Detroit: An Urban Laboratory for the Post-Industrial Era
Header Photo credit: Boston Public Library
There are several storylines for Detroit. From “the city of tomorrow” to the “arsenal of democracy”, the invention of American middle class, Motown, the “murder city”, to the more recent urban decay and the post-apocalyptical “ruin porn”. None is absolutely true. None is truly false. The realities of the “Rust Belt” face the dreams of a self-made man. Is Detroit an epiphany about economic globalization and the structural failure of the industrial metropolis?
Detroit Slow Roll: from April to October, every Monday night thousands of bike riders meet and go throughout different neighborhoods.
“Slow Roll is like a family, one that includes people of all ages and from all walks of life” (Detroit Slow Roll – Code of Conduct).
Bike design meets communal experience with the support of the City of Detroit and Detroit Police Department.
Following the automobile industry crisis and financial recession, Detroit population dropped almost 30% between 2000 and 2015 (US Census). Housing prices fallen dramatically. Abandoned and burned houses stand as a proof of the recent past.
Affluent neighborhoods coexist with urban decay. Neighborhoods, counties and communities are apparently disconnected by freeways that favor daily pendulums from the city center to periphery. A Regional Master Transit Plan is still a mirage.
Cobo Center, downtown Detroit. Huge open spaces, skyscrapers and freeways. 85.7% of the local population commutes to work by driving. Mean travel time is approximately half an hour. Can you earn a living here without a car? The public transportation system, able to serve only 8.7% of the population, is inadequate and in itself an historical reflex of racial and economic segregation. (All data from US Census)
Is Detroit the symbol of an empty container for renewed ideas about community development? Or is there a lost generation in the making?
Detroit rapper Phat Kat driving an Uber on his free time. “It’s not a ghost town. We’re still here. There was always something going on. We never left. We do have ruins but we do have modern things too. But people don’t take photos of those”.
Once referenced as the tallest rail station in the world, with its Beaux-Arts classical architecture style, Michigan Central Station closed in 1988. It stands often today as post-apocalyptical scenery for Hollywood productions (e.g. Transformers, The Island, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice)
It is now often to see new businesses opening, particularly in the food sector, pushing for an economic comeback.
Several Detroit vacant lots have been converted in urban farms and community gardens “People first called us guerrilla farmers, since we didn’t really have a formal authorization to be there. The majority of the people are struggling from day to day and don’t have enough money. That puts all the development in the hands of wealthy white men”, says Malik Yakini, founder and executive director of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
Several Detroit vacant lots have been converted in urban farms and community gardens.
“The majority of growers are from the edges of metropolitan area, mainly white, from all state of Michigan. The food makers are a pretty diverse racial group and the Sunday market, which is about stuff not about food, is the most diverse market of all. In the U.S. the underground economy is growing faster than the formal economy. We do have the challenge of making labor force participation count”, explains Dan Carmody, President of Eastern Market Corporation.
“Detroit never lacked entrepreneurs. What happened was that after disinvestment it was hard for people to keep the doors open and the housing market killed us. For me, it was a lot of not waiting for someone else to come here and do it for me”, Danielle North, owner at Kidz Kingdom and founder of Ed Reform Partners
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.