Detroit's creative class is located along the lakeshore in the city, as the map above indicates, in a narrow strip that runs north along Jefferson Avenue from downtown through historic Indian Village towards Grosse Pointe. Home to Wayne State University and major arts and cultural institutions, rapidly revitalizing Midtown has also drawn a growing creative class population.
The purple blotch in the north is upscale Palmer Woods, noted for its large Tudor homes close to Detroit Golf Club. The neighborhood was founded in the early 20th century as an exclusive enclave for auto industry barons, including the founders of Fisher Body, and is where a number of Motown recording artists live today.
Greater Detroit's class divides overlay and underpin its long history of white-flight and racial cleavage. Reviewing the various causes of the city's decline, Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, recently pointed to race segregation as the most significant factor over on his blog "Understanding Society":
Despite the economic pounding it has taken, or maybe because of it, the revitalization of Downtown Detroit has gained significant momentum as I pointed out in the Financial Times today.
With its fraying social fabric and the imposition of an emergency manager to cope with its collapsing finances, it would be easy to argue a city that was a global centre of carmaking and musical innovation 50 years ago has passed the point of no return.
Easy, yes; but wrong. Detroit’s days as a manufacturing powerhouse – like those of many industrial cities in America, Europe and elsewhere – are irrevocable. But its downtown is rebounding, thanks to the kind of central location, affordable property, improved efficiency and productivity also bringing people and businesses back to struggling former industrial hubs such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
According to recent report, Detroit's Greater Downtown spans 7.2 square miles: across the city's riverfront from the central business district to trendy Corktown, home of Slows Bar B Q, Astro Coffee, Sugar House, Brooklyn Street Local, and the Honor & Folly inn; Mies van der Rohe's verdant Lafayette Park and Rivertown, north to the Eastern Market, Detroit's farmer's market; the Cass Corridor, with arts institutions; Midtown, home to Wayne State University and Detroit Medical Center, up Woodward Avenue to Tech Town and New Center. This corridor has a population of 36,550 people, or 5,076 people per square mile. It is more affluent, diverse, and educated than the city as a whole. College educated residents between the ages of 25 and 34 made up eight percent of the population for Greater Downtown, compared to just one percent for the city as a whole, three percent for the state of Michigan, and four percent for the nation.
One of the things that nearly killed downtown Detroit was the misguided notion that its function as a location for offices and headquarters could be transplanted to its suburbs. The region can no longer afford the outmoded and incorrect notion that it can build an alternative "downtown." As I pointed out in a recent talk to the Detroit Regional Chamber's Policy Conference, "Anyone who believes you can build an alternative core out there in the suburbs need a head examination."
A new generation of business leaders understands this, like the billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, who has moved more than 3,000 jobs from the suburbs to downtown, purchasing millions of square feet of office and residential space to accommodate them. (Gilbert owns 15 buildings with 2.6 million square feet of commercial space and two parking garages with some 3500 spaces). Compuware has brought thousands of professionals, techies, and creatives into downtown Detroit as well. "[W]e realized we needed to control the hardware, or the buildings -- the real estate," is the way he put it.
University of Michigan's Little points out in an email: "The influx created more racial and ethnic diversity in the center of the city as 20- and 30-somethings are moving into office buildings retrofitted as rental housing." This was not just based on community altruism, it was also good business. Gilbert realized that locating his business in the center of the city was more attractive to many employees and cheaper. "The good news was there was a skyscraper sale going on in Detroit at the time," he added.
A major new initiative by the highly regarded Project for Public Spaces has outlined plans to animate the district with dozens of pop up food markets, cafes, and shops. It is based on PPS's landmark "Power of 10" framework that proposes "a great city needs at least ten great districts, each with at least ten great places, which in turn each have at least ten things to do." PPS describe this strategy as a "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategy that will include installations, pop-ups, and other activities in key public spaces like Cadillac Square, Capitol Park, and Grand Circus Park." The aim is to reorient downtown Detroit from its historic focus on streets for cars to a place for people and pedestrians. As PPS's Fred Kent put it when presenting the vision in Detroit: "We want to create a city where you don't drive through the center, you drive to it."
Detroit's Greater Downtown district is home to the region's major arts institutions — the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Max M. Fisher Music Center, the Bonstelle Theater and the Fox Theatre. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, founded in 2006, is part of the Sugar Hill Arts District. Midtown is also home to the vaunted music venue The Magic Stick. Writing in the New York Times, Maynard described it as the veritable epicenter of the contemporary Detroit music scene, where acts like The White Stripes and The Von Bondies among others got their starts.
Long home to a cutting edge music scene which spanned soul, jazz, rock, pop, electronic, and techno, downtown Detroit also features a world class design community, which we profiled in our "Detroit Rising" series.
In an email to me, Christian Unverzagt, a Detroit-based architect who lives in Lafayette Park and teaches at the University of Michigan's Taubman College, pointed out the transformation that the Cass Corridor has undergone. Long home to activists and artists, its gritty, windowless galleries and practice spaces have given way to a variety of renovated spaces including Green Garage (a co-working space), Great Lakes Coffee, and small retail shops such as City Bird, Nest, Hugh, and Nora, along with several yoga studios.
The area has become so attractive, Unverzagt adds, that there is now a shortage of rental housing. As a further signal of how far its transformation has progressed, a Whole Foods (the standard bearer for gentrification) will open there, a few blocks from Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, another market that opened in 2012. Unverzagt notes that even hard-hit Hamtramck, a diverse working class community, has more recently become a destination for artists who are buying homes to both live in and experiment on. Its downtown has seen an influx of several storefront galleries and restaurants, and the artist-initiated Ride-It Sculpture Park and the skateboard shop Chiipss, relocated there from Plymouth, a suburb 25 miles to the west, have become the hub of a local skateboard culture. As Roy Strickland, a leading urban designer who heads the urban design program at the University of Michigan (he was previously director of the urban design program at Columbia University and a faculty member at MIT), pointed out in an email, downtown Detroit is being powerfully revitalized around four key legs: higher-ed, health, arts and culture, and technology. The confluence of these forces has brought considerable revitalization to a core that was once virtually hollowed-out. Put a rectangle around this area, he adds and "Detroit looks pretty healthy."
On top of that, the greater Detroit region broadly remains economic powerhouse. Even with its diminished population in the city, the metro area's population puts in the same league as San Francisco and Boston. With $200 billion in economic output, its economy is the same size as Ireland's, Hong Kong's, or Singapore's. It is connected to the world through its airport. On top of this, the region is home to an incredible cluster of universities and knowledge based institutions, the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor, long a center for top researchers and now an emerging nexus for tech start-ups, Michigan State in East Lansing, and Wayne State in Detroit. The region's talent base is especially deep in engineering, design, and industrial know-how. Before all those assets can be fully-leveraged, suburban interests must come to the table, and transit must be extended outside the core to the suburbs and ultimately all the way out to Ann Arbor.
Detroit's nascent turnaround is different than slum clearances of the past; its impetus comes from a very different place than the redevelopment programs of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, that staked huge sums of public money on ill-conceived mega-projects. The initiatives that are making the difference today are more market-driven and less top-down; they are organized not by the federal, state, or local government but by a unique coalition of profit-driven entrepreneurs, old-line philanthropic foundations, and grass roots neighborhood groups.
A consortium of companies and foundations including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the Detroit Three, Quicken Loans, the Kresge Foundation, Penske Corporation, and Platinum Equity have announced plans to purchase 100 police cars and 23 ambulances and lease them to the city of Detroit.
The Kresge Foundation's Complete Neighborhoods program has channeled millions of dollars to "[f]oster sustainability, increase economic opportunity and stabilize property values and the city's tax base by investing in neighborhoods that are magnets for new residents and that sustain existing residents," while its Detroit Future City initiative will provide $150 million to create more concentrated economic development, reuse the city's 100,000 vacant lots, add much needed parks and green space, and create more economically viable and healthier neighborhoods. With backing from local businesses, foundations, and the federal government, a new light rail system will help connect and consolidate development across the several distinct creative class clusters that have developed across this corridor.
The challenge for the city and region moving forward is to spur further urban economic revitalization while bridging this class divide.
Such dramatic change has stoked considerable demographic shifts, which mirror the region's class and racial divide. "On one hand, you see a 'new' Detroit. Young, white, educated, and employed are the characteristics of those who are taking a chance on the city," argued Karen Dumas, former press secretary to Mayor Bing in the Detroit News this past summer. "They stand in stark contrast to native Detroiters — most of whom are African-Americans and many who are undereducated and unemployed — who have stayed and stuck it out over the years, through challenge and controversy." The challenge for the city and region moving forward is to spur further urban economic revitalization while bridging this class divide. That will require greater cooperation between the city and its suburbs.
Still, what's happening in and around downtown Detroit should not be minimized: It is a critical step, if only a first step, toward creating the jobs, economic activity, and tax revenues that are needed to underwrite broader recovery and building. As is the case in most of America's older industrial cities, Detroit's days as a manufacturing powerhouse are irrecoverable; its future economic growth will turn on its creative and knowledge industries — and the transformation of its low skill, low pay service jobs into higher-wage, family-supporting jobs by involving workers in continuous productivity improvement. A new urban social compact is desperately needed to make this happen: to upgrade its underfunded schools and to train and connect more workers and residents to the new economy that is emerging downtown. The same kind of compact is needed in cities like New York, San Francisco, and even London which, while more affluent, suffer from the similar if not worse inequality.
All that said, the new developments downtown, taken together with the broader region's economic assets, put Detroit on a much better economic footing than has been the case for a couple of generations. While the jury is out on the city's long-term future, "the resurgence at its heart," as I note in the FT, "provides grounds for real hope tempered with cautious optimism."
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