The Future of Detroit: How to Shrink a City

Detroit once thrived on bigness, but now it has to leave that idea behind. The secret of Rust Belt urban revival: smaller is better. If you want a healthy, bustling city, huddled masses are a good thing

  • Olivo Barbieri for TIME

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    Connecting the Clusters
    Nothing starves a neighborhood like isolation. In Detroit, vital neighborhoods are not contiguous; they're scattered across the map like meaty morsels in a pale, thin broth. Conveniently, though, the city's main thoroughfares — a series of eight- and 10-lane radial avenues emanating from downtown, originally laid out two centuries ago — are a virtual stencil for a transportation system that could link scattered communities into a coherent whole.

    The first element in such a system, the M1 light-rail line, is on the brink of construction, its initial phase financed by private and not-for-profit institutions that recognize the seemingly counterintuitive notion that a rail line down the city's main drag, Woodward Avenue, might get foot traffic flowing again. In the past, Detroit's efforts at rebirth took the form of helter-skelter interventions created independently of any thought-out conception of the city's future. The most baleful example of this sort of inverted planning was the Renaissance Center, which arose like a disco-era fortress on the shore of the Detroit River in 1977 and proved uninviting to any other business development.

    The M1 line is pure infrastructure development; it's designed, says Matt Cullen, the volunteer CEO of the project, to be "the spine of the shrunken city." But it will also bring with it street and sidewalk redesign, improved lighting, enhanced landscaping and other pedestrian-scale amenities conceived to return retail businesses — and density — to the heart of town. Proof of concept: just three weeks ago, a consortium of banks and foundations announced plans to commit more than $20 million to mixed-income housing and other projects in the Midtown area, which straddles the M1 route near such institutions as Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center.

    The Gift of Nature
    The random carpet of vacant lots in Detroit and other declining cities, the urban prairie, can be assembled into something far more authentic and useful. Noted landscape and urban designer Diana Balmori believes cities can "transform abandonment into an asset" by allowing forsaken neighborhoods to revert to their natural state. While urban farming has a limited scale, the restored prairie is a low-maintenance expression of the natural world. Not only do such greenbelts provide aesthetic and educational benefits, but also, properties facing them become more valuable. Toni Griffin, the city planner heading the Kresge-funded effort on Detroit's behalf, wants to uncover the streams and creeks that once rippled through the city but were long ago shunted into underground conduits. Griffin knows the virtues of waterways: she was the key figure in the stunningly successful revitalization of the once dilapidated Anacostia River waterfront in Washington.

    Homes for People, People for Homes
    "Ruin porn" photography, often showing abandoned, violated houses, threatens to define cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, but what you rarely see in the media is the surviving stock. Even after decades of abandonment and decay, Detroit's housing is one of the city's greatest assets. Handsome, well-preserved homes in viable neighborhoods like the University District, Rosedale Park and the Villages, near the east-side riverfront, are among the greatest housing bargains in America: you can buy a four-bedroom Tudor in move-in condition for less than $100,000. But on a far larger scale, the modest bungalows and red bricks and half capes that have long housed most Detroiters comprise a compelling incentive to pull people like Betty Corley out of neighborhoods marked for abandonment. Instead of auctioning off tax-foreclosed properties for relative pennies, the city could save unoccupied houses in viable neighborhoods with an urban homesteading program, giving the homes to displaced residents, free of charge and exempt from property taxes for five years, so long as they remain owner-occupied and well-maintained.

    A More Dynamic Diversity
    When America's Rust Belt cities empty out, the exodus creates concentrations of poor blacks without the means to turn back the tide. Yet there's a collateral result of Detroit's shrinking population and dirt-cheap housing: the city has started to become less monochromatic. Detroit's non-Hispanic white population has increased from 8.4% to 13.3% in just the past year, the obvious consequence of both the incoming migration of young whites and the concurrent flight to the suburbs of middle-class blacks unwilling to turn their kids over to a broken school system.

    It may be wishful to think so, but in a city where race is the insidious sword that slices its way into every conversation, this reversal of migration patterns could turn out to be a uniting development — if Detroit gets lucky, and if people of goodwill recognize their mutual dependency. The increasing African-American presence in the wealthier suburbs heightens suburban concern for the city's problems. At the same time, a growing presence of more-affluent whites in the city enhances both the tax base and the perception of progress. "I hate to admit it," native Detroiter Greg Thrasher recently commented on's Detroit blog, "but I am fully aware that the presence of white folks in America increases the quality of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for nonwhites." He concluded, "It is a reality I have confronted all my life as a Black activist, yet I do hope the return flight is full."

    A growing gay population in metro Detroit, attracted to downtown's nightlife and midtown's cultural attractions, suggests a softening of age-old prejudices. So does the success of the city's Arab residents; a Muslim woman of Palestinian descent, Rashida Tlaib, now represents Mexicantown — a district that is half Latino and about a quarter African-American, with additional complements of Romanians, Hungarians and other émigrés from Eastern Europe — in the state legislature. For U.S. cities, says Steve Tobocman, one of Tlaib's predecessors, "immigrants are new customers." In Detroit, newcomers are proving the theory that immigrants are almost twice as likely as native-born Americans to start new businesses.

    Note: An archive of Assignment Detroit stories is available at . The Detroit Blog is available at

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