Jay Walljasper: Not Your Father’s Motor City

Cities are complex hives of human activity that highlight all that’s inspiring and troubling about modern life, often at the same time. Like any commons, they are made up of interconnnecting relationships that transcend our neat divisions into rich and poor, thriving and troubled.

New York’s revitalized districts sizzle with creative fervor yet other parts of town struggle with poverty and crime. Chicago’s Lakefront exudes prosperity while pockets of the West and South sides look like they’ve been bombed. Even an economically challenged city like Philadelphia sports charming, bustling Center City neighborhoods along with extensive post-industrial ruins.

We expect extremes in American cities–except in the case of Detroit, which all too often viewed as one, big, monolithic mess. Folks elsewhere can’t even imagine the existence of beloved spots in the city like the Riverwalk, Campus Martius square, Eastern Market, the Dequindre Cut bike trail, cozy neighborhood restaurants or hot music clubs. Ambitious downtown redevelopment projects come as shock. So does a housing shortage in the flourishing Midtown area–home to Wayne State University and two world-class medical centers, Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System.

And that’s only part of what people don’t know about Detroit. While the rebounding downtown and Midtown districts fit the usual pattern of urban progress–established institutions and developers guiding most of the changes — other parts of town are following a different playbook for revitalization.

The best example is Southwest Detroit.

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