JUNE 22, 2015
It’s high noon as I stand about 20 feet from the “Point of Origin” – marked concrete near a busy cafe in the heart of Campus Martius Park, the nucleus of downtown Detroit. Campus Martius had been plotted some 200-some years before, after a disastrous fire destroyed the small hamlet know as Detroit. The night of the fire, one of Detroit’s leading jack-of-all-frontier-trades, Father Gabriel Richard (a man whose job titles included priest, university founder and territorial congressman) was purported to say in Latin, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus“, which went on to become to the city’s motto: We hope for better days; it shall arise from the ashes.
As I stood in Campus Martius, I was struck with the awe of the moment. Here was Detroit – my hometown, the city my parents fled for the suburbs in 1984 – looking and acting like a major city on a gorgeous early summer workday. Thousands of office workers, families, park ambassadors and tourists had flooded the heart of Detroit and took in great food, the entertainment of a lunchtime band and the ambiance of striking architecture, public art and city life.
Much has been written about the ‘comeback’ of Detroit – long regarded as among the most maligned city in America. Dramatic population decline, a diminishing tax base, political corruption, tensions among the tremendous racial diversity of the region and dysfunctional regional battle lines had led to a city barely able to respond to epidemic, third-world crime statistics and decimated city services. All while surrounded by some of the wealthiest, whitest suburbs in America.
The ‘comeback’ has been fueled, thus far, by renewed energy in the 7.2 square miles that make up the greater downtown area, which includes both historic and rebranded nodes, such as New Center, Corktown, Lafayette Park and Woodbridge. Names that once represented poor, crime ridden Detroit have begun to be replaced as the population has found itself whiter, wealthier. Cass Corridor? Oh no, that’s Midtown. Even the historical name Campus Martius was brought back from decades of dormancy as philanthropists raised the money to build the great public square in the early 2000s.
The net result of billions of new investment can easily be seen, as countless buildings that were once shuttered during the nadir of Detroit’s decline are now bursting with new purpose and life. Residential units are scooped up as soon as they hit the market, and rents are climbing at a faster race than most of Detroit’s Midwest peer cities. It is easy to picture that the coming years will bring billions of more development, thousands of new residential units and an enhanced street life.
The only issue that there’s another 131.8 square miles of city beyond the greater downtown zone… While Detroit’s leadership contends that their focus is on neighborhood redevelopment, the Great Recession has left the areas beyond Downtown on the brink. In March of this year, a federal judge was shot in the leg during a botched robbery attempt in one of Detroit’s most stable non-downtown neighborhoods. Carjackers have become more brazen. Foreclosures are still high – as is water-shutoffs for non-payment which have received unfavorable attention from the media and even the United Nations.
The problems of the city have not magically melted away, just because the city’s core shines brighter than it has in decades. Over the coming years, serious plans are being implemented – completing major projects to relight broken streetlights, remove all blighted structures and implement a 50-year land use plan that right-sizes a city built for triple the current population.
While there is much to love about the ‘new’ Detroit, there are still many places waiting for the better days. Waiting to see their city rise from the ashes.