Recentering Detroit, Part 2: The French Connection


Recentering Detroit is a multipart examination of culture of development in the current city, the ongoing crises and the efforts by residents to define their city, not as a relic of the past to be resurrected or “revitalized,” but a place where people live their lives. This examination will be made within multiple contexts, including race, racism, the complex histories of Detroit, infrastructure and economics. Click to read: Part 1: Against Revitalization.

by Michael Stepniak

The last time Detroit had 700,000 people or less, as it does today, was most likely in 1913 or 1914 (Detroit Public Schools 170). At that point, the city was booming, with another 1.3 million people on the way over the next 40 years. Downtown, a century ago, was still financially and culturally central, if not geographically. Revitalization, with its ideals of restoring the city to its former self raises questions of methods and values attached to population growth.

Detroit grew at a gradual rate for the first two centuries after European contact. The period over which the city grew from a population of 700,000 to its peak in the 1950s of just under 2 million was a time of extraordinary, never-to-be-repeated events. How much value does revitalization place on population growth?1 If population growth is a key goal, then why focus on downtown instead of the places where people live? If population growth is not prioritized, how is this squared with goals of returning the city to its former self? Above all, who is valued?2

The circumstances facing today’s revitalizers are far different from those residents, workers, entrepreneurs and power-brokers who propelled the city in 1920. Back then, downtown was at the core of something. Today, the city’s and the region’s people live in dense and not-so-dense pockets scattered across huge geographies of the city proper and the metropolitan area. The invention of the assembly line is not going to happen again, and there will not be a need for hundreds of thousands of high-wage unskilled laborers. This points to a particular logic. Revitalization does not require city-wide or regional population growth. It requires population growth within a high-rent district with attractive, historic architecture that provides “character.” This means the 7.2. It also means that higher value has been placed on people who will move to the city than those who live there now.

The period of Detroit’s rambunctious industrial growth was brief. The city’s ongoing job and population losses have lasted longer than its boomtown period. Revitalization culture is on view of the city that primarily serves a high-income demographic and promises a trickle-down (or trickle-outward) effect. It is an emotional and intellectual space in which the historic city core is given an outsized value. This view negates other histories of Detroit, and assumes fallowness in the places where most people live. There are other ways of viewing the city, and other periods in time to view it through.

On July 24th, 1701, after camping on Grosse Isle the previous night, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac came ashore at what is now Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit. Southeastern Michigan was a well-traveled crossroads for Native American traders. Cadillac came with 25 canoes filled with 100 Frenchmen and 100 Indians. They built a fort on the site that measured approximately 192 by 192 feet, with wooden walls twelve feet high (Burton 86).

Cadillac fought with his colony company, who intrigued against him in the court of Louis XIV and with the Naval Secretary, Count Pontchartrain, for whom the original colony was named: the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (Burton 87). Cadillac was commandant, with interruptions until 1710. His ambition was that Detroit should become a city. Rivals for the lucrative beaver trade with greater influence in Paris and Quebec fought him on this, and because of his strategies to grow Detroit by offering incentives to multiple Indian nations and Canadians to settle in villages near the fort., actively encouraging mixed Indian and French marriages, and giving Indians the same run of the fort during the daylight hours as white settlers (Burton 90-91). Cadillac belived in this way Detroit could grow in population and importance as a center of trade to rival older, more established settlements . In 1710, his enemies won and Cadillac lost control of Detroit. As a consolation, he was appointed governor of Louisiana (Burton 91).


Figure 1: Cadillac’s Landing: Negative Space

There is the wild, the agrarian and the urban (Lefebvre 7). In Detroit, the urban and the agrarian grew together. A new farm is the building of one thing and the lessening of another, as was Cadillac’s landing (figs. 1, 2 & 3). Many maps show cities, highways and railroads: these are human constructions. Land is often defined by water, so water too makes it onto the map. Glance at a map of Ohio or Michigan and you will see these features. Drive through the country roads of these same states and you will see farms all around. What if the perspective were changed, hiding the cities and showing the farms?


Figure 2: A growing Detroit, blurry lines between agrarian, urban and industrial forms

Sketching agrarian landscapes has been a popular artform. Mapping agrarian spaces is an industry-specific thing. Yet the agrarian and the urban are closely connected. Clarence M. Burton writes “the first settlers were the French farmers, and they brought with them… the idea of the Frenchmens’ ‘water lot’ and introduced it here.” The “Ribbon Farm” was a tract of land with a frontage of several arpents, or French acres, on a fresh water source that ran back as far as was permitted (Vol 2 1268).


Figre 3: Urbanization process moves outside the city, agrarian forms begin again.

Cadillac’s landing, the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, was negative space in the agrarian environment, just as the agrarian was negative space in the wilderness.

Detroit Historical Ribbon Farms

Figure 4: Ribbon Farms in Detroit

When Cadillac arrived in Louisiana in 1713, he came to a familiar place. Here too, Count Pontchartrain had a namesake. In this case it was the brackish lake of New Orleans. The French had brough the ribbon far and the arpent here, too. New Orleans would not be founded for another five years. Baton Rouge was another century away, but soon the entire lower Mississippi would be covered in ribbon farms. The notable difference in Louisiana was that these farms were large-scale, industrial slave plantations (figs. 4 & 5).


Figure 5: Ribbon-style slave plantations on the lower Mississippi River.

Detroit is a city whose structure was determined by the non-negotiable spaces of the wetlands and the highground, and the Indians who laid down trails that became its arterial roads, but New Orleans is a city founded on the idea of negotiating with the water.3

After the human disaster of Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans revitalization culture focused, in a manner similar to Detroit’s downtown, on the French Quarter (Gladstone 166). As Detroit is not downtown, New Orleans is not the French Quarter. It is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, but it has not been the center of the city for a long time. As with Detroit’s bankruptcy, revitalization culture swept into New Orleans, and like Detroit, the same problems had existed on the ground for decades: poverty, racism, virtually nonexistent or crumbling infrastructure and violence.

On a larger geographic scale is Cancer Alley, the petrochemical corridor that lies along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. If the Detroit River as the city’s original highway, the Mississippi River is a superhighway times a thousand that carries the things that make modernity possible on a national and global scale.

Over 140 petrochemical and industrial facilities and ports operate in the 80 mile corridor, coexisting with over 1 million people, not including New Orleans (Miscrach and Orff). Plants have exploded. Contamination of soil and water has forced the abandonment of entire towns, such as the historic black communities of Wallace and Morrisonville (Gaylord 775).


Figure 6. Data attribution: U.S. Census, 2013 ACS 5 year estimates.


Figure 7. Data attribution: U.S. Census, 2013 ACS 5 year estimates.

As in Detroit, there are divisions of race and class in Cancer Alley. Often the poorest communities, and the ones with the highest black populations are those that live right next to the petrochemical facilities (figs. 6 & 7). The fact that these communities have the lowest income suggest that they are not reaping the economic benefits of the middle class jobs provided by industry. The whiter, higher income communities tend to live at a safer distance.

Detroit and its French connections in New Orleans and Cancer Alley are all places of non-negotiable spaces. On Detroit’s norther border, it is the giant infrastructure of 8 Mile Road. In New Orleans it is the water. In Cancer Alley it is the petrochemical industrial sites, some of which are bigger than downtown, and most of which are larger than the French Quarter: impenetrable barriers that, even if they were demolished tomorrow, would be contaminated indefinitely, depending on political will and the bioavailability of the compounds in the soil (EPA 1; Maletić et al. 55).4 These places are the centers of urban relationships and actions for their respective regions, yet the people live there are not acknowledged, and priority is placed on serving and attracting others.



1. Lester Graham, in the 2014 Michigan Radio Article Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan Not Like Past Mayors quotes Duggan, who says that population growth “governs every single decision we make. We do not have a future if we don’t start growing.”

2. Mayor Duggan has worked to restore city services in the neighborhoods,but problems persist.

3. There will be a full discussion on the formation of Detroit’s infrastructure around its water in a later section.

4. The EPA estimates that bioremediation (method that does the least amount of further damage to the environment by using special plants and methods to clean the soil) may take from several years to decades, if the source contaminant is removed. This does nothing for groundwater, which the EPA, in a 1993 seminar publication Wellhead Protection: A Guide for Small Communities stated may be impossible.


Works Cited

Detroit Public Schools. “Education in Detroit 1916.” Department of Superintendence, National Education Association 1916.

Burton, Clarence Monroe, William Stocking, and Gordon K. Miller. The City of Detroit,Michigan, 1701-1922. Vol. 1. The SJ Clarke publishing company, 1922.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. U of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Burton, Clarence Monroe, William Stocking, and Gordon K. Miller. The City of Detroit,Michigan, 1701-1922. Vol. 2. The SJ Clarke publishing company, 1922.

Gladstone, David, and Jolie Préau. “Gentrification in tourist cities: evidence from New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina.” Housing Policy Debate 19.1 (2008): 137-175.

Misrach, Richard, and Kate Orff. Petrochemical America. 2014.

Gaylord, Clarice E., and Geraldine W. Twitty. “Protecting Endangered Communities.” Fordham Urban Law Journal 21 (1993): 771.

Environmental Protection Agency. “A Citizen’s Guide to Monitored Natural Attenuation” EPA 2012. Web 6 May 2016

Maletić, Snežana, Božo Dalmacija, and Srđan Rončević. Petroleum Hydrocarbon Biodegradability in Soil–Implications for Bioremediation. Edited by VladimirKutcherov 2013.


Image Credits

Aaron Greely, D. Plan of Private Claims in Michigan Territory. Detroit Historical Society. 1810.

Persac, Marie Adrien, Norman, Benjamin Moore, J.H. Colton & Co. Norman’s Chart of the Lower Mississippi River. Library of Congress. 1858.

All other maps, sketches and images are the work of this author.




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Recentering Detroit, Part 1: Against Revitalization

By Michael Stepniak


Where do people live in Detroit? Where does investment go, and for what?

Revitalization (and its cousins: Revive, Restore, Reinvigorate, and so on), is more than a buzzword in Detroit. It is a culture of memories. It is a romance with a once-prosperous city and its decay. Consider the word “revitalization.” It descends from the Latin re for “again, back, anew, and against,” and vitalitas, for “things pertaining to life.” Combining this last definition of re with vitalitas presents the most accurate definition of revitalization culture in Detroit. A romance with the past and a focus on its return is against the things that pertain to life in the present and future city.

Visually, at the height of its postwar wealth, Detroit was grand. The majesty of its industrial works and its Art Deco skyscrapers is undeniable. The vast, sprawling places in which working class people achieved home ownership, the places in which the middle class grew: these cannot be ignored. The city’s rapid development, industrialization and population explosion, and the physical spaces that were created represent a remarkable period in the city’s history.

The narrative of revitalization employs specific rhetoric: Visions of “former grandeur,” “former prosperity,” and a “return” to these things are embedded in the collective imagination of local politics, development and culture. The motto on the city’s flag is Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus: it will rise from the ashes, we hope for better things. These words were spoken by Father Gabriel Richard, a French priest and local politician after the fire of 1805 burned the city to the ground (Herron 669). Richard’s words have found new life in the local popular vocabulary.1


Woodward’s Plan 

What is the geography of revitalization culture in Detroit? Generally speaking, it is an area of approximately 7.2 square miles, known as “downtown,” “greater downtown,” and more recently, “The 7.2” (7.2 SQ MI). This geographic understanding of Detroit also traces back to the 1805 fire. In 1806, judge Augustus Woodward designed a new city, based on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. (Moore 120). Much of Woodward’s plan was discarded, but it was largely adopted within the one square mile city core. A century after Woodward, the rapidly growing metropolis adopted a City Beautiful plan, and greater downtown became a place of French-style architecture, wide boulevards and green spaces (Bluestone 246). This is the physical geography that revitalization visits with its rhetoric.

How does revitalization culture effect planning? Two centuries after Woodward, planning language and aims have not adapted to the new realities of a changing Detroit. Planners and city-saving developers operate under the premise that Detroit has a core, and that it is Woodward’s downtown. The reality is that Detroit proper is 138 square miles, and nearly its entire population resides outside of the 7.2. An additional layer is that Detroit is now a metropolis: 3.6 million of the metro area’s 4.3 million residents live outside of the city limits. Woodward’s core is the city center in imagination only. Language commonly used by residents is telling: every outside of greater downtown is known as “the neighborhoods.”

Detroit Future City (DFC) is the latest plan, the de facto master plan. Unlike many previous plans, it attempts to acknowledge the people and the existing city. DFC does engage with communities and structures, but it does not confront them. It cannot get away from its mission of revitalization. The document begins with the prosperous industrial postwar city, skips to the mess it is today, and moves forward towards revival, allocating the bulk of initiatives, and therefore funding, to the greater downtown area. One stark example of its non-confrontational tone is that in 761 pages, the word “racism” is not used once, but the word “revitalization” appears dozens of times.

It is impossible to have a serious discussion about Detroit, its past, present or future, without discussing race and racism. It is one of the things that has shaped the city’s spaces and continues to do so. Racism is one of the most important problems facing any person, group or government who hopes to re-plan the city.

DFC also fails spatially. DFC held many community meetings during the process of crafting the plan and its presentation to the public. Yet in one meeting in 2013 a DFC representative stated that the plan for the neighborhoods near 8 Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue was to “let them lie fallow.” DFC is proposing almost no investment for the outermost neighborhoods. This, despite that these neighborhoods are among the city’s most densely populated.

Revitalization culture is a romantic view of Detroit in the mid-20th century: a city of 2 million people, giant factories, prosperous workers, beautiful parks and wide boulevards, personified by legends from Augustus Woodward to Henry Ford. It lives up to its motto and has risen from the ashes. This view idealizes a period that was far from ideal. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the 1943 race rebellion, red-lining, union battles and riots such as the Ford Massacre and the Battle of the Overpass, systematic union discrimination against black workers: all this and more took place during this time in the city’s history.2 This is nostalgia expressed as a narrative that drives development within a small geography that is no longer central in a meaningful way to a large proportion of the population.

White racism against blacks by individuals, governments, unions, banks and systems has been well documented as a destructive force in Detroit, as have automation, globalization, and government-subsidized suburban development.3 Nostalgia refuses to confront these issues. It selectively ignores the Detroit that came before the industrial city. Post-European Detroit has three centuries of history under the rule of three countries. As a region, it has been inhabited for 8,000 years (Roberts 252). There have been many incarnations of this place, from the Mississippians to the Mississauga, to the French, British and Americans. No doubt there will be many more.4

The development crowd asks “how can we revitalize Detroit?” and answers its question as follows: “By restoring its former grandeur, with a focus on the historic city center, which is our best chance to rebuild a tax base” (Neavling). There must be an opposing question that rejects the assumptions of centrality in downtown and focuses on the places where people live.


Figure 1: Infrastructure in Metro Detroit


Figure 2: Population Density in Metro Detroit, 2013.

At the heart of metropolitan Detroit is 8 Mile Road, a 20 mile long border between the city proper and the northern suburbs (figs.1 & 2). It is the line of demarcation between counties, cities, and school districts. It is a racial, economic and cultural barrier. Stark divisions of race and class exist between the city and the suburbs (figs 3 & 4). 8 Mile Road is the center of the metropolitan areas population, its geography and its conflicts.


Figure 3: Racial Segregation in Metro Detroit, 2013. Darkest Blue: >75% African American, Lightest Blue: <14% African American. African Americans are 14% of Michigan’s population.


Figure 4: Class Segregation in Metro Detroit, 2013.

The border kills democracy, or so it appears. The road itself is not divisive, it is an immense piece of infrastructure and must be seen on those terms as well, while acknowledging its racial, cultural and economic contexts.

“Restoring Detroit” is not an idea that implies evolution. A focus on postwar prosperity does not situate the present, the future, or even the formerly prosperous Detroit within its multiple histories. Postwar Detroit, Woodward’s Detroit, majestic as it was, must be thought of within the context of its racism, its deeper past and the way in which these things are still spatialized.

In Augustus Woodward’s day, what is now downtown was the entire city. Today, metropolitan Detroit covers all or parts of five counties, spanning thousands of square miles. The ideal that has been cemented into revitalization culture ignores that downtown is no longer the center. For the three million residents of the northern suburbs, and a good portion of the 700,000 residents of the city proper, 8 Mile Road is the true center of the region.



1. Examples of “rising from the ashes” rhetoric do not only apply to revitalization, but to recovery from disaster. See Reclaim Detroit’s home base destroyed by fire, by Daniel Bethencourt and Katrease Stafford, Detroit Free Pres, 4 February, 2016. The rhetoric has spread internationally as well, as stories by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Mirror and the International Business Times demonstrate.

2. Thomas Sugrue gives an account of this tumultuous period of extreme growth and discrimination in Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

3. Thomas Sugrue, in his analysis of deindustrialization Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work describes many of these processes, especially those of automation.

4. What will come next?


Works Cited

Herron, Jerry. “Detroit: Disaster Deferred, Disaster in Progress.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (2007).

7.2 Sq Mi. “7.2 Sq Mi: A Report on Greater Downtown Detroit 2nd Edition.” The Hudson-Webber Foundation 2015.

Moore, Charles. “Augustus Brevoort Woodward: A Citizen of Two Cities.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington DC 4 (1901): 114-127.

Bluestone, Daniel M. “Detroit’s city beautiful and the problem of commerce.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 47.3 (1988): 245-262.

Detroit Future City. “Detroit Future City 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan.” Inland Press. Detroit 2012.

Roberts, Arthur. “Paleo Indian on the North Shore of Lake Ontario.” Archaeology of Eastern North America (1984): 248-265.

Neavling, Steve. “’Bring on more gentrification,’ declares Detroit’s economic development czar.” Motor City Muckracker 16 May 2013.


Image Credits

Map Credit: Augustus Woodward, 1806. Source:

All other maps, sketches and images are the work of this author.

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Let’s Get Real: It’s Our Money

58% taxpayer financed, but it's anti-business to ask for a Community Benefits Agreement?

58% taxpayer financed, but it’s anti-business to ask for a Community Benefits Agreement?

Watching construction workers appear before Detroit City Council, one after another, to advocate for the rezoning of the new Olympia arena development, I worried that it might actually happen. As a former mason tender, I empathize: a few years of steady employment sounds like a dream. The fact is that the arena development will happen. The jobs will be there. At issue is our last chance to extract some concessions out of a very bad deal made by Kevyn Orr.

Detroit City Council is in uncharted territory. They are the first council in a century to represent districts, and they are taking it seriously. Olympia’s original deal with Kevyn Orr contains a non-binding agreement wherein Olympia will hire 30 percent of arena development contractors from within the city proper, 501 percent of arena employees will be Detroiters, the Eddystone Hotel will be restored, and 20 percent of apartments will be set aside as affordable housing. Detroit City Council wants a binding Community Benefits Agreement.

If it is Olympia’s intent to do right by the city, why is it so hard to put it on paper? The Detroit Free Press quotes Council President Brenda Jones: “I have been here 10 years. I have see trust come and go. It’s not that I don’t trust you… Chris Ilitch; it’s not that I don’t trust Mr. (Mike) Ilitch. What I do trust is seeing something in writing.”

Enter The Detroit News, sounding like shrill racist shills: “Council members are ignoring some facts about Detroit’s workforce. Just 12 percent of city residents have college degrees, according to the U.S. census bureau, and just 77 percent have high school diplomas.” Uh-huh. I barely passed high school and managed to keep jobs in restaurants and construction for years before I went to college. These are the jobs that make up the bulk of those within the arena development: unskilled labor, concessions, maintenance, etc. Go home, Detroit News. You’re drunk.

Tom Walsh writes a similar opinion for The Detroit Free Press (which was refuted by the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board). Like his counterparts at the News, Walsh only uses facts when they fit his agenda, and is insulting from the get-go. His title is “Uh-oh: Is Detroit City Council reverting to bad habits?” Let’s get real. This development is 58 percent publicly funded. The Detroit City Council is representing the interests of the public, and if they asked for a complete start-from-scratch deal they would not be out of line.

Welcome back to democracy. I know the EFM was fun for some people, but hopefully the gravy train is over. We need to stop giving millions of dollars of taxpayer money to billionaires and giant corporations who will tell us to be thankful that they created a few hundred $9 per hour jobs.

On that note, I still love hockey. Let’s Go Red Wings!

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A Few Hours In Mt. Clemens

These Guys

These Guys

Last week, I had an errand to run in Mt. Clemens. I completed my task ahead of schedule and took the opportunity to take a walk around town. Mt. Clemens is a fascinating place. Low-income and high-income housing exists on the same streets. National chains have not taken over the town. Factories still make things. There is a giant jail. I have all sorts of policy-related thoughts. Instead, here are a bunch of pictures from a pretty interesting place.




Hackel's Hotel

Hackel’s Hotel

This is close to where my walk began. I could write all sorts of things about criminalization of poverty, nonviolent offenders, sentencing guidelines, the insane degree to which black men are imprisoned, but I will do that later. For now, here it is: a giant jail.






The Axalta Coating Systems (formerly DuPont) paint factory

The Axalta Coating Systems (formerly DuPont) paint factory

I have to wonder why this factory requires such a huge lawn. That said, I will not ruminate further on zoning ordinances that may or may not be responsible, and just be happy that 500 people still have jobs making paint.





That is one bad ride.

That is one bad ride.

I felt so… purely Michigan when I saw this. It was as if I were part of something that were timeless, and confined to two specific peninsulas.






An Amazing Sign.

An Amazing Sign.

If anyone is wondering why I included this, just zoom in and look at this guy! It is enough to make one want a mustache. On a serious note, I had been walking for approximately 15 minutes, and this was the second independent haircare facility that I saw. In the middle of a suburbia dominated by chain haircut joints and salons, it was an encouraging sight.






transmissions, anyone?

transmissions, anyone?

Precision Transmission Repair has been here for 32 years (Thanks, Google). It looks like business is still booming.






wow. what a cool house.

wow. what a cool house.

To reiterate: wow, what a cool house.









Downtown Mt. Clemens

Downtown Mt. Clemens

Downtown Mt. Clemens is a bit more crowded at night. It is enjoyable to walk around and essentially have it to yourself during the day.








A clock!

A clock!

This reminds me of a particularly (wonderfully, hilariously) cynical professor I had while studying for my undergrad in Urban Studies at Wayne State University. He always told a story in which he was hired as an urban design consultant by a small town in Pennsylvania. He designed a village square with a clock in it. The clock, in particular was well-received by the city fathers. He  would say:

Consulting. That’s where the money is. Don’t worry. You all will do fine. You will get jobs. Build ’em a clock and send ’em a bill!

Ah, those heady days of dreams and idealism.



Nice paint job.

Nice paint job.

This car had spray paint all over it. What’s more, it appears that this was not an act of vandalism, but of art. What a fun time that must have been!








Heading home.

Heading home.

After a fun time, a fish sandwich with beer, and some much-needed exercise, it was time to go home. It is curious how a simple trip to the suburbs can seem like an adventure. In addition, it has occurred to me that I may not be as humorous or fun as I think I am in this post. Perhaps I should get back to policy and design?

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Detroit Future City: The Economic Growth Element examined

Detroit Future City is the product of a 24 month effort wherein scarce resources were expended. It is the result of the work of many individuals. In order to give it its due, it will be examined in installments, beginning with the first chapter of the planning elements, The Economic Growth Element.

In his most famous book review, Ambrose Bierce wrote a single sentence: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” Detroit Future City (DFC) deserves better. Upon delving into its 340-odd pages, I did chortle a bit while ruminating on the pleasures of being Bierce. Of course, it was then time to read it. Much of DFC is can be safely termed as “good.” Even so, there are assumptions that are questionable. Ideas are presented that raise eyebrows. Most importantly, there are policy recommendations that must be challenged.

Districts and Pillars

Detroit's checkerboard of assets

Detroit’s checkerboard of assets

The framework for economic growth as presented consists of seven “primary employment districts and four “key economic growth pillars.” The identified districts are downtown, midtown, McNichols, Dequindre-Eastern Market, Corktown, and Mt. Elliot. The pillars are local entrepreneurship, educational and medical (eds & meds), industrial, and digital/creative.

Recognizing the diversification of Detroit’s economy as an imperative and then encouraging agglomeration economies within the city limits is common-sensical. Detroit is a city with assets; this is clear. Much of what is recommended by DFC is de-regulation and insertion of helpful regulations to stimulate the private sector, including small business. In particular, there is a focus on Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs). DFC posits a strategy regarding MBEs: create neighborhood incubators where services and expertise in areas such as accounts receivable and contract negotiation are exchanged with and linked to small business owners. The implementation of these incubators is possibly the most exciting idea in the chapter; no particulars of their inception are included. There are Detroiters young and old who have, in their dreams, concocted plans they see no possibility of coming to fruition. Physical space for service exchange and the stimulation of MBEs merits policy crafted on its behalf.

Detroit: the independent variable

The most disquieting notion put forth by the chapter is that our conventional wisdom with regards to Detroit Public Schools (DPS) may be a stumbling block. The authors write: “there is little evidence for the oft-stated claim that ‘Detroit can’t fix its economy until it fixes K-12.'” Some variant of this little gem is indeed oft-stated and rarely questioned. The data presented by the framers would seem to be at odds with this: in the last decade the percentage of jobs in the the city held by residents has decreased from 42% to 30%. According to DFC,

  • A Detroiter with a two-year college degree is 50% more likely to live in poverty than the average American with only a high school degree
  • A Detroiter with a four-year degree is more likely to live in poverty than the average American with a two-year degree.
  • if every working-age Detroiter invested in a two-year degree, the poverty rate in this group would still be almost 21% higher than overall poverty rates in 70% of U.S. cities

DFC refers to this imbalance as “inequity even with education.” This term is appropriate, but the “why” of this remains unasked. Despite the resources available, these statistics are presented with no analysis. The numbers may appear to bolster the claim that the chapter makes that job creation deserves higher priority than K-12, but numbers do not speak for themselves. That there are too few jobs in Detroit has not gone unnoticed. Consider this hypothesis: Individuals living in areas in which K-12 is meeting benchmarks are less likely to live in poverty than individuals who do not. If we identify our dependent variable as “poverty,” there are a host of possible independent variables, including jobs, K-12, high school and college diplomas, race and ethnicity, gender and sex, and access to transit. Whatever the equation, it cannot be that “Detroit” is made to be the independent variable. Conditions exist within the city limits, but it is the conditions themselves that must be explored.


Mapping bachelor’s degrees in Detroit

Some numbers to consider are that almost 23% of adults over 25 within the city hold no high school diploma; 33% have a high school degree but no college experience. Only 7% have completed a bachelor’s program and 5% have gone on to complete a graduate program. These numbers, like the ones presented by the DFC to not constitute an analysis, but they are fodder for investigation. It should remain a suspicion that K-12 is probably not something that can be sat on while Detroiters wait for the private sector to work its magic.

Transit is an economic issue.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

Other than K-12, the most important issue is barely addressed is transit. Spatial mismatch separates many city-dwellers from economic opportunity. Of the 253 thousand households in the city, 119 thousand have no workers. 44 thousands of these non-working households have no vehicle available. Of the 100 thousand or so households that are supported by a single worker, 14 thousand have no access to a car. It is also worth noting that over 27 thousand households have two workers, and over eight thousand of these have only one car. The questions that DFC should and did not ask are these: where are the Detroiters, and where are the jobs? Much of the population, in order to fill the job openings prescribed by the authors will need reliable, safe transit.

DFC recommends light rail, BRT and reliable local bus service, but as long-term strategies. In the short-term, public-private ventures in the shuttle-bus businesses are to be encouraged.

Darius and Barbara

The first page of The Economic Growth Element tells the tale of Darius and Barbara, a working class couple on the Northwest side. They have had a rough time. Darius is laid off and needs the car to care for the children. Barbara works in the suburbs. However, they have stuck it out over the past decade and now it is 2020. Detroit is a different place. Darius has found work and the whole family rides the BRT everywhere. They live and work in the city and are quite the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family, albeit with a dual income. The more realistic outcome of this is that if they have school-age children, Darius has marketable skills, and Barbara has a job in the suburbs, then that is exactly where they are headed: towards economic freedom and better K-12. Like the DPS, transit is a factor that needs to be addressed now.


The Economic Growth Element is at once stimulating and unsatisfying. At a DFC open house on January 29th, Charles Cross, a senior research and design fellow at University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture had this to say:

This is just a framework; it’s a guide for decision making. It’s not a master plan. What it does tells an overall idea of hey, here’s the existing conditions on the ground today… it creates almost a buffet that community members and leaders can pick from that they think will work best in their community.

Mr. Cross’s words were reassuring. DFC is an appealing document on the whole, and the Economic Growth Element is a good satellite’s view of our circumstances and possible avenues for future action.

Posted in Detroit Future City, economic development, education, transit, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Say Cass Corridor

A Question of  Neighborhoods

Cass Corridor at dusk

Cass Corridor at dusk

About a year ago, I took part in Discover. Engage. Transform., a program created by Leadership Detroit. One of the events on the docket was a bus tour of the city, and for the most part it was quite a bit of fun. Two particular points of the tour stick in my mind. The first was that although a good deal of historical ground was covered, the entirety of all things Detroit apparently existed in a comfortably post-racial place in space and time. The second was my first true exposure to urban rebranding. As we turned onto Cass Avenue, the tour guide spoke into the microphone: “and here we have the former Cass Corridor,” at which point she trailed off. Until this point, my awareness of Midtown as an entity was limited to a vague notions relating to TIF money. Midtown is more than its geography; it is an idea.

Cass Corridor is not an attractive name; history tells us this is a dangerous place. Play word association in Metro Detroit and the results will confirm that this is indeed the general perception. Midtown is the antithesis of danger. The logo, the mission, and the news surrounding Midtown Detroit are overwhelmingly positive. New residents are filtering into the neighborhoods, and the footprint of Midtown itself has expanded. Cass Corridor is part of the heritage of the Midtown brand, and identity has its roots in heritage. City neighborhood identity is important; Midtown itself has become too large to fit that role. Sue Mosey, the president of Midtown Detroit Inc. has recognized this to a degree. Regarding the rebranding of Cass Corridor, Mosey says “there are still some hardcore people who live in the neighborhood who said we shouldn’t have changed it, but the reality is Midtown is a much larger area than Cass ever was.” Mosey also encourages residents to continue to use their neighborhood monikers. Midtown Inc. should go a step further. The Cass Corridor identity should be embraced and utilized as a brand of its own. Midtown should own it and be proud.

Urban Policy and Urban Branding

Urban branding is geared to attract dollars, and the issues that arise in each case vary. Several constants remain: media and reality must work in conjunction, the occurrence of an image change or reinvention, and the goal of generating commercial investment, tourism and residential development.

Developers have repeatedly attempted to rebrand Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan with little success, despite the current lack of hellishness. The City of Westminster has not attempted a name change with Soho, despite its unsavory past. These names, like Cass Corridor, conjure history, importance, and memories of a past both stimulating and foul. All three of these neighborhoods are known for things other than crime; they have distinct cultural assets, and in the case of Cass Corridor, a major university.

red: current perceptionsblack: desired perceptions of Amsterdam

I amsterdam
red: current perceptions
black: desired perceptions

The lesson of the I amsterdam initiative is instructive. In the process of addressing its decreasing market share of international business, the city identified what it was known for, what it wanted to be known for, and created a brand that allowed both visitors and residents to take ownership of Amsterdam. Perception of place is key in this effort. Amsterdam would clearly like to be less known for sex, drugs and canals, and more for architecture, art, business, as well as being a place where actual people make their homes. The effort has been largely successful and Amsterdam is once again among the top five European cities to visit.

Numbers, People, Opportunity & Consequences

Cass Corridor is approximately one mile square and is home to some 7,500 people. Midtown in its entirety is over three square miles and contains well over 16,000 residents. As its footprint grows, Midtown Detroit becomes a true big city midtown, encompassing many distinct neighborhood spaces. Brush Park, the Museum District, North End and New Center are now within Midtown’s borders.

Cass Tech marching band: the percussion section practices in Cass Park

Cass Tech marching band:
the percussion section practices in Cass Park

This bigger, more inclusive Midtown is a nebulous identity for individual residents. New residents should know the heritage of the place of which they are now part of and become part of existing communities. Power over identity and power over a name are guarded jealously: when group x and group y have conflicting names for a unique point in space and time that they occupy jointly, there will be a division. In Detroit, division most often occurs on a line drawn by the color of one’s skin. Policy should be crafted with this in mind. An opportunity exists to forge bonds between old “hardcore” residents and the new: Midtown should market the neighborhoods, each as a brand in its own right. Midtown and Cass Corridor are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are complimentary.

Posted in Cass Corridor, gentrification, identity politics, Midtown Detroit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Belle Isle and the Religion of Local Control

what kind of city is Detroit?

a city in (identity) crisis

a city in (identity) crisis

This question, though not always in so many words, is a constant humming irritant in the background noise of this town. The obnoxious soul searching we subject ourselves to denies reality. The truth is that Detroit a big city. Big cities by definition contain a lot of stuff. It is difficult to quantify said stuff and more so to generalize. To wonder what kind of city “we” are is to beg the question: what kind of city do we want to be? For many of us, we wish the streetlights would start and that the killings would stop.

Both leadership and residents struggle with the idea of Detroit as a big city. Too many times is the body politic referred to as “the community.” A city of over 700,000 is not a cultural monolith. Think back to a biology or anthropology class you may have taken: there exists greater diversity within populations than between them.

Reality Denialism

ongoing renovations at Cobo Center

ongoing renovations at Cobo Center

Despite the big city reality of Detroit, business is often conducted in an insular, small-townish manner. Fear of “outsiders” who will “take over” often displaces reasonable discourse. A prime example of this is the saga of Cobo Center, and its journey from a crumbling city-owned disaster to oversight by a regional authority. The results of this transition are positive. Detroit did not lose the North American International Auto Show, and Cobo itself is undergoing a massive upgrade.

Both the city and the suburbs have transgressed against cohesive regional policy. The converse of the fear of outsiders exists in suburban minds towards “those crooks in the city.” Reading between the lines, it is not difficult to translate “outsiders” and “crooks” into racial terms. It is not possible to discuss Detroit’s relationship with its suburbs without broaching the topic of racial discord; it is lazy thinking to not acknowledge other barriers to effective policy. Aside from identity politics, each issue faced by the metro region involves its own unique complications. No negotiation has ever taken place in a vacuum.

Belle Isle as a State Park?

the island in question

the island in question

Fear of losing control of assets is legitimate; once a regional authority has been established, Detroit cannot renege. The question of Belle Isle is a bit different from Cobo or the recent Regional Transit Authority (RTA) legislation. Policy regarding Cobo Center and RTA legislation is a strictly regional issue: the debate centers on whether the city should control the asset entirely or take part in a regional decision-making body. No tri-county authority is being proposed for Belle Isle. Rather, the island would be leased to the State of Michigan placed under the control of the DNR. Neither the city nor the region would have much to say regarding the island’s operations. This is a nontrivial point of contention.

City Council has repeatedly blocked Mayor Bing’s plans to hand Belle Isle over to the state, to the chagrin of many. Jack Lessenberry of the MetroTimes argues in favor of the deal, and writes “there is the usual moaning about not letting “them” take “our” park,” and states that the one “legitimate gripe” opponents have is that as a state park, Belle Isle  would charge a 10$ annual parking fee.

Lessenberry’s position is a common one, and it misrepresents the issues. By constructing the strawman of a city vs. suburbs dichotomy, and then merrily knocking it down, the nature of the policy debate is ignored. The State of Michigan has offered no hard numbers and no specific plans for the island. City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown has been adamant on this point, but the idea that Detroit City Council is simply being obtuse is the popular idea.

Who controls what in Metro Detroit is often a stumbling block to the best laid plans, but often it is not the only issue in play. Detroit City Council can certainly be obtuse, but they are not always. Regarding Belle Isle, there is a debate to be had. Rather than dismiss the concerns of the city as typical power grasping desperation, or fear of losing control, it should be recognized that an argument has been made. An answer to that argument from proponents of a deal with the state has yet to be given.

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