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The Deets on Detroit

I’d never been to Detroit before, only driven through it once on my way from Toronto to Chicago. What I knew of the city were images of the Ren Cen, urban blight, Eminem and GM. I went out to Detroit for the Creative Cities Summit 2.0 and gave a keynote speech about young urban leader organizations…. and wasn’t quite sure what to say about the city until I was out last night in Philadelphia…

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No one ever told me about Detroit’s amazing architecture. Detroiters, you are sitting on a goldmine! Man oh man, yesterday morning I went for a stroll along Woodward Avenue down from Circus stop on the People Mover (the most adorably named public transit system in the US) and couldn’t believe what I saw. Apparently Detroit has the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings in the country — who knew? I doubt most Detroiters know that. I doubt most Detroiters want to renovate those buildings downtown, but they are gems.

So when I was on the People Mover at 8:30 in the morning, I expected to see everyone going to work, the hustle of rush hour. Nope, I saw four people on my 15-minute ride and not too many more people walking to work. Detroit couldn’t be more magical, and yet no one is working or living downtown. It was sad to see so much potential wasted.

The Creative Cities Summit was an inspiring event, but because so many of the speakers were the kinds of guys whose jobs have literally become making speeches at summits (Richard Florida, Charles Landry, etc), I felt a little as if the people who are struggling in the trenches were forgotten. I was trying to think of a way to recap my two days in Detroit when last night I ventured out for the opening night of Design Philadelphia. For about five days, design institutions open their doors or hold talks or put up exhibitions related to design. Most impressively was the A Clean Break exhibit. Using a vacant lot on S. Broad Street, Design Philadelphia transformed the open space by erecting some pre-fab houses and other small exhibits on things like vertical farming and recycled furniture.

Philly and Detroit are similar in many respects. They both had an industrial past. They both have crime and education problems. They both suffered some bad city planning. And yet, Philly has really rejuvenated its downtown. I have to think that it’s because a number of small groups do small things like Design Philadelphia where they make use of the consequences of blight. They turn vacant lots into parties. It seems that Detroit has often focused on large initiatives, that while successful and important, don’t have the kind of frequency and can-do energy that city needs. It’s important that young people and people without connections can feel like they can have an impact on the city — that message seemed to be lacking in the discussion at the summit last week.

I’m curious to know what locals and attendees from the event think….

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: philadelphiaurban designdetroitarchitecturenext american city

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