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A vacant, burned house is pictured in Detroit's east end on March 19, 2013. There are almost 150,000 vacant or abandoned parcels of land throughout Detroit, covering ground equal to the size of Manhattan. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A vacant, burned house is pictured in Detroit's east end on March 19, 2013. There are almost 150,000 vacant or abandoned parcels of land throughout Detroit, covering ground equal to the size of Manhattan. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Detroit may not return to past glory, but don’t stop believing Add to ...

The resulting 349-page, 50-year plan, unveiled this year, is the first such comprehensive blueprint for any city, says one of its authors, Dan Kinkead, director of Detroit Future City. Its creation involved hundreds of meetings and 30,000 conversations with residents and community leaders, along with 70,000 survey responses.

Its scope is ambitious: The Detroit it describes would have high-density, walkable communities, punctuated by forests, farms and ponds, along with – in a twist, given its roots as Motor City – efficient public transit. Business startups and industry clusters would fuel job growth, and art, landscaping and bike paths would dot the city.

Detroit Future City is also the first plan to accept that the city will not return to its peak population of almost two million people from its current 700,000. That means tough decisions on which neighbourhoods should get the benefits of reinvestment and which should be “decommissioned,” with a long-term plan to reduce services as people move to denser and more vibrant areas.

Many residents will be angry and resistant to the idea of leaving their homes. But “we just don’t have the means to provide the same level of renewal across the city,” as the costs of services are rising just as the city’s tax base is falling, Mr. Kinkead says.

The question, especially now, is how the plan would be implemented and who would pay. The philanthropic Kresge Foundation has pledged $150-million over five years to support the plan, but that is just a small fraction of the billions needed. Mr. Kinkead says the bankruptcy should not have a direct impact on the project, because it does not rely on government funds, which sounds like a rosy claim.

Many other smaller cities have gone bankrupt, but none even close to the size of Detroit. The next largest was Stockton, Calif., half Detroit’s size, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. The closest parallel, though, is New York, which came perilously close to bankruptcy in 1975 but was saved by a federal loan and an investment by the city’s teachers union in city securities.

Like Detroit, New York faced massive job losses because of a decline in its industrial economy, exacerbated by a recession, and debilitating crime. It did recover, of course, by slashing its crime rate and revitalizing its decayed industrial neighborhoods into spiffy residential areas. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the recovery really kicked in, and it took two decades after the near-bankruptcy to recoup its population loss.

Significant improvement in Detroit, then, will be a long road, even if the city comes out of the process with a clean slate and Mr. Orr follows through with his promise to erase the debt and invest $1.25-billion in boosting services and infrastructure.

In the meanwhile, though, far from City Hall, many people on the ground have started building their own new Detroit.

‘Hardship has forced us to be creative’

DJ and bar owner Zak Pashak, 32, moved here from Calgary last year to pursue his ambition to establish a bicycle-manufacturing plant. He describes the city’s mood as curious, weird and still having “the remnants of a pretty glorious place.”

He bought a 50,000-square-foot industrial space, with functioning light and electricity and a paint booth, for just $190,000. It’s easy to find motivated, qualified workers, he says, particularly those with a mechanical aptitude. He aims to produce 100 bikes a day, priced at about $500 each and hopes to distribute them through North America. The brand name? Detroit Bikes. Perhaps some day they’ll be calling this the Pedal City.

“It’s a very interesting city to me,” says Mr. Pashak, “and I wanted to find a way to be part of this nice energy that’s happening.”

As the pattern often goes, young artists arguably seized upon the area’s advantages even before the entrepreneurs. Attracted by all the available space and perhaps the romance of the city’s past, artists from as far as the Netherlands and Germany are coming to stay and work “in a city that’s supposed to be washed up,” says Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of long-established art-and-education program the Heidelberg Project, an oasis of bright colour on the half-burned-out east side.

“This city is a place of new ideas that have changed the face of the world,” Ms. Whitfield says. “Hardship has forced us to be creative. And art is a catalyst for change.”

Meanwhile, not far from the downtown core, in a greenhouse warmed by the spring sun, Devin Foote is picking spinach. He’s the urban-farm-operations manager for Greening of Detroit, which supports about 1,400 agricultural projects in the city. Detroit has the space for a green revolution, he says, with more vacant land than any urban setting in the country.

Mark Covington is a community gardener, too, but his thinking doesn’t stop there. He founded the Georgia Street Community Collective, which has expanded to include a small library, a computer room for kids to do homework, livestock and public movie showings. Yet Mr. Covington is on the other side of a divide from many of the entrepreneurs and urban pioneers: He lives in the East End, in an African-American neighbourhood marked by high crime rates and vacant, hollow homes, where liquor stores and churches, each offering different kinds of consolation, are some of the few buildings left.

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