Growing up in the northwest suburbs of Detroit, I never believed cities were places where people lived. Ruins like the Michigan Central Station in Corktown, an incongruous three-story train depot and 18-story office tower fronted by stone archways and Corinthian columns, were relics of another era. Wind whistled through shattered windows. Scrappers found their way around razor wire to pillage brass fixtures, copper wire, ceiling rosettes, and hunks of marble. There were stories of squatters living inside on mattresses. If this was living, it was at best provisional.
Roughly a million people lived in Detroit in the 1990s, but they didn’t live downtown. Although folks might work in the city or go downtown to catch a Tigers game, they didn’t sleep there or spend time after work looking for new shoes. That was what the suburbs were for. Which is why I thought of cities as something entirely different—more like way stations where you’d go to put in your 9 to 5, before hopping on the freeway and heading home. To the 16-year-old me, Detroit was like a vast monument to a way of life that had ceased to exist.
My father worked at the National Bank of Detroit, a 14-story white marble and glass cube at 611 Woodward, which was designed in 1951 in a modernist style by Albert Kahn Associates. I never found the building particularly attractive. Far more appealing to my eyes was the neoclassical style of Kahn’s First National Bank Building across the street—a Z-shaped, limestone building that occupies an entire city block along Cadillac Square.
Albert Kahn, of course, is something of a legend in Detroit. The Prussian son of a rabbi, he is credited with the invention of a new style of architecture that used reinforced concrete to replace wood in factory walls and roofs. The idea was to protect against fire and allow for a more streamlined, unobstructed interior to create more space. Space, ironically, is what stands at the heart of Detroit’s current dilemma. What to do with all that space? Warehouses and factories. Abandoned bungalows. Enough vacant land in the 139-square-mile city to occupy San Francisco.
Kahn’s architectural firm designed Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant, where Ford produced the Model T and mastered assembly-line production. Kahn also designed the 3.5 million-square-foot Packard Plant—a popular symbol of urban decay on East Grand Boulevard that once built luxury cars and now stands as a blown-out industrial relic. Kahn’s office also designed the Art Deco Fischer Building, the Belle Isle Conservancy, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press buildings, the half-mile long Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, about twenty percent of architect-designed factories in the US circa 1937, and the World War II-era factories that supplied the tanks and B-24 Liberator bombers for America’s Arsenal of Democracy.
As an eight-year-old, I knew none of this. I just knew that when I traveled downtown to see Detroit Tigers games, visit the planetarium at the Detroit Science Center, or look out the window of my father’s eleventh-floor office, there weren’t many people around. It wasn’t just a feeling. After peaking at more than 1.8 million residents by 1950, Detroit had lost roughly half its population by the turn of the century. Today, the estimates have dwindled to 707,000. Many of the storefronts in the downtown stretch of Woodward Avenue from the Detroit River to Adams Street, with the exception of a discount shoe store or hair salon, were vacant and boarded up. The murder rate was among the highest in the nation, crack houses were rampant, and the Big Three automakers were in free fall. When I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1999, I, like many of my friends, sought opportunity elsewhere.
But to compare the Detroit of 1999 to the present city is to grapple with a defiant comeback narrative that is as difficult to cobble together as a clear picture of what the city truly looked like in 1927 when The New York Times called Detroiters “the most prosperous slice of average humanity that now exists or has ever existed.” In the fourteen years since I left, companies such as Compuware, Twitter, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and high-end watch manufacturer Shinola have sprouted up in refurbished skyscrapers and warehouses and moved thousands of workers to Detroit’s inner core. A city that came of age with the automobile and prospered and fell according to the Big Three’s balance sheets—and, indeed, the price of oil—has diversified its economic portfolio.
Detroit Future City, an urban redevelopment framework conceptualized by architecture firm Hamilton Anderson Associates along with other local, national, and international collaborators, reveals that four economic pillars—education and medical technology, digital and creative jobs, large-scale and artisanal industrial sectors, and entrepreneurship—now account for more than half the city’s workforce. The framework further shows that the city’s vast inventory of public land—66,000 vacated land parcels and buildings—is one of its greatest assets. Through strategic land acquisition that connects smaller parcels into large sites for blue and green infrastructure, the Detroit of 2030 could become a welcome habitat for migrating birds, home to “live + make” neighborhoods, and a model for urban farming, storm-water retention, reforestation, and biofuel production. The empty space that hindered Detroit for the past 50 years is now an opportunity for the city to build smarter, and build greener.
“One of the resources we have more than anything else is land,” says Kent Anderson, principal at Hamilton Anderson Associates. “We have a concentration of businesses that have been here for a long time and new business leaders like Dan Gilbert who have tremendous faith in what Detroit is and what it can be. We’re at the beginning here of something that can be pretty special.”
And, indeed, there are real signs of a renaissance. Chrysler and General Motors emerged victorious from bankruptcy with Chrysler reporting a nine-fold profit increase since 2011. The automaker’s Superbowl ad recruited Eminem, the city’s top celebrity, as the living symbol of the comeback slogan, “Imported from Detroit,” a searing statement of homegrown industrial pride. The College for Creative Studies in Detroit added buildings and an MFA program, the Detroit Creative Corridor Center opened, Henry Ford Hospital opened its Innovation Institute to produce medical devices and surgical tools, and Wayne State University opened TechTown and announced the launch of a $93 million biotech hub.
Meanwhile, Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been on a spending spree. A few years ago, he teamed up with e-Prize founder Josh Linkner to form Detroit Venture Partners, recruit big name investors like former Michigan State basketball star Magic Johnson, and invest seed money in a growing concentration of tech start-ups and creative firms. Located in the former Madison Theater, now known as the M@dison, Detroit Venture Partners’ office is a five-story, collaborative business incubator of exposed brick and steel beams, just blocks away from Comerica Park, Greektown Casino Hotel, and Campus Martius, the ground-zero of a 24-hour work-play zone of Woodward Avenue that Gilbert has dubbed “WEBward.”
On the north end of this district, at the foot of Campus Martius, is the building where I used to visit my father. It is steps away from a public transportation circuit known as the People Mover, a 2.9-mile monorail that never received funding to connect to the outer reaches of the city and that my family would ride for amusement and a view of abandoned skyscrapers. Amazingly, the inner core of the city, where a gallery of historic glass and steel buildings stood as sleeping giants just fifteen years ago, is 95 percent occupied. After a series of mergers and acquisitions, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. claimed ownership of Kahn’s National Bank of Detroit building and named it Chase Tower. In 2011, Gilbert purchased the building, renamed it the Qube, relocated several thousand Quicken Loans employees from a suburban office to the city—Quicken Loans’ headquarters is steps away in the Compuware building—and began a real estate buying frenzy. As of March 2013, Gilbert owned 16 downtown buildings, totaling 2.9 million square feet of commercial and residential space in the city’s core.
Gilbert’s latest strategy is to draw more talented entrepreneurs to Midtown to live and work through the creation of a Parisian-style promenade and retail space on a stretch of Woodward Avenue from the Detroit River to Grand Circus Park. His real estate holding company, Rock Ventures, commissioned Project for Public Spaces, Terremark Partners, Shook Kelley, and Gibbs Planning Group to draft a preliminary concept for a pedestrian-friendly vision for the city’s core that uses critical arteries as streets for people, rather than cars. A 50-page booklet called “A Placemaking Vision
for Downtown Detroit” shows Grand Circus Park as a home to fountains, children’s play areas, climbable structures, a dog run, cafés, and a beer garden. Campus Martius, a two-block district that marks the 24-hour commercial center of Detroit, will add food trucks and pop-up vendors to an already-vibrant space. A wide promenade will give right-of-way to foot traffic and lead past ice-cream kiosks, sidewalk cafés, ground-floor retail that opens onto sidewalks, and other “place-making” features that identify the people as the centerpiece of the design.
Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, says the project’s main goal is to create an attractive neighborhood and to do it in a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” way. Kent insists that landscape urbanism, the idea that design should begin with parks and natural features, ultimately misses the point by taking people out of the equation. “The last 50 years has been a disintegration of community because of a silo of disciplines that define their own agendas around their own purpose for a narrow focus,” Kent says. “We’re trying for an approach defined more by people and community in a space.”
So what will that community look like? For a lack of a better word: fun. If Kahn’s idea was to provide a brighter, more open space for autoworkers, Kent’s is to provide a new generation of creative professionals and software engineers with a brighter, more open space they can enjoy and live in when they’re not working. Architecture is thus extended from the interior to the exterior, from the producer to the consumer, and a new idea of community emerges. For Detroit, a promenade—from the French word promener meaning ‘to take a walk’—is a powerful symbol. The beginning of Woodward Avenue, the first divided highway in America, is not merely a thoroughfare to the suburbs, but it’s also a walkway from the office to the ballgame, beer garden, casino, and bedroom.
Although the transformation under way in the city’s core might not properly be called landscape urbanism, it is undoubtedly making the city greener. Just one block from Compuware headquarters, bordered by the renovated Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and the Detroit Federal Building, Lafayette Greens, a half-acre fruit and vegetable garden and bioswale designed by Beth Hagenbuch of Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, is sparking conversation about how urban agriculture and community gardening might make productive use of empty land and increase residents’ access to fresh produce in the inner city. Meanwhile, the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy is nearly finished with the first phase of a $300 million project to renovate the 5.5-mile riverfront from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park. About three miles of greenway, lined by plazas and parks, is complete and has spurred capital investment and shoreline development, including the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority terminal and wharf, the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, and the Dequindre Cut, a below-grade abandoned rail line that has been restored to a bicycle trail and is anticipated to connect the river to Eastern Market.
But the question remains as to whether the revitalization of Detroit’s inner core will extend outward to regions of severe poverty and blight, where many of the city’s residents have limited bus service, dilapidated schools, traffic lights without power, and a hard time finding a nearby grocery store that carries a fresh head of lettuce. A curious mind might wonder whether the agrarian vision of public land use outlined in Detroit Future City and being enacted at more than 800 urban agriculture sites throughout the city can exist in easy harmony with Gilbert’s digital start-up playground of lawn games, upscale grocery stores, and beer gardens.
Darin McLeskey believes it can. The 22-year-old environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Michigan is cofounder of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI). Three years ago, he bought a 30-foot by 100-foot cinder block home that rests in the drained, peaty soil of the former Black Bottom, home to a vibrant mid-century jazz scene, a young Stevie Wonder, and the nation’s first black public housing development, the Brewster Project. The original neighborhood was demolished in the 1960s, effaced by the Chrysler Freeway and the construction of the residential development, Lafayette Park, designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe. McLeskey paid $3,000 for the home at a Wayne County tax auction, and it is now part of MUFI’s larger farming initiative.
The nonprofit community farm and resource center McLeskey and his partner Tyson Gersh began in 2012 raised a sizeable 2,100 pounds of produce on a five-acre plot of Brush Street in New Center in its first season. Some neighbors initially viewed the farm with suspicion, McLeskey says, a “colonist’s” land grab no different from the strategy of any number of absentee speculators gobbling up distressed properties, only to let them sit vacant and become targets for vandalism and crime.
In spring 2012, MUFI cleared the sight, and remediated the soil using black tarp solarization to leave an organic layer of grass. They planted in June and sold peppers and tomatoes to the city. They gave away pumpkins to children. They lined the median of Brush Street with red canna lilies. Gradually, they earned their neighbors’ trust. They have received funding from Ford, General Motors, Kroger, and Gap. They have 4,000 loyal Facebook fans, 7,000 volunteers, and visitors from Belgium, Germany, and France. McLeskey speaks of future plans for a shipping-container caretaker studio, and he talks of vermiculture composting, Chicago Board of Trade market prices on soybeans, gentrification, Henry Ford’s early experiments with soybean-powered cars, hoop houses, and his new friends from Brooklyn—a farming couple who moved to Detroit because of the vast, underused space and lack of development restrictions.
McLeskey’s latest ambition is to convert a single-family home into a year-round, thermally insulated growing garden by preserving the wood, brick, wires, limestone block, and windows, before backfilling the foundation with drainage and topsoil and building a hoop house—all at a fraction of the $15,000 cost the city would have to pay to have the house demolished and sent to landfill.
All of this is changing my mind about Detroit. It can be a place for people. It can be an intelligently planned community where people wake up and eat and work and sleep. A city whose green landscape is friendly to the vision of those who grow businesses and those who grow plants. Detroit was a dying city when I left. Today, the new growth is impossible to ignore. The renaissance some thought would never come is very much under way.
Editor’s Note: This article was produced in partnership with the American Society of Landscape Architects.