Detroit's vision and revision
Framework for change looks promising, but watch who controls the reins
Published: January 16, 2013
After the “new vision” for Detroit’s future was unveiled amid much fanfare last week, we gave a call to Dan Pitera, one of the many people involved in the two-year-long effort to create what’s been dubbed the “Detroit Future City” plan.
As the reporters invited to an in-depth briefing about the project before its official coming-out party were told, this isn’t a “plan.” It is, instead, “a strategic framework for future decision making.”
So you got that — this is a framework that will help guide future development.
We’re not exactly sure what the difference is, but that’s OK. It is enough to know that this effort is big and important and groundbreaking in some fundamental way.
We’re not being sarcastic when we say that, either. In terms of breadth and depth, it is an unprecedented undertaking. And not just for Detroit. Nowhere is the world, the journalists were told, has anything quite this extensive and multifaceted been attempted.
A big part of the reason for that, unfortunately, is that no other city has endured the level of abandonment Detroit has. The numbers are painfully familiar, but worth repeating nonetheless: At its peak in the 1950s, Detroit’s population topped out at more than 1.8 million people. In April 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau counted just fewer than 714,000 people living here. And now, despite the ongoing resurgence of such neighborhoods as Midtown and Corktown, the overall exodus continues, with the population now almost certainly dipping below 700,000. And the projections are that the number of people living in the city will to continue to fall until it bottoms out at about 600,000.
Declining population means declining tax revenues, which means a continued decrease in public services, leading to even more abandonment. The city’s downward spiral hasn’t yet stopped.
And its not just people who have left. Detroit has become the poster child for what’s now described as the postindustrial city, with once high-paying factory jobs largely a thing of the past. Just this week, on the television program 60 Minutes, there was a piece on the ever-expanding — and now rapidly accelerating — role robotics is playing in the workforce, with machines replacing not just workers on the shop floor, but everywhere from warehouses and grocery stores to call centers to stock trading.
Money is being made — a lot of it. The problem is that many more jobs are being lost than created, and so the wealth being created continues its concentration at the top of the economic ladder. But the machines only produce; they don’t consume. And without workers earning wages to buy things, the prospects of an economy that flourishes on all levels, for those on the bottom and in the middle as well as on top, seems pretty dismal.
Where it all ends, nobody knows.
What’s certain is that Detroit, the former Arsenal of Democracy and onetime “model city” in terms of racial diversity, has long been in the forefront of decline. And now, as a result, it is looking to take the lead when it comes to figuring out how we as a society adjust to this new world we’re facing.
The “Detroit Future City” effort is supposed to be a blueprint for decision-making as Detroit moves forward. As we were watching the presentations last week, however, especially when the discussion turned toward talk of what planners call “green and blue infrastructure,” things like orchards and storm water retention ponds envisioned for mostly abandoned neighborhoods that were once filled with people, we began thinking about another plan, one featured on the cover of this rag more than a decade ago.
In October 2001, we did a story titled “Down a green path.” about an “alternative vision” for what was then an already devastated area on Detroit’s east side.
Called the Adamah Project, it was the result of an effort undertaken by a group of architecture students and their advisers at the University of Detroit Mercy. In place of vacant lots and the charred remains of burned-out homes, they envisioned community vegetable gardens and tree farms that supplied timber for a local lumber mill, tulips growing in hothouses and aquaculture projects producing fish and shrimp.
It was a plan both fomented and embraced by the folks at the Boggs Center, an east side nonprofit that serves as a sort of incubator for grassroots progressive activism.
What was striking at the time, at least to us, was the critique of Detroit’s recovery efforts that was inherent in the Adamah Project.
Here’s what we wrote back then:
“During the ’90s, while the U.S. economy was experiencing unprecedented growth, Detroit capitalized on the surge by directing much of its resources into big-ticket items such as a pair of new sports stadiums and downtown development projects such as casinos.”
The problem with that kind of approach, as we reported back then, is that it was destined to fail in terms of reversing Detroit’s decline if it wasn’t part of some bigger, more comprehensive plan.
“You can have all the stadiums you want,” Stephen Vogel, then dean of UDM’s School of Architecture and a prime force behind Adamah Project, told us then. “If you don’t have housing, if you don’t have livable neighborhoods, you are not going to have a revitalized city.”
“It’s great that you have a company like Compuware coming in here,” Vogel added. “But you should be devoting equal time to making sure that my neighborhood is not declining. And that’s not happening. Small businesses are continuing to leave, and that’s tragic.”
Political philosopher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs, who, along with her late husband Jimmy Boggs provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Boggs Center, offered this observation back then:
“A lot of folks in the bureaucracy know that the approach we’ve been taking up until now has failed. The city can’t be built from the top down by politicians reacting to crises or by developers seizing opportunities to make megaprofits.”
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