Detroit’s Reclamation Project
|A view of a block in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, one of the city’s revitalizing inner neighborhoods. Source: detroit.curbed.com
A question I’m often asked is this — is Detroit’s resurgence for real? Are the signs of progress in Detroit’s downtown enduring? Can Detroit bring itself off the scrapheap and become a booming city once again?
I’ll give you a sense of how often this comes up with me. At a speaking event I attended at the City Club of Cleveland last month, it was the first question asked of me. I get 3-5 questions on the topic each week via Twitter and Facebook, from all over the country. I probably get 2-3 e-mails a week on it, from curious urbanists or from reporters. A Detroit newspaper reporter interviewed me just last week with a variant of the question.
Apparently, I am the go-to person on this critical question.
I often wonder about the motivations of the people who ask me. I think there are thousands of people who are genuinely intrigued with Detroit’s collapse, and honestly root for the city’s comeback. I think there are some who wonder if similar forces are at work in other cities (hint: they are), and are concerned that a similar collapse could happen in other cities nationwide (another hint: they could). People wonder if Detroit’s experience provides answers for revitalization. And even more people wonder if the city’s current rebound is sustainable, or has a ceiling.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and the simple answer to this is yes, Detroit’s current resurgence is real, and perhaps the most strongest and most enduring resurgence there in my lifetime. However, I think it’s better to consider what’s happening in Detroit as a reclamation of what it once had, and a restructuring that prepares it for the next phase of the city’s evolution, rather than an economic boom akin to, say, what’s happening in a Charlotte, Dallas or Houston, or steady growth as in San Francisco or Seattle.
That’s alright, and that’s necessary.
Let’s quantify what exactly is happening in Detroit today. Most observers acknowledge that Detroit’s resurgence in highly concentrated downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods. In 2013, the Hudson-Webber Foundation, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Downtown Detroit Partnership, Midtown Detroit, Inc., Invest Detroit and Data Driven Detroit put together a data report on the city’s downtown and six adjacent neighborhoods that are the focus of activity. This is definitely a small slice of Detroit’s 139 square miles of land area, but activity is abundant there:
- District Detroit, an effort underway to develop an entertainment, sports, office and residential complex just north of downtown, is led by the Ilitch family, owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza and the Detroit Red Wings hockey team.
- Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.
- Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.
- Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last month, the QLine. The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.
That’s a sample of what’s happening in Detroit — in the city’s core. Beyond the core, there are far fewer signs of activity, and there are still the wide swaths of vacant and abandoned land that have come to define the city. There are still intact but struggling neighborhoods that are legitimately concerned about how downtown’s current spurt could impact them — positively or negatively.
Using some economic measures, we can see that Detroit has yet to witness the full economic impact of its resurgence. Between 2010 and 2015, Detroit proper ranks 35th out of the core cities of the 53 largest metro areas in terms of per capita income change, and remains last of 53 in actual per capita income. Detroit’s per capita income is just $14,523, or about one-fourth of San Francisco’s $55,366.
But if we take a longer view, and understand Detroit as a reclamation project, we gain a better understanding of the importance of the resurgence.
Here’s what I mean. Think back 125 years ago, before the auto industry made its imprint on the city. Before it was ever the Motor City, Detroit was simply the economic and cultural hub of a midsize Midwestern state in Michigan. It was a border city to a friendly and language-sharing nation in Canada, and a primary international trade route as a result. An easy 1890 comparable to Detroit would’ve been Milwaukee, itself the economic and cultural hub of a midsize Midwestern state in Wisconsin, or perhaps Buffalo, a border city (but linked to New York City through state boundaries, railroads and the Erie Canal). Had the auto industry boomed in some other American city, Detroit probably would’ve attained a similar size and scale to Milwaukee and Buffalo. But we know what happened; Detroit became the global center for auto production, that altered its fortunes forever.
Fast forward to the middle of the last century. Internally, Detroit was being racked with the racial tensions that culminated in the 1967 riots and the white flight that accelerated under Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor. Externally, the city’s auto industry was facing — and responding poorly to — increasing global competition.
Detroit’s loss of global dominance in the auto industry is well documented and understood. However, the vacuum of population loss meant that Detroit also lost its stature as the state’s economic and cultural hub. People, jobs, businesses and institutions left for the suburbs or left the region entirely.
I pull this image out occasionally so people understand how Detroit really is unique in its abandonment:
Similarly, I’ve written about the jobs imbalance between Detroit and its suburbs
, and found that while the metro area has slightly fewer jobs per capita than some other metros, it has drastically fewer jobs within the city’s boundaries — and that works as an albatross around the region’s neck.
However, after decades of having people turn their backs on the city, Detroit is reasserting itself as Michigan’s largest city, its economic and cultural hub. Businesses that left for the city decades ago are returning. People who vowed never to enter the city limits again are coming back. Millennials who grew up in the suburbs but want an authentically urban experience are increasingly finding that it’s available to them in the Motor City. The city is reclaiming its stature. It’s becoming something closer to what it would’ve been had the auto industry never took off in the Motor City.
This is a critical first step for the city. It must do this before it can do anything else.
It’s important to identify how and when Detroit’s reclamation project started, and it started long before most outsiders took notice. In my view, Detroit’s comeback began as this new century started, and sports played a critical role as catalyst. The Tigers’ Comerica Park baseball stadium opened in 2000 to replace the old Tiger Stadium, and the Lions, having been in suburban Pontiac in the Silverdome since 1975, christened Ford Field downtown in 2002. In 2003, suburban-based software company Compuware announced it would move into a new headquarters in downtown Detroit. These moves began to signal to metro Detroit residents that visiting the city could be safe once again.
Billionaire Dan Gilbert, mentioned earlier, started his downtown buying spree in 2010. But it was the mobilization of the Detroit’s business and nonprofit sectors in the midst of the city’s fiscal oversight and eventual bankruptcy that turned the tide. After decades of believing that the fortunes of the state’s largest city were unimportant, it became clear that a Detroit fiscal collapse could bring the whole state into crisis — and they acted. Detroit is still reaping the benefits of the public/private/nonprofit mobilization that brought the city out of bankruptcy, and provided a stronger foundation for its rebirth.
Earlier attempts at Detroit revitalization have failed, sometimes spectacularly, because they failed to address root causes or follow all the steps of a reclamation process. New auto plants designed to shore up manufacturing employment still couldn’t withstand global competition. The Renaissance Center and People Mover gave the city the “things” that other cities offered, but without substance. By the ’90s, the human, financial and psychological withdrawal from Detroit was complete, and something had to happen to revive the city’s soul.
Today’s Detroit resurgence is successful for that reason alone — it has begun to revive the city’s soul. Where once people saw no future in Detroit, they now see possibilities. Where people once saw the city as a bad investment, they are now willing to confidently roll the dice. Again, Detroit isn’t growing because a lights-out economy is creating thousands of jobs. It isn’t pulling large companies from around the country. And while the auto industry is doing better, Detroit isn’t rebounding because of that, either. It’s rebounding because people are feeling better about the city.
Of course, Detroit’s African-American community has long believed in the city’s future, but now they’re not alone in that view. They’ve been joined by newcomers who bring interest and resources to places that have lacked those for decades. Within the city’s neighborhoods there’s considerable skepticism about the direction of today’s resurgence. The continued success of the reclamation project, and whatever occurs afterwards, rests on how well it can balance the wishes of the newcomers with the aspirations of longtime residents. If longtimers don’t benefit, the resurgence fails.
Detroit may spend another 5-10 years undergoing reclamation. More suburban residents and businesses will return. More ex-pats will feel compelled to come back. As that happens, it’s hoped that the next phase of revitalization will be discussed and implemented — deciding what will be the economic foundation for a revitalized Motor City.
What will that be? I’ll discuss the options in a future post very soon.