By Peter Cummings
Detroit, MI, USA
There are thousands of young, creative millennials for whom Detroit is becoming a mecca. Our challenge in the city is to continue to attract them, to make sure the jobs are there, the housing is there and that a sense of security and a widening range of services will keep them there.
That was the concluding comment in a piece I wrote for Stay Thirsty regarding Detroit some 18 months ago.
Since that time, millennials have continued to flock to the downtown area. Other signs of revitalization abound in the Lower Woodward Corridor (Woodward being Detroit's Main Street). The new Detroit Red Wings arena, just blocks north of the Central Business District (CBD), is set to open for the 2017/2018 season. A light rail system linking the CBD to the Arena District and extending from there northward two miles is nearing completion, connecting downtown to New Center and thus linking the business and sports districts with the major health care, educational and cultural institutions.
A new restaurant opens virtually every week, enhancing Detroit's emerging reputation as a food mecca. This is not to say that areas of blight are entirely gone from downtown. Ragged pockets remain for sure, but the momentum is probably powerful enough to remove the remaining blight within the next five years.
All well and good. But if 18 months ago I thought the challenge was to attract and retain millennials, today I believe that the challenge is far more complex and has very little to do with the millennial population.
If Detroit were no more than its central city—7.5 square miles in size, which is roughly the area that contains all this activity—we might justifiably conclude that victory is at hand. But Detroit is not 7.5 square miles; it is 139 square miles. Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco together comprise 117 square miles and could all fit within the footprint of Detroit, leaving room for another small city. So what is happening in the other 130 square miles, the so-called "neighborhoods" of Detroit? The short answer is not enough…yet.
This is not to fault the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan, a dynamo who was elected in November of 2013 as the first white mayor since Jerome Cavanaugh stepped down in 1974. (Detroit remains more than 80 percent African American). In the almost three years since the election, he has worked wonders in simply "fixing things." Streetlights work. Buses run, if not on time, certainly closer to schedule than was the case in the era preceding his arrival. Trash is picked up. Police and ambulance response times are now in line with other major cities.
In the neighborhoods particularly, the Mayor and his team have mounted an aggressive blight removal campaign. Perhaps more significantly, the quality of talent he has attracted to the city has elevated planning and business attraction to a level I have not seen in my 25 years in Detroit. At or near the top of the list of great hires is the new Director of Planning, Maurice Cox. An associate dean at the Tulane School of Architecture when he was hired, Cox has a diverse and impressive background, including a stint as mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia. His design approach led Fast Company business magazine to designate him one of America's "20 Masters of Design" for his visionary approach to cities.
Cox has a deep commitment to the neighborhoods but he recognizes that you cannot tackle 130 square miles at once. So his department has focused on six neighborhoods outside the downtown. At the top of this list is the so-called "University District," about six miles from the city center and the location of the University of Detroit and Marygrove College. Here he has forged an alliance with the colleges, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and the Kresge Foundation to reshape the neighborhood into a district where you can find everything you want within a 20-minute walk. The vision is perhaps Utopian but it is the kind of vision the city needs. The early enthusiasm and support suggest that Cox might just succeed.
Then what? Onto the next neighborhood. Then the next. And the next. This means that most of the neighborhoods will have to wait. In the interim, what can we do? For starters, we need to change the narrative about the neighborhoods. Currently too much of the discussion about these districts focuses on the negative, on what they lack. Transportation links are incomplete. Social services are scattered and in many neighborhoods retail services are almost non-existent. Many residents have to rely on corner stores for their goods—stores that sell liquor, lotto tickets and food of questionable nutritional value. Victory too often is defined as the demolition of a blighted home.
While all these shortcomings exist, they make for a horrible narrative. Better to forge a narrative based on what the neighborhoods do have, which is a gritty and creative band of survivors who have hung on through thick and thin (and mostly thin) and who want to participate in the recovery. Hidden within these neighborhoods, and in some cases hidden in plain sight, are examples of their creativity: art installations, community kitchens, urban gardens and inspirational leaders. Our neighborhood narrative should focus there: on the strength and creativity of the neighborhood residents and on the expanses of green space. The green space presents an opportunity way beyond urban gardening: the opportunity is to redefine the interface between the built and the natural environment within an urban setting.
By changing the narrative in this manner, by focusing on the assets, we can celebrate those who remain in the neighborhoods and include them in the larger conversation about the recovery of Detroit. Many of the neighborhoods will have to wait their turn for government and the foundations to arrive in force, as they are now arriving in the University District. In the interim, it is the individuals and smaller organizations, entrepreneurs and urban pioneers who keep the flame burning with their ingenuity and grit.
One such entrepreneur is Lisa Ludwinski, who lives and works in "The Villages" on Detroit's east side. Her bakery, Sister Pie, was included on this year's Bon Appétit list of the 50 Best New Restaurants. Lisa is dedicated to her neighborhood. I dropped by a few weeks ago and watched as she handed out cookies to an elementary school class that had come by for a visit. After cookies, she invited the children to return for a pie-baking lesson. Thus she invited them into her store, and into her story. It was an act of kindness and inclusiveness.
We need to celebrate Lisa and include her in the larger story about what success looks like in Detroit. The children that she embraced that day probably know nothing about her Bon Appétit award. All they know is that she made their neighborhood feel more like a truly nurturing home.
Attracting millennials to the downtown is important, but celebrating the hardy souls who nurture our neighborhoods is an equally important measure of success. As Maurice Cox has said: "The heart of Detroit is downtown, but the soul is in the neighborhoods."