Why Detroit has to build before it tears down

Detroit is in the process of becoming a smaller city. As part of the process, much of the urban context is under evaluation. Detroit’s mayor is preparing to demolish thousands of buildings, its schools chief is preparing to close and consolidate schools, and everybody seems ready to claim a plot of underutilized land for farming. Each of these moves, and many others like them, are part of a global conversation about right-sizing the city and reconciling population, resources and infrastructure.

For many of the shrink-the-city advocates, demolition is a first step. Erasing the landscape of the estimated seventy thousand homes, commercial structures, office buildings, manufacturing plants and schools that have been abandoned and left to rot, they argue, is an essential step past denial into acceptance of the population shift. With a clean landscape, the city can begin to imagine itself in a different way, and imagine a different form and future for itself.

I believe differently. I propose that it is essential for the city to build before it tears down.

Among of the most important components of the strength necessary to take Detroit into its future are its institutions. These institutions give identity to a community (or the communities of a community), express its values, and provide a place for people to gather and to discuss, affirm, evolve, and develop the ideas that bring them together and that give them the resources they need to go forward. Around these institutions are the rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and stories that nurture a shared culture and that sustain a community.

Most typically, these institutions raise up buildings that provide presence for the institution and express its values. These places are halls of government, churches and schools, stadiums, music halls and museums. In an extension of the language of a community, they may also be corporate structures, commercial structures, and stores. They may be train stations, airports, and waterfronts. Almost all of these, in Detroit, have had their meaning destroyed and have come to represent massive systemic institutional failure.

For more than a generation, Detroit’s leadership has actively destroyed its institutions or neglectfully left them to rot. The city does not have a representative government, so there is nothing in neighborhoods to provide a rallying place for shared concerns. The city hall has been a place where mayors have plundered the city for personal gain. The schools have been places of similar greed and plunder rather than education, and their students are at the absolute bottom of achievement among cities across the country. Major music halls and theaters have been turned into parking garages (literally) and parking lots. Almost every major cultural institution, having been graced with major expansions through philanthropists seeking to name an edifice for personal legacy, are now threatened under the burden of the operating costs and mortgages they’ve assumed. The Renaissance Center, a cluster of towers frequently used as a logo for the city, was built and abandoned by Ford, then acquired by GM who first left its own historic headquarters and is now progressively leaving this one. Corporate chiefs who stood at the front of the cultural and charitable institutions they supported are now, after bankrupting their companies, abandoning them and the needs of the thousands they put out of work. At least one major sports hall, built as the chip in a deal to keep a team in the city but without appropriate resources or vision beyond its site lines, will be demolished because it has not connection to the life of the city, and the team in it wants another deal to build another palace nearby. An iconic train station lies in ruins as its owner sues for a right to be a troll under a new bridge. And a huge black iron fist, its meaning as monument divorced from the name that it celebrates, stands at the city’s cornerstone intersection as a threatening greeting to all who would enter.

It is hard, in other words, to point to the traditional monuments and homes of the institutions that build and bind a city and find any that have relevance or meaning, or that are not tainted by a story that talks louder than the story the city now wants to tell.

Most of those institutional edifices were about a big city, big egos, big deals, and big names, none with prominence any more. If the city is to get smaller, and better, it needs to identify and support smaller institutions.

To give them the presence they need to affirm their existence, to symbolize a new way of doing things, to accept a representative scale, to provide a place to gather, to connect rather than separate, to nurture on a smaller and healthier diet, the city needs to generate a program to build before it demolishes.

The city must show that its new values are authentic, that its care is more than words, that its governance will be of the people, that its neighborhoods will not be reservations but the primary resource of restoration, and that it will care more about the future through investment in its schools before making deals in sports.

All of this will take imagination. New, appropriately scaled institutions will need to rise around new values and new ideas to replace the failed and tainted. These institutions will need to be shaped from small neighborhood clusters, and also need to understand, once again, the essential network they share with the region beyond Eight Mile. In order to be successful, these institutions will need to take physical form, and a in a new language of form than we have traditionally utilized.

When these new shapes are seen dotting the landscape across the city and at its frontiers, then Detroit’s citizens, and its friends, and those who will become its citizens will understand that something has changed and that something new is happening here, and that they can see something they can believe in, and trust.

That’s how I think the city’s future can be built.

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Why Detroit has to build before it tears down

  1. 1. I agree there needs to be a power shift in Detroit away from downtown and toward the neighborhoods, but I don’t see a need for new construction. We need to reclaim the buildings we already have, not abandon them for new facilities we can’t afford.

    2. What do you propose to do with the thousands of open and abandoned structures in Detroit if not demolish them? Personally, I think we should preserve as much of our building stock as possible (especially downtown), but I have tremendous sympathy for residents who don’t want to live next to homes that have been firebombed or torn apart by scrappers and squatters. Unlike the irreplaceable theaters and skyscrapers downtown, many of these homes represent an imminent threat to their neighborhood and will never be occupied again.

  2. Patrick ā€“

    First of all, thank you very much for finding this post and for your remarks. I think you have done a great job at Think Detroit, and I appreciate your attention.

    My argument is not that demolition should not be done. I believe, as you do, that adaptive re-use and selective demolition are appropriate tactics in the ongoing effort to reconcile Detroit’s physical environment to the new realities of its future.

    My argument for building before demolishing is both about the symbolic power of architecture (“giving presence to institutions”), and also about critical strategic thinking. That is, the acceptance of a new reality for the city ā€“ economic, social, political, cultural ā€“ suggests that the institutions of the past that failed to protect the city from destruction need to be replaced. And, since they robbed meaning from the structures that represented them, these structures cannot be rehabilitated to authentically represent new civic commitments.

    So there is hard work to do, in other words, to reflect on new values and new approaches, and to build new institutions that will more faithfully and authentically represent, support and nurture the people of the city. I suggest that we can begin to have confidence and trust again when we begin to see structures using a new lexicon of form based on those new values replacing what has gone before.

    I also believe that progressive shrinking, as with our corporate entities, only hides the symptoms of ill health. GM, for example, became smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and then finally bankrupt. It had nothing substantial and authentic in place to replace what it had done wrong in the past, so it had nothing its people could believe in and rally around to establish and give life to a new direction. I think a shrinking city, without new institutions and their “presence” will go the same way.

    Jim

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