Whether the Phoenix or the Ashes, Detroit Keeps Burning

Whether the Phoenix or the Ashes, Detroit Keeps Burning

Though teetering between blight, rebirth, Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood remains surrounded by burned-out industrial buildings and weedy lots. Credit: Ashley Dinges on Flickr

On June 26, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced that the cash-strapped, indebted city will lay off 164 firefighters at the end of this month, in the hope it will rehire 108 after finding out if it will receive a federal grant in September.

Later that week, during a single six-hour period, 16 major fires incinerated blocks of houses on the city’s east side. In Detroit, where more than a third of residents live below the poverty line, the city government is in triage mode. It is difficult to think of a hopeful development that can reliably depend on its emaciated resources.

In a Forefront article from earlier this month, my friend Anna Clark described the successes of a community development corporation (CDC) revitalizing a core Detroit neighborhood called Midtown. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, the area was known as “Cass Corridor” and synonymous with drugs, music clubs, prostitution and urban blight. But thanks to the coordinated efforts of the CDC Midtown, Inc., it is now considered the cornerstone of Detroit’s revival, replete with a new art center, small businesses, extra police patrols and newly-installed LED streetlights. These developments are done in coordination with the city, but are not dependent on its fraught budget.

Many residents hope that Midtown’s energy will slowly spread outward to struggling neighborhoods and, ultimately, help bulwark the city’s tax base so that Detroit can provide better services. But promise collided with reality on June 27, when part of the Imagination Station, an arts-focused non-profit in Corktown — the neighborhood near Midtown described in Clark’s article as teetering between blight, rebirth and expansion — was destroyed in a suspicious fire.

In an essay for The Los Angeles Review of Books earlier this year, I wrote about Detroit’s arson problem, overstretched emergency workers and continued population loss to the suburbs. I argued that much of the rhetoric heard from Detroit boosters in the mainstream media is hollow, and singled out Corktown to explore the issue:

A [June 2011] New York Times article lauded Detroit as a “Midwestern Tribeca” of socially aware folk; but off of its bustling main drag, Corktown is surrounded by Detroit’s burned-out industrial structures and houses, weedy lots, and subsidized housing. For every white entrepreneur in an inner-city neighborhood, a score of young, college-educated kids live in dense, hip suburbs like Royal Oak and Ferndale… I have doubts about the city’s oft-vaunted creative scene, which I was part of for much of the year: to what extent were we dancing to electro-pop while Detroit burned?

Clark’s article is fascinating and incredibly refreshing because it makes it clear that neighborhoods like Midtown and Corktown will not thrive because artists and entrepreneurs have suddenly alighted; long-term success requires creativity, major investment and concerted, dogged effort. She asks where the accomplishments of Midtown, Inc. and groups like it “leave the other neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland that still depend on City Hall for services and programming.”

Bad Bones

Residents of the Detroit’s ragged patchwork of middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, such as University District, Palmer Woods and Indian Village, collectively pay dues to hire private security patrols. Detroit’s overall budget for 2011 was about three and a half times larger than that of Midtown, Inc. But the CDC is responsible for 3.8 square miles, while the city sprawls over 139, an area 35 times the size of Midtown, Inc.’s area.

The revival of neighborhoods like Midtown loosely follows the national pattern of the mid-to-late 20th century abandonment of dense, historic urban cores and their rediscovery by scrappy artists and forward-thinking knowledge-economy workers, a process abetted by tenacious advocates and leaders like Midtown, Inc.’s Sue Mosey.

Ariel view of Detroit’s mostly suburban layout. Credit: Flickr user toddmundt

But this model is not replicable in most of Detroit. The majority of the city’s 139 square miles — almost 30 percent of which are now abandoned or vacant — were developed around WWII in a suburban style to feed the city’s burgeoning manufacturing-based economy. According to Thomas Sugrue’s 1996 classic Origins of the Urban Crisis, only 1.3 percent of Detroit’s mid-century residential structures were apartment buildings, concentrated in the area now administered by Midtown, Inc.

The majority of the city is composed of single-family houses. Detroit’s narrative of massive industrialization, massive industrial decline, and racialized poverty has played out on a Levittown landscape. Restoring blighted brick apartment buildings from the ‘20s (as Midtown, Inc. has done) is a feat. But it is more straightforward than reviving a neighborhood full of rotting wood-frame houses from the ‘50s.

Trouble Rising

Even in relatively stable, central neighborhoods, the challenges are steep. During 2010 and 2011, I lived in “Mexicantown,” a neighborhood near Corktown often treated as a success story because of vibrant independent businesses like the Honeybee Supermarket, leafy Clark Park (maintained by a non-profit coalition) and, above all, the coexistence of whites, blacks and Latinos in a deeply segregated city. But my zip code lost population between 2000 and 2010 partly because, as the housing crisis lowered prices in the suburbs, many residents, particularly immigrant families, could afford to move to working-class “downriver” suburbs such as Allen Park and Taylor, where buying housing has become almost as cheap as in Detroit (without the drawbacks of poor emergency services, high insurance rates and rampant arson).

Detroit’s motto dates to 1805, when the city was doggedly rebuilding from a fire that had destroyed most of the small frontier port. Translated from the Latin, it means “We Hope For Better Things: It Will Arise from the Ashes.”

Is contemporary Detroit the phoenix or the ashes? The contrast between midtown’s vibrancy and the swaths of the east and west sides continually decimated by fires suggests an uncomfortable reality: Regeneration and devastation can exist, and increase, at the same time.

Ingrid Norton is a writer currently based in New Orleans. She is the author of this week’s Forefront story on the evolving nature of black political leadership Jackson, Miss.

Ingrid Norton is a writer based in New Orleans and obsessed with cities. Her work has appeared in publications including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dissent, GOOD and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She’s written on topics from the precipitous growth of Austin to arson and urban divestment in Detroit. Areas of interest include cities in literature, the criminal justice system, the developing world, immigration patterns, port cities, poverty, America’s sun and rust belts, race and urban history. She can be contacted at www.ingridnorton.com. Visit http://www.tinyletter.com/IngridNorton to stay in touch.

Tags: cultureeconomic developmentgovernancedetroitgentrificationracecommunity development corporations

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