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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    But gays, young whites and recent immigrants can't stabilize the city merely by their presence; only a decent school system will make life in Detroit acceptable for families of any color. In the years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, that city has become a laboratory for educational innovation. Their own devastated school system already in receivership, many Detroiters recognize that rethinking the rules — union rules, political rules, pedagogic rules — just might create a climate for improvement.

    Economic Sunrise
    Every infrastructure program, like the M1 light-rail line, is also a jobs program. Every piece of ensuing development, like the midtown project, creates yet more employment. And every new business, every new resident, every new building or rehabbed factory adds to the tax base. When things start looking up, possibility itself can be a fuel for economic growth.

    But there's virtue in hitting bottom too. For when land, facilities and labor are cheap, money will follow — if politicians allow it to. Already burdened by pension obligations that have been soaring at nearly the rate that revenues have been disappearing, Mayor Bing recognizes that he can't decree jobs into being. "It's not the city's responsibility to create jobs," he says, "but to create an environment for jobs."

    It might be working. Judging by the experience of Dan Gilbert, the chairman of mortgage giant Quicken Loans, who recently moved nearly 1,700 employees from suburban Livonia into the very heart of downtown Detroit, the politically clogged (and at times racially volatile) approval processes that have long plagued the city have eased substantially. Now Gilbert is thinking of buying some adjacent downtown buildings, both as investment and to house the start-up companies he's nurturing through his business incubator, Bizdom U. One of the requisites of getting the benefits of Bizdom U (training, consultative help and start-up capital) is that you have to base your business in Detroit.

    A native son, Gilbert is a passionate evangelist for his hometown. Fellow proselytizer Tim Bryan, on the other hand, lives in New York, and his firm, GalaxE.Solutions Inc., which makes custom software for the health industry, is based in New Jersey. But last May he opened an office in Detroit, initially staffing it with 55 new employees. Now he's in the process of hiring 125 more.

    Why Detroit? "Three simple reasons," Bryan says. "Underemployment in the local IT industry, low-cost office space and government alignment" with business goals.

    Where the Battle Lines Form
    Barely a mile from Betty Corley's lonely house on Dubois Street, on a typical autumn weekend morning, the stalls and booths of Detroit's Eastern Market are a gastronomic wonder — and a social one as well. Nearly 40,000 people from throughout the metropolitan area flock to the market for the best produce from the Midwestern countryside, and also for the very urban experience of being part of a multifarious, multigenerational and multicolored crowd. The Eastern Market vibe is evident, too, on those summer nights when the Tigers game at Comerica Park ends at around the same time as the soul act across the street at the Fox Theatre and the last notes of La Bohème die out around the corner at the Detroit Opera House. As the three crowds swirl together on the rim of Grand Circus Park, you'd think you're in a version of the ideal 21st century city.

    It's obviously unclear whether this Detroit can again be joined to the desolate, exhausted Detroit of so many of its neighborhoods. There are all sorts of reasons longtime Detroiters are suspicious of government planning: the network of freeways that permanently scarred the city in the 1950s and '60s (and simultaneously sucked the life out of it) were another era's idea of urban redevelopment, as were the spirit-deadening public-housing projects that replaced paved-over neighborhoods. In the spring, a prominent local minister declared that the mayor's shrinkage plan amounted to "ethnic cleansing" — an odd (and offensive) charge to throw at an effort proposed by an African-American mayor, his largely African-American planning officials and the African-American consultant who is the project's point person. At one of the community forums where planner Toni Griffin and her city colleagues attempted to explain the planning process, members of a group calling itself By Any Means Necessary vowed to oppose not a specific plan, or a specific sort of plan, but whatever plan emerged.

    Some city officials, citing Griffin's out-of-town provenance — rarely a positive attribute in Detroit — wish to diminish her influence. ("If they marginalize her," says the Kresge Foundation's Rapson with a stern finality, "they're on their own.") And it's reasonable to question whether Bing, the former basketball player and steel-company executive who ran for mayor as a nonpolitician, has the political skills to do what's necessary. Will he, for instance, be able to tell individuals and community groups who have labored hard to save their neighborhoods that their efforts have failed and the city is walking away from them? Early on, Bing said he was interested in only a single full term, which would presumably free him to act without fear of reprisal at the ballot box. Now some of the philanthropic foundations, understandably desiring continuity, want him to stick around. Paradoxically, this might require him to pay greater heed to political power brokers disinclined to support something that comes from any agency not under their direct control.

    But the essential challenge for everyone involved in the effort to reinvent this storied and suffering city, says Bing aide Marja Winters, is, "How do you get people to think optimistically again?" The likely answer might be found in one of her office's promotional handouts. It's a statement attributed to Heaster Wheeler, a former city firefighter who is now executive director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP.

    "The best way to predict the future," Wheeler says, "is to create it."

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