Feb 28, 2014

On Detroit

I visited some Venture for America friends in Detroit this past weekend. Although the city is painted as a bombed-out shell in the media, I thought midtown Detroit approximated an abandoned Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. After I got home, I came across this interview with Detroit-native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jeffrey Eugenides, which echoes my impression of the city, and many of the discussions I had and overheard during my trip.

Here are a few more reflections.

Grandeur and spectacle: Detroit is a city built at grand scale. Woodward Avenue, the main drag, is a hundred meters wide at some points. Building footprints are larger than any I've seen at home in Philadelphia, and cavernous interiors are adorned with ornate mosaics and murals. The remnants of Detroit's opulence are captivating. It reminds me of the poem, Ozymandias, or of Aristotle's definition of the tragic hero.

The tragic hero must be "a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous--a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families." --Aristotle's Poetics
Idealism: I can't even imagine the number of people it would require to crowd Detroit's broad midwestern avenues. The city's grandeur strikes me as idealistic now that it no longer has the population to support its size. I wonder if anyone worried about the city's mono-economy while it was under initial construction.

Hub-and-spoke: I have no sense of direction, so my love for Philadelphia's grid system is less-than-objective. (Fortunately for me, I can learn a city's layout by running the streets.) In contrast, Detroit's hub-and-spoke model was a directional nightmare.

My friend told me a story about the origins of the hub-and-spoke. In 1805, before Chicago's Great Fire, Detroit suffered its own Great Fire. (The flag of Detroit reads, "Resurgit Cineribus," or "it will rise from the ashes.") At that time, Augustus Woodward was the Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. When the fire leveled Detroit, Woodward set out to build a new city based on the L'Enfant Plan of Washington, D.C. Woodward designed a system of circular parks interspersed throughout the city, with broad avenues radiating out from the parks.

According to my friend, the plan was abandoned after several years as retaliation for Woodward naming the main avenue after himself. Woodward joked that he was not the eponym of Woodward Avenue, but the name reflected the direction of the road towards the wood.

Gentrification: There is a lot of space in Detroit, and, as in other places where space is abundant, developers and renters tend to favor new construction over rehabilitating existing spaces.

In Tuscaloosa, where I attended college for two years, new luxury apartment complexes cropped up every year. Students would pay the absurd rents for a few years before the cheap construction began to wear, and then they flocked to newly-built apartments elsewhere.

A lot of the conversation in Detroit centers on displacement. While I was visiting, there was a controversy over one particular tenement/artists' lofts building from which all tenants had been evicted on 30 days' notice. 

By contrast, in Philadelphia, gentrification is not the center of public discussion. It's not that displacement never happens, but it's isolated in a few areas, and it tends to happen slowly, either due to the lack of space, or the slower population growth, or because the individually-owned rowhouses in Philadelphia are slower to be rehabilitated than the large apartment complexes in Detroit.

-Paige