Monday, 6 January 2014

Detroit, Always On My Mind

It is fairly typical to see building like this on most blocks
I think I am a little bit obsessed about Detroit.  I see from my speaking notes to the Nottingham Roosevelt Travelling Scholarship annual dinner last year that I described it as a "tragic, brilliant, beautiful place full of contradictions, challenges and hope".  It is a place that really gets under the skin - see my previous posts on the place here.  I see that the backlash against the 'ruin tourism' is in full force which I've got some sympathy for - it felt quite voyeuristic looking around neighbourhoods that used to be peoples' homes.  I certainly don't like the idea of organised commercial groups charging for tours.  

The green clapboard house to the left was occupied, surrounded by abandoned and demolished homes
I thought I'd share a few articles from the last few months on Detroit and then point people to another broader piece about cities in general.  

This piece on the FT (registration, free) has been sitting in my pile of "things to read properly" for nearly six months but it's definitely worth checking out.  It's a good read and has a striking main picture to boot.  The key moment for me is this quote from a middle-aged firefighter, David McLeod, regarding his move out of the city to the surrounding counties,

"Everyone who can afford to leave has left.  The only people remaining are poor or sick or criminals"
The broad point here is right.  

But the key missing word in Mr McLeod's comment, however, is "Black".  

As this article and map shows, the divide between poor, decaying and Black Detroit and richer, successful, and White Oakland County is incredibly stark.  I talk a bit about this here but the map is a brilliant articulation of the issue.  If you're at all upwardly mobile in Detroit you "got out" years ago and moved to the more prosperous and probably safer suburbs.  Sadly this has the impact of making the city you left behind even more impoverished until it gets into the sorry state it's in today.  And even more tragically, even if you're geographically not living in a particular city you will often make calls on the city's services: roads, schools, museums, parks etc; without necessarily financially contributing to them.  This is relevant to us here in Nottingham (see what I did there?) with our phenomenally tight boundaries - I've covered this previously here.  

Talking of museums, I was incredibly pleased to see that the exhibits in the fantastic Detroit Institute of Arts may have been given a reprive.  The museum is an amazing little oasis of (free) culture and stimulation in the midst of a challenging area of the world and I'd be really sad to see this particular family silver sold off even given the dire straits the city is in.  

Hard to photograph but stunning when up close and a real tribute to Detroit's industrial heritage
I'd never seen any of Claus Oldenburg's work in person before - pretty incredible
All in all, I'd say that Mike Duggan (the new, albeit emasculated) Mayor of Detroit has his work cut out...

... but some of the hope that I think he shows for the city is really well captured in a (longform) article from the middle of last year again in the FT (registration, free).  I'll let you read it yourself but will share a couple of the key points here;
"...Whole Foods, the organic supermarket chain, opened its first-ever store within Detroit’s city limits. The occasion was marked with street parties in its midtown neighbourhood. Others, including Detroit’s impoverished black majority, may feel less excitement about the arrival of an outlet some call “Whole Pay Check” because it is so expensive"
 "Students of the “new urbanism”, such as Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, which argues that cities are the best Petri dishes for new ideas and innovation, say their revival is assisted by a generational shift in US culture as well as deeper economic trends. Florida, who now lives in Toronto, just 250 miles north of Detroit (but still a million miles in terms of its vibrancy), grew up in suburban New Jersey in a second-generation Italian-American family. Like so many other immigrants, his parents fled the claustrophobia of Newark for the freedom of the suburbs. “To them the city was a ghetto – it was stifling and crowded and dangerous,” says Florida. “But to my generation, the suburbs represent a kind of poverty of living and it is the cities, rather than the suburbs, where you can breathe freely" "
"Technology is also an ally. The big out-of-town retail centres once spelt the death knell of Main Street. But the rapid shift to online retailing is now rendering many of them obsolete. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, at least a tenth of America’s remaining 1,000 enclosed malls will shut in the next seven years, mostly because of the internet. That is why people like Gilbert put so much emphasis on “place making” – creating a spectacle out of the street life that only cities can offer. It means good food, open-air events and renovated parks. Out go the discarded needles. In come the open-air chess boards. “American cities are becoming more and more European in their sensibility,” says Florida. “It is all about lifestyle.” As the new urbanists put it (somewhat annoyingly), the US urban revival is driven by the “3Ts” – technology, tolerance and talent."
Do read the whole article - it's a great piece of writing and offers a vision for the future that I find very exciting.  

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