A Question of Neighborhoods
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.
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.
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.