching. Earlier, on the way home, I asked Dad where he placed the blame.

“It’s everybody’s fault,” he said. “There’s enough blame to go around.” And that, in a nutshell, is my Dad, the quintessential stoic Detroiter. When you have lived in the Detroit area for your whole life, you learn to accept what happens.

I agree with Michigan Radio's Jack Lessenberry on the key to Detroit’s success after bankruptcy. There are lessons to be learned from past successes, and Detroit's situation is as close as you can get to rebuilding after a war, but without the bombs. It’s not a simple solution, and it should not be just Detroit’s burden. Detroit is part of a greater metropolitan area. There needs to be a regional approach to solving problems and providing services, especially transportation. Which, of course, is the greatest irony of all. Detroit's automakers used their considerable power and influence to determine how transportation funding decisions were made, which led to the misunderstanding and dearth of mass transportation in the USA today. Now, Detroit is disconnected from the neighbor communities it needs. The city needs to connect to its outer rings, and move people into, out of, and through the city, if it is ever going to be great, or even good, again. 

Thanks for reading.

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