Just got back from Madison and I wanted to check in a bit more promptly then has been usual for me recently. My marketing program looks more and more like a medical update, but I must be doing better because this is the first time in years I couldn’t even conceive of flying a redeye and then come home to house painting but that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. 😀
I’ve had a number of discussions regarding the recent bankruptcy of Detroit. And since Detroit ends in 1973, what I consider to be the tipping point where everything fell off the table, I’ve been asked to comment on what I thought might have changed things.
Coincidentally, until I started doing these last few gigs I wouldn’t have had a clue. Until about a month ago I pretty much figured the game was up. To me, America is about “go West Young man”. When a place doesn’t work, we go somewhere else. Or we discover oil or uranium and tear it up. “Renewal” never seemed realistic to me for Detroit. Beyond a certain point, some problems, we just don’t fix. We are not like the Dutch or other cultures that build dikes or other amazingly implausible things because they have no choice. We’ve always had the choice to go somewhere else. Detroiters? They move to the suburbs. Thus “the doughnut” or “black hole” or -whatever- you want to call it.
But the leftovers of an idea came back to me in Baltimore couple of weeks ago. And the leftovers must’ve fermented a bit this weekend because as I happened to notice the Mississippi River on my way to the airport the destination, the place Detroit needs to get to, seemed clear to me. I’ve got one word for you. Not plastic. Water.
The Detroit River is where the city needs to focus if there is a “renewal” to be done. I will start by saying that I have no idea how to get to what I am about to suggest. Again, it’s the destination. Not a clue as to the roadmap.
For the uninitiated, Detroit is shaped like a pyramid rotated 90° on its side. To me it always looks like a “thataway pardner” symbol. The river is on the outside of the arrow. The north end of the river was where the rich people tended to live. You keep going north and the river keeps going up through the Great Lakes to where all the raw materials would be barged down. The South part of the river below the point, is where a lot of the factories would be and more of the working class. The city government is in the middle point right where I guess it should be. It makes perfect planning sense. Oh, and the city of Windsor Canada is on the other side of the river. Every postcard you may have ever seen of Detroit on the river was taken from Windsor.
A couple weeks ago in Baltimore I started thinking about “The Wire”. As you know I’ve often remarked that “the wire” is the best TV I have ever seen. It uncannily shows the city and I’ve also said how much Baltimore at least in the wire reminds me of Detroit as I remember it. Season two is all about a conflict between union workers wanting to build a new port and keep their outmoded jobs and developers who want to build condos and all sorts of upscale amenities for rich people that will kill the old neighborhoods. It is competing visions for what to do with the prime real estate in the city. And here’s the thing that suddenly hit me yesterday morning: there was never a fight like that in Detroit. Which now strikes me as just insane
Every city I have visited values its waterfront above all things. Not Detroit for some reason. For some reason it was always assumed that the barges just came down from the Great Lakes and deposited their stuff along the river so that the car companies could put together the cars. In fact, I’m having a tough time thinking of any really expensive real estate that was ever built along the waterfront in Detroit. The only big development projects along the waterfront were a convention center, a hockey rink, and the Renaissance Center which is now the corporate headquarters of General Motors. I can’t imagine any city giving up the single best view and real estate as a corporate headquarters. After that, there are factories there are wastelands there used to be car dealerships along the waterfront. Car dealership!
But if you look across the river to Windsor Canada, you see the decisions they made for their much quieter town. There waterfront is a series of urban parks there may be a dozen of them broken up by the occasional street and those parks go on and on and on for several miles. Immediately behind the parks are all manner of apartment buildings. Clearly they wanted the there waterfront real estate to be a refreshing resource for their people and they wanted to make some money so most of those apartments with the really great views are really expensive. The business section is several streets behind that.
I’m not saying that Detroit should have been like Windsor and by the time Coleman Young became mayor re-creating the waterfront would have been impossible.
But what I have seen over the years is Detroit focusing on “Midtown” and all manner of planning that has nothing to do with the most important piece of real estate in town: the river.
If you go back to the time of Cadillac he describes Detroit as astoundingly beautiful. I believe him. If you get in a sailboat as I used to do all the time and sale away from all the nasty factories south of the city if you just keep going eventually you’ll get to the mouth of the river which turns into Lake Erie and I can assure you brother that it is one of the most beautiful sights on planet Earth. There is an isthmus known as Point Pelee which is so pristine as to be one of those spots where all the butterflies gathered together in the fall and turn all the trees orange for a couple of days. And when you get out to the mouth of the river and you look back and you squint a little bit you can see just how beautiful the coastline of Detroit was before they put up McLeod steel and jog island and the rouge plant and all the other crap along the waterfront that no longer makes anyone any money. And gives no one any reason to visit the city.
Other cities, New York, London have also recognized how dreadful it is that they are wasting prime real estate. And they have all taken aggressive steps to make their waterfronts beautiful and to get paid for that beauty. A lot of those changes have been disruptive. But in the long run it makes perfect sense. What doesn’t make sense is that a city like Detroit, which no longer makes cars (you realize that there are no operating auto plants in the city anymore right?) Should reclaim the beauty that Cadillac saw and stopped thinking of the river as just another highway.
Unfortunately, that was the thinking of every leader of Detroit going back to the 1800s. Detroit was a boom town and there was never any planning after the initial design and literally no one looked at the city and its beautiful initial design and gave a damn about it. The river was just another road the vision of everyone, even those trying to fix the city was always away from the river towards some other neighborhood, instead of just opening your eyes and looking at what Detroit is, Detroit is not the motor city Detroit is a city along a beautiful river.
Detroit was unable to see beyond building roads and being utilitarian and that was the flaw. The time to fix this could have been directly after World War II but as I said before by the time Coleman Young came into power in 1974, the only thing voters wanted was a black mayor to end what they saw as apartheid. No one even thought about the river.
Again, I have no idea how to get to a vision of Detroit with parks and residences and neighborhoods that leverage the beauty of the downtown of the waterfront the way it’s done in Vancouver or New York or any number of great cities. But the striking thing to me with all the handwringing I hear absolutely no talk about what people would like the city to be and that is what makes me feel so hopeless. It seems like there is a never ending crisis mode where the only discussions are about blame and just getting through the next crisis. And since everything is always about living one day at a time it is simply never possible to do anything to get off the hamster wheel. And by the way that’s the main reason I like the wire so much; over the course of five seasons you get to see from five different angles how even the best intentioned people can never get out of crisis mode. And that is why things never improve. The corruption is inevitable because it’s the only practical way to live. In a world where there are no bailouts, where you can’t go home and live with your parents and regroup, where even if you declare bankruptcy you don’t really get a do over so you can catch your breath and come up with a different strategy, the only rational thing to do is live from day to day and tried to get over the best way you can.
The only thing I will say is that I am disappointed that none of the people that I ever met in Detroit ever thought about the city the way I see London or Vancouver. There are a ton of really talented designers in Detroit. In fact the car companies have several design schools where young artists put together the most elaborate and detailed visions for what they considered to be the car of the future. Beautiful models and renderings of cars that might be running on water or electricity or whatever. These are talented people who can make up really creative products.
The sad thing about Detroit in one word is myopia. The fact that it just never crossed anyone’s mind to remake the city even in a Futurists vision is just stunning to me and that’s the most heartbreaking part. It would have been the easiest and most logical and most self evident thing to people in almost any other city in the world to envision Detroit with a focus on the water. But until people stop thinking of Detroit as “the motor city” that even the dreaming is impossible.