Toni Griffin [ 16 DEC 2013 | Urban Design ] By 2010, Detroit had become the poster child for an American city in crisis. There was a housing collapse, an auto industry collapse, and the population had plummeted by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010, and many people were beginning to write it off, as it had topped the list of American shrinking cities. By 2010, I had also been asked by the Kresge Foundation and the city of Detroit to join them in leading a citywide planning process for the city to create a shared vision for its future. I come to this work as an architect and an urban planner, and I’ve spent my career working in other contested cities, like Chicago, my hometown; Harlem, which is my current home; Washington, D.C.; and Newark, New Jersey. All of these cities, to me, still had a number of unresolved issues related to urban justice, issues of equity, inclusion and access.
Now by 2010, as well, popular design magazines were also beginning to take a closer look at cities like Detroit, and devoting whole issues to “fixing the city.” I was asked by a good friend, Fred Bernstein, to do an interview for the October issue of Architect magazine, and he and I kind of had a good chuckle when we saw the magazine released with the title, “Can This Planner Save Detroit?” So I’m smiling with a little bit of embarrassment right now, because obviously, it’s completely absurd that a single person, let alone a planner, could save a city. But I’m also smiling because I thought it represented a sense of hopefulness that our profession could play a role in helping the city to think about how it would recover from its severe crisis. So I’d like to spend a little bit of time this afternoon and tell you a little bit about our process for fixing the city, a little bit about Detroit, and I want to do that through the voices of Detroiters.
So we began our process in September of 2010. It’s just after a special mayoral election, and word has gotten out that there is going to be this citywide planning process, which brings a lot of anxiety and fears among Detroiters. We had planned to hold a number of community meetings in rooms like this to introduce the planning process, and people came out from all over the city, including areas that were stable neighborhoods, as well as areas that were beginning to see a lot of vacancy. And most of our audience was representative of the 82 percent African-American population in the city at that time. So obviously, we have a Q&A portion of our program, and people line up to mics to ask questions. Many of them step very firmly to the mic, put their hands across their chest, and go, “I know you people are trying to move me out of my house, right?”
So that question is really powerful, and it was certainly powerful to us in the moment, when you connect it to the stories that some Detroiters had, and actually a lot of African-Americans’ families have had that are living in Midwestern cities like Detroit. Many of them told us the stories about how they came to own their home through their grandparents or great-grandparents, who were one of 1.6 million people who migrated from the rural South to the industrial North, as depicted in this painting by Jacob Lawrence, “The Great Migration.” They came to Detroit for a better way of life. Many found work in the automobile industry, the Ford Motor Company, as depicted in this mural by Diego Rivera in the Detroit Institute of Art. The fruits of their labors would afford them a home, for many the first piece of property that they would ever know, and a community with other first-time African-American home buyers.
The first couple of decades of their life in the North is quite well, up until about 1950, which coincides with the city’s peak population at 1.8 million people. Now it’s at this time that Detroit begins to see a second kind of migration, a migration to the suburbs. Between 1950 and 2000, the region grows by 30 percent. But this time, the migration leaves African-Americans in place, as families and businesses flee the city, leaving the city pretty desolate of people as well as jobs. During that same period, between 1950 and 2000, 2010, the city loses 60 percent of its population, and today it hovers at above 700,000.
The audience members who come and talk to us that night tell us the stories of what it’s like to live in a city with such depleted population. Many tell us that they’re one of only a few homes on their block that are occupied, and that they can see several abandoned homes from where they sit on their porches. Citywide, there are 80,000 vacant homes. They can also see vacant property. They’re beginning to see illegal activities on these properties, like illegal dumping, and they know that because the city has lost so much population, their costs for water, electricity, gas are rising, because there are not enough people to pay property taxes to help support the services that they need. Citywide, there are about 100,000 vacant parcels.
Now, to quickly give you all a sense of a scale, because I know that sounds like a big number, but I don’t think you quite understand until you look at the city map. So the city is 139 square miles. You can fit Boston, San Francisco, and the island of Manhattan within its footprint. So if we take all of that vacant and abandoned property and we smush it together, it looks like about 20 square miles, and that’s roughly equivalent to the size of the island we’re sitting on today, Manhattan, at 22 square miles. So it’s a lot of vacancy.
Now some of our audience members also tell us about some of the positive things that are happening in their communities, and many of them are banding together to take control of some of the vacant lots, and they’re starting community gardens, which are creating a great sense of community stewardship, but they’re very, very clear to tell us that this is not enough, that they want to see their neighborhoods return to the way that their grandparents had found them.
Now there’s been a lot of speculation since 2010 about what to do with the vacant property, and a lot of that speculation has been around community gardening, or what we call urban agriculture. So many people would say to us, “What if you just take all that vacant land and you could make it farmland? It can provide fresh foods, and it can put Detroiters back to work too.” When I hear that story, I always imagine the folks from the Great Migration rolling over in their graves, because you can imagine that they didn’t sacrifice moving from the South to the North to create a better life for their families, only to see their great-grandchildren return to an agrarian lifestyle, especially in a city where they came with little less than a high school education or even a grammar school education and were able to afford the basic elements of the American dream: steady work and a home that they owned.
Now, there’s a third wave of migration happening in Detroit: a new ascendant of cultural entrepreneurs. These folks see that same vacant land and those same abandoned homes as opportunity for new, entrepreneurial ideas and profit, so much so that former models can move to Detroit, buy property, start successful businesses and restaurants, and become successful community activists in their neighborhood, bringing about very positive change. Similarly, we have small manufacturing companies making conscious decisions to relocate to the city. This company, Shinola, which is a luxury watch and bicycle company, deliberately chose to relocate to Detroit, and they quote themselves by saying they were drawn to the global brand of Detroit’s innovation. And they also knew that they can tap into a workforce that was still very skilled in how to make things. Now we have community stewardship happening in neighborhoods, we have cultural entrepreneurs making decisions to move to the city and create enterprises, and we have businesses relocating, and this is all in the context of what is no secret to us all, a city that’s under the control of an emergency manager, and just this July filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
So 2010, we started this process, and by 2013, we released Detroit Future City, which was our strategic plan to guide the city into a better and more prosperous and more sustainable existence — not what it was, but what it could be, looking at new ways of economic growth, new forms of land use, more sustainable and denser neighborhoods, a reconfigured infrastructure and city service system, and a heightened capacity for civic leaders to take action and implement change. Three key imperatives were really important to our work. One was that the city itself wasn’t necessarily too large, but the economy was too small. There are only 27 jobs per 100 people in Detroit, very different from a Denver or an Atlanta or a Philadelphia that are anywhere between 35 to 70 jobs per 100 people. Secondly, there had to be an acceptance that we were not going to be able to use all of this vacant land in the way that we had before and maybe for some time to come. It wasn’t going to be our traditional residential neighborhoods as we had before, and urban agriculture, while a very productive and successful intervention happening in Detroit, was not the only answer, that what we had to do is look at these areas where we had significant vacancy but still had a significant number of population of what could be new, productive, innovative, and entrepreneurial uses that could stabilize those communities, where still nearly 300,000 residents lived.
So we came up with one neighborhood typology — there are several — called a live-make neighborhood, where folks could reappropriate abandoned structures and turn them into entrepreneurial enterprises, with a specific emphasis on looking at the, again, majority 82 percent African-American population. So they, too, could take businesses that they maybe were doing out of their home and grow them to more prosperous industries and actually acquire property so they were actually property owners as well as business owners in the communities with which they resided. Then we also wanted to look at other ways of using land in addition to growing food and transforming landscape into much more productive uses, so that it could be used for storm water management, for example, by using surface lakes and retention ponds, that created neighborhood amenities, places of recreation, and actually helped to elevate adjacent property levels. Or we could use it as research plots, where we can use it to remediate contaminated soils, or we could use it to generate energy.
So the descendants of the Great Migration could either become precision watchmakers at Shinola, like Willie H., who was featured in one of their ads last year, or they can actually grow a business that would service companies like Shinola. The good news is, there is a future for the next generation of Detroiters, both those there now and those that want to come.
So no thank you, Mayor Menino, who recently was quoted as saying, “I’d blow up the place and start over.” There are very important people, business and land assets in Detroit, and there are real opportunities there. So while Detroit might not be what it was, Detroit will not die.