The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Detroit and Rust Belt Chic

I came across an essay by Richey Piiparinen at New Geography, and later at his blog.  In it, he discusses how Detroit’s huge recent investment in downtown, led by Quicken Loans founder and Detroit native Dan Gilbert, is counter to the Rust Belt Chic redevelopment paradigm that’s at work in his hometown of Cleveland and might be best represented by the revitalization of Pittsburgh.  Here’s what he had to say:
“A wealthy investor, Dan Gilbert, buys downtown properties. That investor goes on the record as to the importance of reinvesting into the urban core. That investor moves his mortgage company’s employees from suburban office parks into his own downtown real estate. Then, the investor, taking cues from his consultants, throws in something about innovation, which, at its lowest common denominator, means designing your way to a “culture of innovation”. Thus, the investor encourages that Romper Room-style office setting complete with what some would say is tacky décor wholly out of line with the soul of “the D”, but yet which is said to fun-birth inspiration—i.e., “[A] karaoke machine sat in an aisle. Guys threw footballs to one another; one employee shot at colleagues with a Nerf gun”; and “A Quicken promotional video solidifies the company’s attempts at over-the-top marketing, prominently featuring the space’s inexplicable Pac-Man theme”—despite the fact that your primary product line, i.e., mortgages,  needs far less innovation than it does a modicum of conventionality and ethics. Nonetheless, the sentiment of creative destruction is there.”

Mr. Piiparinen gives his opinion on the efficacy of this approach here:
“With the conceptual description as a guide, this is a classic case of the urbanists’ version of trickled-down economics, in which an influx of capital into finite corridors is meant to attract wealth that “spills over” into surrounding areas. Unfortunately, there is little by way of evidence that this works, as was recently admitted by Richard Florida himself. What it may do, however, is fill real estate supply by pursuing a select target market, as placemaking can act as a grease to create pockets of creative class demand to support condos or retail and office space. And while one can certainly argue it beats rampant core disinvestment, it’s not the path of a bold new way that will measurably change the trajectory of Detroit, so says U of M Professor Michael Gordon. In effect, it’s simply shifting people from one set of real estate to another, with nothing undertaken on a systemic level to tackle Detroit’s real problem: poverty and disenfranchisement in its neighborhoods. Worse, re-urbanization as such is likely to exacerbate class and race divides that have plagued Detroit for decades, thus worsening Detroit’s real problem: poverty and disenfranchisement in its neighborhoods.
Besides, we have been here before. Michigan via its Cool Cities campaign had a plan based off the same Detroit 2.0 premise, switch out the window dressing. Design place, accrue vibrancy, growth wealth. Obviously, the multi-million dollar economic development initiative didn’t work. Neither have similar initiatives across the whole of the Rust Belt.”

All to which I say – yes, I agree, but this initial approach is necessary, and hopefully just the first part of a larger strategy to make Detroit complete once again.
I commented on Mr. Piiparinen’s blog and wrote this:
“I think you’re correct to mention that there’s a much more authentic cultural aesthetic for Detroit to pursue for revitalization, and Detroit’s version of “Rust Belt Chic” could do it. But I want to raise two points — first, the “prettification” of Detroit is necessary, even if limited in its reach; and second, Detroit has lost much of its “Rust Belt Chic” persona and must recapture it before it can use it as a revitalization tool.
I think the creative class approach, limited though it will be, is appropriate for Detroit moreso than for Cleveland or Pittsburgh. As Michigan’s largest city it has been the commercial center for the state in ways that neither Cleveland or Pittsburgh are. Cleveland and Pittsburgh compete with each other, Columbus, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, among others, and authentic Rust Beltness helps them stick out in a crowd. Detroit’s problem has been its perception of irrelevance. Detroit must do what it can to reassert that position in Michigan and can develop its distinctiveness through this process.”

However, I think this point separates Detroit from not only Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but other Rust Belt cities:
“Also, the “Rust Belt Chic” aesthetic that appears to still exist in substantial pockets of Cleveland and Pittsburgh (and probably in Buffalo, Milwaukee and certainly here in Chicago) has all but disappeared in Detroit proper. Admittedly, as a bookish black kid growing up in Detroit in the ’70s this crowd has never been my thing. But the image of corner taverns full of off-duty factory workers, bowling alleys, and neighborhoods organized around Catholic parishes just doesn’t exist in Detroit anymore. It moved to the suburbs and homogenized.

I think the white working class that defines Rust Belt Chic is uniquely suburban in Detroit and doesn’t view itself in an urban context at all. They live in Sterling Heights, Warren or Livonia or some place like them; they keep an off-road vehicle or a boat in the garage that they take “up north” whenever they can; they hang out with their buddies at the bar at the strip mall, or in their own garage, rather than the corner tavern. The Catholic churches moved with them to the suburbs. I just don’t know if there’s enough Rust Belt Chic-ness in Detroit to build a strategy around, nor the desire of those who comprise that group to bring it back to the city.”

I think the people who would be the authentic descendants of the Rust Belt Chic aesthetic certainly live in the Detroit area, but they’ve wiped their hands clean of it in the city itself.  Many of them are still familiar with the markers of the culture and use it to their benefit as needed, but it doesn’t define Detroiters in the same way it defines those in other Rust Belt cities. 
And while thinking about this, another thought occurred to me.  I can’t think of an everyday, common-man type from Detroit that serves as the city’s muse in the way that a Studs Terkel is in Chicago or a Harvey Pekar is in Cleveland, nor can I think of a local writer who would celebrate a mythical creation of such a person in Detroit, the way maybe a Mike Royko did in Chicago. 
Detroit’s got a unique blend of Rust Belt Chic that might be best captured in Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” commercials – a blend of factories and unions with a little bit of soul and gospel music thrown in.  The template is out there for Detroit.  The city must further develop this narrative and learn to sell it to the rest of the nation.

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