It’s been a quiet month in Detroit, where it hasn’t been above freezing in over a month (minus that one day we got to 36 degrees, but it felt like 80), seemingly a weekend cannot pass without fresh snow, and I have not bothered to bike to work or clean the salt stains out of my shoes. What’s the point? Every time the ten day forecast shows temperatures rising in the distant future, they plummet, bringing with them heaps of powdery snow and thick traffic on the 75 and the Lodge. My February in Detroit, unglamorous and quiet with snowy Sundays and cooked kale, has been filled with untidy conversations and ideas and hope and dreams and sketches and emailed articles.
During this fall, as the days got colder (so unexpectedly, I caught a cold by being outside without a coat!), I considered the winter in front of me. I had unexpectedly become at home in Detroit, seemingly over night. After a pretty lonely, hot, nervous summer, I settled into my apartment, my street, my friends, my city. I felt optimistic about the future of Detroit, memorizing our city motto and reciting it whenever given the chance: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” How could I not stay here forever? How could I not settle down and embrace begin a Michigander, with the chance to really build a new city?
But its been a long winter, warmed with endless conversations (and arguments!) about gentrification in Detroit (and other cities), wealth distribution, economic success and failures, what to do with the blighted houses, and architecture, architecture, architecture. My ideas about the future are constantly shifting, and sometimes even I have a hard time feeling optimistic about the broad, big, comeback of Detroit. I’m not sure exactly what to make of the huge, “market-rate” (read: too expensive even for me?) development projects announced to begin in spring.
Over some medicore food at Traffic Jam and Snug, I had a long conversation about Detroit’s specific gentrification. It all stemmed from this article, and a few other similar ones, that explore rising rents in the Greater Downtown, amid a lack of growth of other real services and jobs (outside of Quicken Loans & Pals). In fact, the new developments seem almost to expose a new big-idea speculative bubble, held up by a loud conversation about “funky places” and “cool cities” and “the creative class.” Friends of Richard Florida might attest that a city must offer funky, cool, places to become vibrant again, but I believe this is a misreading of Florida– not that I completely buy Flordia’s thesis in the first place. Detroit has yet to see a real, dense movement of DIY creatives creating community (and all the things that come with it: small cafes, shops, restaurants, renovated single buildings, non-profits, etc). Detroit certainly has those things, but not on the scale or density it should to support the next step in the Creative City: gentrification and large, market-rate developments. In a natural progression of things, we seemingly skipped a step, speculating that if we build the soft-lofts and bougey grocery stores, the residents will come.
Maybe the problem is that the literal size of Detroit (and her buildings), simply don’t leave room for small plans, for a mass movement of small renovations, small businesses, small ideas. There is too much empty space yearning to be filled, too many empty homes aching for a over-arching solution, too many hollow skyscrapers– we have 99 problems, but space ain’t one. Detroit was born, built, boomed and busted all on big, speculative ideas that skipped the boring, tidious, and sometimes small steps that become a big idea, the big movement, the revolution. But isn’t that distinctly American? We want our places– like our civic religion– to be big, grandiose, fast. There’s a reason why rags-to-riches stories grip Americans today the same way they did in the Gilded Age.
Our architecture, our spaces, our cities, our suburbs, even our speech is laced with the idea that anything is possible in America, even when maybe its not. The things we build– everything from our houses, to freeway overpasses, to shopping malls and national parks– are shrouded in the big idea that we, as humans, could change our country into something perfect, seemingly overnight. From the popularity of the suburban retreat to the National Parks System (and the highways that bring you there!), Americans fell in love with the idea that you could just build your way into the perfect future, and fast. The tedious, generations-long process of creating strong neighborhoods in the city was dismissed for the cheap construction of a GI-house in the suburbs that popped up nearly overnight. The American Dream, Manifest Destiny, all lead to this foregone conclusion, but from the mid-century until now, we finally had the means to do it.
And I’m not immune to this wanderlust, to the idea that just a new place, a new environment, a new climate, a new culture could transend me from my everyday, colloquial self into everything I dream of being– overnight. It’s why I went to England when I was 20, hoping the change of scenery would shift something inside of me. Being in England changed nothing, but the everyday acts of drawing on the Tube and in the V&A did. Those acts were not as glamorous or immediate as getting out of a Taxi and staring up at the Victorian flat I was going to live in, but they mattered. Every drizzly walk to church, every ten minute wait on the platform, every calorie of croissant consumed mattered more than big, dreamy moment of getting off the plane. Place shaped me, I knew, and I know. But it is what you do in that place that matters.
Every day I ask myself, will I stay in Detroit? Will others like me (for better or worse), fall in love with Detroit and rent out her shiny new soft-lofts? Can gentrification come and then leave behind it a more equitable city? I hope so. But I hope the small ideas, small acts, small kindnesses and small people don’t get left out of Detroit’s big future.