Detroit Thrives, As Well As Survives

For someone who hadn't visited, The Motor City had quite a mythology: thirty-story skyscrapers abandoned downtown, 1990s raves and glo-sticks, Motown, Aretha, Madonna and Eminem. So I was glad to get there and see how the mythology held up.

I was sent to Detroit to film a segment for America 2050, RPA's national infrastructure planning and advocacy initiative. America 2050 is producing a series of short films depicting mid-21st-century Americans traveling through an enhanced national transportation system, American landscape and energy mix. Our first segment, based in Detroit, will be included in a forthcoming feature-length documentary in collaboration with Director Aaron Woolf and PBS/Blueprint America. The futuristic journey culminates a very thorough narrative of Detroit's transportation history from river to rail to road.

Some of the mythology around Detroit is real. Skyscrapers do lie empty downtown, empty lots from torn-down buildings get overgrown in the summer and industry is hard to find. It's all clear once you see it. Detroit residents know American car brands and models better than New Yorkers know subway lines. But what is missing in the myth of Detroit is a strong pride and love of place. These emotions seemed to stem both from an acceptance of their lot and an enjoyment of it. They see that the rest of the country views them as living in a condemned land, but they know their city's charms and strengths, some of which stem from aspects that some see as liabilities.

Outside the center city, things are a bit more stable, but they still have their own challenges. On one of our first visits, we travelled up one of Detroit's radiating spoke streets, Gratiot Avenue, to St. Clair Shores about 20 miles outside the city. St. Clair Shores is a middle-class suburb with sturdy, single-family detached housing, beautiful streets and an engaged community. Few cars lined the curbs or driveways, with most parked behind the houses. It was obviously a well-maintained place and the people enjoyed living there. "What started as our starter home suddenly became our finishing home," said one resident.

"Are you going to treat Detroit well in your film?," people asked as we walked around with cameras pointing. Never mind the answer (yes), it's the question that matters. There was a awareness in the question that the resources were put into the wrong place in the 50s and has changed the city unexpectedly. There was excellent mass transit in place before. The demise of the extensive streetcar network, closely linked to the rise of the highway, is part of the mythology (much like Los Angeles') and has created a slight defensiveness and a growing transit advocacy community.

And advocacy is exactly what they need, as Detroit isn't easy to get around with or without a car. The road system that was ultimately built in anticipation of multiple millions of residents now supports around 800,000 and still has traffic jams on I-75 during rush hour. The new Rosa Parks Bus Terminal links to the downtown monorail, but the people are very vocal about transit cuts and isolation. Our crew was approached and engaged throughout the trip with people wanting to discuss the city's transit needs. We listened and told them what we knew. The city is interested in its own future, and some rising advocates are fighting really hard to make change.

For myself, I couldn't help running through Detroit as a design problem while I rushed around the city with our crew: move everyone closer together to cement community, radiate transit from the center to the suburbs, flip the existing and empty factories into other businesses. It is, however, a much more complex place than those over-simplified answers express. You can't just move people, business do what they want, and politics seem to have the upper hand in the Motor City. The surprise announcement this weekend of Ford's intention to turn a 50-year-old factory into a renewable energy manufacturing facility brings me optimism. I was told several times that turning the factories over wasn't that easy given the toxicity of car manufacturing. Soil remediation isn't cheap.

Detroit has a lot of room to deal with its issues from first glance. Obviously, this is not a simple issue. Communities need to be activated and employed, plans need to be executed and America needs to see it as vital again. But judging from the Detroit I saw, I'm certain it'll get through this and come out better on the other side.