Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents -

Detroit, once an ur­ban dis­as­ter zone, is be­ing brought back to life. An­thony Byrt reports on what Auck­land can learn from the re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of Amer­ica’s “Mo­tor City”.

Ra­cial and eco­nomic in­equal­ity, char­ter schools, a dys­func­tional prop­erty mar­ket, de­vel­op­ers trans­form­ing en­tire neigh­bour­hoods, dis­putes about what “live­abil­ity” means in the 21st cen­tury. Not Auck­land. Detroit. Metro vis­its the Mo­tor City to find out if Amer­ica’s most iconic story of ur­ban dis­as­ter and re­cov­ery holds lessons for Auck­land’s fu­ture.

At 82, Net­tie Seabrooks is a metic­u­lously turned-out African-Amer­i­can woman who tells me when I ar­rive for our in­ter­view that on­line pho­tos make me look heavy. She’d been Googling me. Mean­while, I know very lit­tle about her ex­cept that Reed Kroloff — an Amer­i­can ur­ban plan­ning ex­pert who came to Christchurch in 2014 to talk about how cities re­build af­ter dis­as­ter — had told me that if I wanted to know about Detroit’s re­cov­ery, I needed to talk to Net­tie.

But to even get to the re­cov­ery story, you first have to get a han­dle on what caused Detroit’s fall, from one of Amer­ica’s rich­est cities to one of its poor­est. Some peo­ple put it down to race. Oth­ers to the fail­ure of Big Auto. Seabrooks, though, has a more nu­anced view.

“It was po­lit­i­cal, it was the GI Bill, it was the re­mains of the mi­gra­tion in the 20s, when you had the devel­op­ment here of the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try. In Akron it was tyres. In Pitts­burgh it was steel. It was this great mi­gra­tion of peo­ple from the South up to the North, which our cur­rent pol­i­tics is still be­ing in­flu­enced by. So it’s very com­pli­cated. And so you ask, well, is Detroit turn­ing around? Or will it work? I would say, it de­pends.”

We meet in the Detroit In­sti­tute of Arts’ Kresge Court, a huge, brick-lined atrium made to feel vaguely like an Ital­ian re­nais­sance square. The DIA, where Seabrooks works, is one of Amer­ica’s great­est art mu­se­ums — a clas­si­cal build­ing best known for its Diego Rivera mu­rals cel­e­brat­ing the city’s auto work­ers, paint­ings that act as the dis­con­cert­ingly so­cial­ist heart of an in­sti­tu­tion whose col­lec­tion was built up dur­ing the city’s hy­per-cap­i­tal­ist hey­day.

But that was then. These days, most peo­ple know Detroit for three things: cars, mu­sic and ur­ban dis­as­ter. For years, “ruin porn” has poured out of the city; all those ro­man­tic pho­to­graphs of empty neigh­bour­hoods, aban­doned houses and old car fac­to­ries slump­ing into the ground un­der their own ne­glected weight.

On the face of things, Auck­land and Detroit couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Auck­land is now one of the most un­af­ford­able cities in the world, awash with ab­surd new-money glitz, leased Euro­pean cars and Real Housewives grotes­querie, strain­ing un­der the pres­sures of as­pi­ra­tional ur­ban mi­gra­tion.

Detroit, mean­while, is the poster-city for Rust Belt de­spair, shrink­ing from two mil­lion in­hab­i­tants at its peak to around 700,000 to­day. Much of that de­cline has come from decades of “white flight”, as white auto work­ers hopped on newly built free­ways in their newly as­sem­bled cars and headed for sub­urbs filled with newly con­structed houses, leav­ing be­hind a city that is now 80 per cent African-Amer­i­can, and where 40 per cent of res­i­dents live be­low the poverty line.

In 2013, Detroit fi­nally gave in and filed for bank­ruptcy — the largest mu­nic­i­pal in­sol­vency in US his­tory.

It’s a city shaped by the two most fun­da­men­tal problems the US faces: first, what the coun­try’s post-in­dus­trial fu­ture looks like now the Amer­i­can Dream is over; and sec­ond, how it deals with the trau­matic truth that the Obama years failed to de­liver their most hope­ful prom­ise — the pos­si­bil­ity of a post-ra­cial Amer­ica.

The way Detroit is be­gin­ning to tackle these chal­lenges may well con­tain a blue­print for 21st-cen­tury cities ev­ery­where. And yes, that even in­cludes Auck­land.

The DIA’s magnificent art col­lec­tion be­came a key bar­gain­ing chip dur­ing the bank­ruptcy cri­sis. Detroit was in a US$19 bil­lion debt-hole, and the art, on pa­per at least, was one of the only things it had that was worth sell­ing. Thank­fully, the fire sale never hap­pened. In­stead, the mu­seum and the bank­ruptcy ad­min­is­tra­tors came up with a piece of ac­count­ing bril­liance known as the “Grand Bar­gain”.

The short ver­sion is that the DIA went into fundrais­ing over­drive and raised US$100 mil­lion, which, rather than be­ing spent on the mu­seum, was used to pay the city’s pen­sions li­a­bil­i­ties. In re­turn, the col­lec­tion was freed from city own­er­ship and taken off the ta­ble. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary win-win: the art was saved, pen­sions got paid, and the bank­ruptcy was set­tled far quicker than any­one ex­pected.

Seabrooks was close to that pro­cess. But then, it seems she’s been close to al­most ev­ery ma­jor event in the city over the past 50 years. There is pos­si­bly no one with a longer, lived view of the causes of Detroit’s de­cline and its cur­rent, pre­car­i­ous shape.

“I was the first black woman ex­ec­u­tive at Gen­eral Mo­tors,” she tells me. “In the late 60s, there were only two black peo­ple in all of the GM build­ing, out of 4000. I be­came an ex­ec­u­tive in 1972. I fig­ured out that be­ing a woman — and be­ing black as a chaser — ev­ery­body was look­ing at me. And that I had to per­form, my unit had to per­form. But I couldn’t do it the way white men do it.”

Af­ter her time at GM, she was asked to be the city’s Deputy Mayor and then its COO. When her for­mer em­ployer was con­tem­plat­ing a move out of Detroit, she fa­cil­i­tated their head­quar­ters move into The Re­nais­sance Cen­ter on the river­front in­stead. It was also while she was in the Mayor’s Of­fice that the con­struc­tion of two of this sports-ob­sessed city’s iconic sports sta­di­ums got un­der way: Ford Field, where the NFL-play­ing Detroit Li­ons are based, and Comer­ica Park, home to one of the coun­try’s most suc­cess­ful base­ball clubs, the Detroit Tigers.

Seabrooks com­pleted a Masters de­gree in art his­tory in her sev­en­ties, hav­ing al­ready been a col­lec­tor of African-Amer­i­can art. The DIA is the only ma­jor Amer­i­can art mu­seum with a ded­i­cated African-Amer­i­can depart­ment, and Seabrooks worked to se­cure a sig­nif­i­cant do­na­tion to it from her old friends at GM. She also gave most of her own col­lec­tion to the mu­seum.

“I wanted to be an ex­am­ple to other African Amer­i­cans, be­cause I don’t be­lieve we hold up our own end, in terms of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties we should take on,” she says. “I think be­cause we as African Amer­i­cans have been so dis­ad­van­taged, that be­ing dis­ad­van­taged has be­come a way of life. That’s a very touchy sub­ject. But that, to me, is go­ing to be an im­por­tant com­po­nent of the suc­cess of Detroit. Ev­ery­body’s got a part to play.”

The way Detroit is be­gin­ning to tackle these chal­lenges may well con­tain a blue­print for 21st-cen­tury cities ev­ery­where.

Part of her role at the DIA is to help the mu­seum re­flect the re­al­i­ties of Detroit’s de­mo­graph­ics. “The mu­seum had to change its per­cep­tion of it­self and its re­la­tion­ship with the com­mu­nity,” she says. “And all of the in­sti­tu­tions have to do that. I’m not just talk­ing about cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions… And it can’t just be old white men, be­cause the world is go­ing to look more like me. Detroit’s go­ing to look more like me. It al­ready does.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion was be­fore the most re­cent ra­cial clashes in the US, ex­em­pli­fied by the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Dal­las and Char­lotte. Con­flict with po­lice, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and an­gry re­ac­tions to Don­ald Trump’s ap­palling rhetoric have all shown how bad race re­la­tions are through­out the coun­try.

One so­lu­tion, Seabrooks sug­gests, is for new forms of black lead­er­ship to emerge, not just in Detroit but across Amer­ica, some­thing she be­lieves the Oba­mas have mod­elled ad­mirably. An­other, though, is more spe­cific to the city. As she says, the race ques­tion here “won’t get worked out if the schools don’t get straight­ened out. It all goes back to the schools.”

The bank­ruptcy was bad, but Detroit’s schools are a catas­tro­phe. Ac­cord­ing to reports in the At­lantic and the Wash­ing­ton Post, only about 4 to 5 per cent of Detroit eighth graders are read­ing or achiev­ing in maths at their grade level. Detroit Pub­lic Schools (DPS) is stone-broke and has been un­der emer­gency man­age­ment for years.

This has made Detroit fer­tile ground for the kinds of char­ter schools David Sey­mour and his Act Party seem to think are the silver bul­let for New Zealand’s ed­u­ca­tional chal­lenges. Act’s op­po­nents could do a lot worse than point­ing to­wards the mess the free-mar­ket model has made for Detroit’s chil­dren.

Anna Clark moved to Detroit in 2007. A jour­nal­ist in her mid-thir­ties, she’s wit­nessed the fall­out from the 2007-08 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, watched the Big Three — Chrysler, Ford and GM — go cap in hand to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for a mas­sive bailout, and cov­ered one of the most un­usual bank­ruptcy pro­cesses ever seen. She was also, for sev­eral years, a writer-in-res­i­dence in the DPS sys­tem.

“There are so many fan­tas­tic stu­dents, teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors within the school sys­tem,” she says. “It is a dis­as­ter, though. It’s crazy. And what makes me an­gry is that peo­ple are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the city and the school sys­tem for their own per­sonal profit... There’s no good ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem. A lot of the char­ters are do­ing ter­ri­bly. And there’s no mech­a­nism to cut them off.”

The woe­ful state of the schools, char­ter and pub­lic alike, is the sin­gle big­gest thing stop­ping young — and, let’s ad­mit it, white — fam­i­lies mov­ing back into Detroit from the sur­round­ing sub­urbs. “The prob­lem is mass poverty and seg­re­ga­tion,” Clark says. “You can’t ex­pect a prin­ci­pal or a school board to solve all of those problems.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg sit­u­a­tion; you can’t at­tract the mid­dle classes back to the city with­out de­cent schools, but un­der the Amer­i­can fund­ing sys­tem, you can’t get de­cent schools un­less you have more peo­ple pay­ing prop­erty taxes. (A large pro­por­tion of school fund­ing comes from what we call rates.) The stale­mate is all the more frus­trat­ing be­cause the op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove Detroit’s neigh­bour­hoods are so im­mense — pre­cisely be­cause of their de­pop­u­la­tion.

“For a long time, it hasn’t been a given that for more peo­ple to move in, other peo­ple have to move out,” Clark says.

“A lot of the char­ters [schools] are do­ing ter­ri­bly. And there’s no mech­a­nism to cut them off.”

“Right now, we have space for every­one… Be­cause we have so much open space, we have a pause that most com­mu­ni­ties don’t get, where we can choose to make it in­te­grated go­ing for­ward.”

It’s a won­der­ful ideal. But an in­te­grated fu­ture isn’t the Detroit re­cov­ery nar­ra­tive the US me­dia are fo­cused on just now. In­stead, the na­tional press is far more in­ter­ested in what’s hap­pen­ing in its down­town district. And that’s be­cause of one con­tentious fig­ure: the bil­lion­aire Dan Gil­bert. Right now, he owns the great­est bas­ket­ball team on Earth, the Cleve­land Cava­liers. He is also the man be­hind Quicken Loans, the US’s largest on­line mort­gage lender, and one of the big­gest lenders over­all. Forbes puts his net worth at around US$5 bil­lion, mak­ing him one of the 100 rich­est peo­ple in Amer­ica, and the rich­est man in Michi­gan.

Gil­bert moved Quicken’s head­quar­ters to Detroit in 2010, and he’s bought up huge swathes of its down­town. He’s brought peo­ple and money back into the city. He’s ren­o­vat­ing im­por­tant mid-cen­tury build­ings, help­ing to bankroll a new light-rail ser­vice that runs up the iconic Wood­ward Ave, and wants to turn a half­built prison into a Ma­jor League Soccer sta­dium. Sounds great. Ex­cept that Detroit was ham­mered by the hous­ing im­plo­sion that pre­cip­i­tated the GFC. Even now, a big pro­por­tion of the city’s mort­gage hold­ers are un­der­wa­ter. So plenty of peo­ple are un­der­stand­ably cau­tious about the fact that a white guy — al­beit one with Detroit roots — who runs a mort­gage com­pany is now be­ing painted as this pre­dom­i­nantly black city’s saviour.

Gil­bert has main­tained that Quick en had noth­ing to do with caus­ing the hous­ing cri­sis, say­ing that his com­pany wasn’t in the sub­prime busi­ness. That, though, has been met with plenty of jour­nal­is­tic scru­tiny, in­clud­ing a ma­jor data-driven in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Detroit News in 2015. Clark points out that Gil­bert is also no­tori- ously cagey about in­ter­views, as are many of his em­ploy­ees.

“I’m very cau­tious of him,” she says. “I do ac­knowl­edge that a lot of what he’s done has had a net ben­e­fit. There are build­ings that no one was go­ing to re­ha­bil­i­tate, and prob­a­bly would have been de­mol­ished if it weren’t for him. That’s great. He has [also] given other pri­vate busi­ness­peo­ple nerve to come back to the city… [But] I do feel in­nately sus­pi­cious when any one per­son, no mat­ter who they are, owns the ma­jor­ity of real es­tate in a par­tic­u­lar area. That’s weird.”

‘Any city would con­sider it­self for­tu­nate to have a Dan Gil­bert,” Detroit’s plan­ning di­rec­tor, Maurice Cox, tells me. “He walks the walk, he talks the talk. He not only bought a sig­nif­i­cant group of build­ings in the down­town core, he also brought along with him thou­sands of his em­ploy­ees. Gil­bert’s re­pur­pos­ing of build­ings down­town, in turn, fu­els the de­sire for a lot more ur­ban down­town ameni­ties… Gil­bert’s do­ing his part and he’s do­ing it bril­liantly, and I’m re­ally glad there’s a Dan Gil­bert in down­town Detroit so that I can turn my at­ten­tion to Detroit neigh­bour­hoods, where Detroi­ters live and where there is no Dan Gil­bert.”

What­ever the truth about Quicken’s role in the hous­ing crash, there’s no ques­tion many of Detroit’s poor­est neigh­bour­hoods were fin­ished off by the sub­prime cri­sis. They’re also where you find the worst of the city’s blight. Aban­doned houses, ar­son, gun crime, drugs, no pub­lic trans­port, no func­tional busi­nesses ex­cept liquor stores and fast-food joints — this is still the daily re­al­ity for much of Detroit’s pop­u­la­tion.

The state of Detroit’s outer neigh­bour­hoods kicks the re­cov­ery nar­ra­tive into touch. This is where Amer­ica’s post-in­dus­trial rub­ber re­ally hits the road. And that makes Cox — a charis­matic African-Amer­i­can New Yorker in his late fifties — one of the most im­por­tant ur­ban plan­ners in the world right now.

“Ur­ban re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion takes on very spe­cific pat­terns,” he tells me, point­ing oc­ca­sion­ally at a mas­sive, heav­ily marked map on the wall be­hind him. “It starts from the cen­tre — the heart of the city, its down­town and im­me­di­ate ad­ja­cent neigh­bour­hoods, its river­front. In Detroit, that’s an area of 7.2 square miles. From here, re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion pro­gresses slowly out­ward, to what I ar­gue is the soul of the city, which is its neigh­bour­hoods. But when you have 138 square miles to re­gen­er­ate, the soul of that city is very far away from its heart, and it takes longer to get to it.”

Beyond the Gil­bert-led down­town and mid­town resur­gence, there’s no mean­ing­ful prop­erty mar­ket in Detroit. For Auck­lan­ders, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to pic­ture how bad things got. You could buy whole neigh­bour­hoods for less than the cost of an ex-state house. A per­fect Mies van der Rohe town­house set you back less than $100,000. In 2013, on my first trip to the city, I met a guy who bought an ex-po­lice sta­tion off the city for five bucks, be­cause they didn’t want to leave it to ar­son­ists.

“We talk about the‘ miss­ing mid­dle ,’” Cox con­tin­ues, “which is the hous­ing be­tween a sin­gle-fam­ily de­tached house with a yard, and a high-rise apart­ment build­ing. Al­most ev­ery­thing in be­tween — con­dos, court­yard houses, row houses and town­houses — is ba­si­cally miss­ing in Detroit.

You could buy whole neigh­bour­hoods for less than the cost of an ex-state house. A Mies van der Rohe town­house set you back less than $100,000.

While the city was man­ag­ing pop­u­la­tion de­cline, it wasn’t build­ing these new kinds of ur­ban houses, but we’re fi­nally start­ing to see that change. The only place that type of in­vest­ment pen­cils out, how­ever, is in the down­town, and the im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent neigh­bour­hoods. Even there it still re­quires pub­lic sub­sidy.”

Cox’s strat­egy in the outer neigh­bour­hoods is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. It’s also rad­i­cal, bril­liant and based on a sin­gle driv­ing prin­ci­ple: fair­ness. “Hav­ing been off the radar for a few decades, neigh­bour­hoods that failed to at­tract new res­i­dents are now at an ad­van­tage. As re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion be­gins to hap­pen in these neigh­bour­hoods, we can en­sure equity is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent.”

Cox’s neigh­bour­hood ex­per­i­ment, cur­rently un­der way in pock­ets around Detroit, re­fuses any new con­struc­tion of sin­gle-fam­ily homes. In­stead, the city works with de­vel­op­ers to re­ha­bil­i­tate those houses still stand­ing. The eco­nom­ics of this strat­egy, he points out, are pretty straight­for­ward. If new con­struc­tion of a sin­gle-fam­ily home costs on av­er­age, $120,000, but that home is sur­rounded by oth­ers that are only worth $60,000, a de­vel­oper loses $60,000 right out of the gate. If in­stead they spend an av­er­age of $60,000 to ren­o­vate an ex­ist­ing home, and the city makes a crit­i­cal mass of prop­er­ties avail­able, the num­bers start to work out.

In Cox’s plan, the de­vel­oper has two spe­cific obli­ga­tions. First, they have to re­ha­bil­i­tate prop­er­ties for af­ford­able rental and even­tu­ally home own­er­ship, which Cox sees as es­sen­tial to equity and in­clu­sive growth. “We want to pre­vent this devel­op­ment from lead­ing au­to­mat­i­cally to gen­tri­fy­ing the neigh­bour­hoods,” he says. “The idea that the city would put in mil­lions of dol­lars to pro­tect af­ford­abil­ity wins a lot of peo­ple over. Typ­i­cally, the hous­ing model fo­cuses on sin­gle-fam­ily own­er­ship, and that re­ally means renters are un­wel­come. We be­lieve we can re­gen­er­ate a neigh­bour­hood and as­sure rental pos­si­bil­i­ties re­main.”

And sec­ond, de­vel­op­ers are re­quired to take on va­cant lots ad­ja­cent to each house they re­ha­bil­i­tate. Sin­gle va­cant lots must be made vis­ually ap­peal­ing, and mul­ti­ple lots must ag­gre­gate into a com­mu­nal area like a park or be turned into neigh­bour­hood-scaled busi­nesses like cut flow­ers or food pro­duc­tion.

“Peo­ple in Detroit have been squat­ting on land for years,” Cox says, “un­able to con­vince the city to sell. Now we’re talk­ing

about these lots not as the land use of last re­sort, but as gen­er­a­tive. Fur­ther­more, the peo­ple run­ning these pro­duc­tive land busi­nesses are res­i­dents — en­trepreneurs who have con­tin­u­ously strug­gled to get half an acre, a third of an acre. Now the city is cre­at­ing a frame­work for res­i­dents to not only own these lots but to man­age them suc­cess­fully.”

The pro­duc­tive land strat­egy is in­tended to cre­ate eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and in­crease the de­sir­abil­ity of the neigh­bour­hoods. But it also saves the city money in the long term. As Cox points out, across Amer­ica the green-space strat­egy has long been one of spread­ing grass seed and cre­at­ing a mow­ing regime that costs mil­lions in main­te­nance ev­ery year.

But per­haps the most ex­tra­or­di­nary part of his plan is some­thing that seems anath­ema to the very idea of the Mo­tor City: mak­ing the bi­cy­cle a pri­mary mode of trans­port. Detroit is flat, with wide ar­te­rial roads. That leaves plenty of space for cy­cle lanes. Cox ar­gues that bikes are a cru­cial piece in the af­ford­abil­ity puz­zle. In Detroit, a third of res­i­dents can’t af­ford a car, and the city’s in­sur­ance rates are amongst the high­est in the coun­try. Safe, func­tional cy­cle­ways help al­le­vi­ate that cost.

The over­all idea is to cre­ate what Cox and his team call “20-minute neigh­bour­hoods”, where res­i­dents can ac­cess all the ur­ban ameni­ties they’d ex­pect — fresh food, schools, li­braries, pub­lic trans­port links and so on — within a 20-minute walk or bike ride from home.

These 20-minute neigh­bour­hoods will then be linked to the city’s ma­jor com­mer­cial cor­ri­dors via an enor­mous bike net­work. To help build it, Cox has brought in the team that de­vel­oped Copen­hagen’s in­cred­i­ble cy­cle sys­tem.

As our con­ver­sa­tion goes on, I want to bun­dle Cox into my lug­gage and smug­gle him to Auck­land. He tells me about “pink zon­ing”, a con­cept where City Hall works with res­i­dents and de­vel­op­ers to re­duce bu­reau­cratic red tape so that more land is avail­able for mixed-use and sus­tain­able projects. He talks about his­toric preservation, de­vel­op­ing the wa­ter­front, work­ing with start-ups, green­ing the city; about cre­at­ing a healthy, fair, dy­namic, multi-

It’s hard to be a nimby, be­cause al­most every­one’s back­yard is fucked. Auck­land, as we know, is a dif­fer­ent story. The con­trast shows just how op­pres­sive our in­sane house prices are on fu­ture-ori­ented think­ing.

cul­tural ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment out of one of Amer­ica’s big­gest ur­ban tragedies.

And it’s not just talk — it’s hap­pen­ing. The dif­fer­ence be­tween Detroit’s abil­ity to do this and Auck­land’s ur­ban cri­sis is stark. In Detroit, be­cause there’s no func­tional prop­erty mar­ket, no one has any­thing to lose. It’s hard to be a nimby, be­cause al­most every­one’ s back­yard is fucked. Auck­land, as we know, is a dif­fer­ent story. The con­trast shows just how op­pres­sive our in­sane house prices are on fu­ture-ori­ented think­ing.

But what about jobs, right? It’s one thing to pretty the city up, but peo­ple are go­ing to come back to Detroit only if there’s work for them. Quicken Loans is one ma­jor com­pany that calls Detroit home. An­other is the enor­mous pizza chain Lit­tle Cae­sars, which has un­veiled plans for a new HQ on Wood­ward Ave, the façade of which will have 4.3-me­tre glass win­dows shaped (se­ri­ously) like pizza slices. Its own­ers, the Il­itch fam­ily, also own the ice-hockey fran­chise the Detroit Red Wings, and are build­ing a new sta­dium for them called Lit­tle Cae­sars Arena. No prizes for orig­i­nal­ity.

But pizza and mort­gages aren’t ex­actly 21st-cen­tury in­dus­tries. Nor is auto, or at least the auto Detroit was built on. The chal­lenge, then, is to fig­ure out what Detroit’s next big op­por­tu­ni­ties will be.

A ma­jor an­swer is com­ing from the cre­ative sec­tor. Toby Bar­low, 50, is a nov­el­ist who moved to Detroit in 2006. Four years ago, he co-founded the “Write a House” pro­gramme, a scheme which buys va­cant houses, fixes them up, and then places a writer in res­i­dence. If the writer stays for two years, they get the deed to the house.

“One of the main is­sues the city has is a nar­ra­tive prob­lem,” Bar­low ex­plains, when I ask him why he set the pro­gramme up. “There’s only so much truth a writer in Auck­land can garner on a Skype call, or a writer from San Fran­cisco fly­ing in for a week­end… There are some truths to be told about what’s go­ing on here, and not just one truth through one set of eyes. So the idea that we could in­vest in and cel­e­brate the nar­ra­tive of this place, and fill the city with writ­ers who would be in­ter­ested in it, captivated my imag­i­na­tion.”

As his day job, Bar­low works in ad­ver­tis­ing, as the cre­ative di­rec­tor for Ford’s cam­paigns. He points out that even though auto man­u­fac­tur­ing has changed, it’s still very present in the city’s life, and there’s an enor­mous amount of auto-con­nected work. The fed­eral bailout, par­tic­u­larly of GM and Ford, seems to have achieved what it was for, dra­mat­i­cally re­duc­ing the long-term im­pact of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis on Michi­gan’s car in­dus­try.

“It’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing time to be in au­to­mo­tive,” Bar­low says. “The mul­ti­di­men­sional tech­nolo­gies and voice recog­ni­tion work, hy­brid work, en­ergy work, fuel-cell work. It’s a hell of a lot more dy­namic than it was in 1978, when it was, ‘How big an en­gine can you put in there? And maybe a seat­belt.’”

Unesco re­cently des­ig­nated Detroit

a City of De­sign, and it’s easy to see why. The growth of the Amer­i­can auto in­dus­try was pred­i­cated on good de­sign as much as tech­nol­ogy, and the lo­cal art and de­sign schools have been in­te­gral to this for decades. Cran­brook Academy of Art, for ex­am­ple, is of­ten spo­ken about as the cra­dle of Amer­i­can mod­ernism. Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saari­nen, Steel­case and Her­man Miller all started in or near Detroit. And Detroit’s Col­lege for Cre­ative Stud­ies still pro­duces many of the world’s best car de­sign­ers.

“This is a city that is ob­sessed with mak­ing things,” Bar­low says. “It’s the fur­ni­ture cap­i­tal of the world. Michi­gan has great stuff in that way. With the au­to­mo­bile, the mu­si­cal cul­ture, and that her­itage of crafts­man­ship, there’s a lot here.”

One of the growth ar­eas Bar­low points to is what he de­scribes as “hon­est lux­ury” brands, like Shi­nola Watches, Detroit Denim, Detroit Bikes, and a high-end shirt com­pany called La­zlo — all of which pay liv­ing wages, don’t out­source jobs, and use, where they can, sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als.

It’s an aw­ful lot cleaner than the in­dus­tries that shaped Detroit and other cities like it. The cars are get­ting cleaner, too, with com­pa­nies like Ford lead­ing the way on mass-pro­duced hy­brid and elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

Detroit and its new em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties are pro­vid­ing a model for how you turn a Rust Belt city green. Michi­gan is one of Amer­ica’s largest agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers, with the sec­ond-big­gest di­ver­sity of fresh pro­duce in Amer­ica be­hind

Cal­i­for­nia. Eastern Mar­ket is where you find it: an enor­mous, well-func­tion­ing fresh-food mar­ket, which both Cox and Clark de­scribe as one of the city’s most demo­cratic spa­ces and is re­garded by every­one I’ve ever met there as one of Detroit’s great­est as­sets.

The pro­duce is al­ways lo­cal, cheap and sea­sonal. Detroit solved the air-miles ques­tion years ago, out of ne­ces­sity, be­cause none of the ma­jor su­per­mar­ket chains wanted to open up there. Eastern Mar­ket is about to go through a ma­jor ex­pan­sion, in­clud­ing build­ing new, af­ford­able hous­ing for its work­ers.

But the most in­trigu­ing part of Detroit’s green fu­ture is blue. Amer­ica’s Great Lakes hold around 20 per cent of the world’s fresh­wa­ter re­serves. Michi­gan is squeezed be­tween sev­eral of them. The ques­tion is how to both pro­tect and mon­e­tise the wa­ter at the same time. No one seems to have the an­swer yet, ex­cept there’s wide agree­ment it won’t be a case of build­ing pipe­lines out to dryer states.

Here’s the record-scratch mo­ment, though. You don’t go through a cen­tury of auto man­u­fac­tur­ing with­out pro­duc­ing mas­sive amounts of pol­lu­tion along the way. There’s plenty of Detroit that still needs to be cleaned up. Then there’s the Flint wa­ter cri­sis, which made in­terna-

Detroit and its new em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties are pro­vid­ing a model for how you turn a Rust Belt city green.

tional head­lines ear­lier this year. Flint, one of Detroit’s des­per­ately poor satel­lite cities, was rocked by the dis­cov­ery that it had a lead-poi­soned wa­ter sup­ply — all be­cause a few city ad­min­is­tra­tors were try­ing to save a tiny amount of money each year.

There’s a hor­ri­ble irony here, as Bar­low points out, which is em­blem­atic of the kinds of con­tra­dic­tions that still plague Detroit. “The idea that you’re sit­ting lit­er­ally next to the largest fresh­wa­ter re­source in the world, and you can’t get wa­ter to the peo­ple in a healthy way — what does that say?”

I sup­pose one de­fence is that at least Detroit’s pol­lu­tion of its wa­ter­ways is his­tor­i­cal, and that they’re try­ing to find ways to fix it. As the Have­lock North con­tam­i­na­tion de­ba­cle and Massey Univer­sity ecol­o­gist Mike Joy’s out­stand­ing fresh­wa­ter re­search have shown, I’m not sure we can say the same thing.

At the end of our in­ter­view, Seabrooks walks through the DIA with me to the Rivera Court. There, she tells me that the fi­nal pa­per she wrote for her art his­tory de­gree was on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Rivera and his pa­tron, Ed­sel Ford. In it, she drew par­al­lels be­tween Ford’s pa­tron­age and what the Medi­cis did in Florence. It’s a point not lost, given Detroit’s cur­rent need to work with mega-wealthy re­vi­talis­ers like the Il­itches and Gil­bert to achieve its own re­nais­sance.

When I ask Seabrooks what will re­ally save Detroit eco­nom­i­cally, she shrugs, the same as every­one else. But she does be­lieve that if any­where can crack the post-in­dus­trial co­nun­drum, it’s Detroit. In­no­va­tion is in its bones, she says, go­ing all the way back to Henry Ford. Every­one I speak to has a sim­i­larly cau­tious op­ti­mism.

“Ul­ti­mately I feel hope­ful about the place, or I wouldn’t be here,” Clark says. “Partly I’m here as a jour­nal­ist, but also be­cause I like it. I couldn’t stay if I was day to day mis­er­able. That said, there are huge problems. Some­times peo­ple are so ex­cited to get to the come­back part of the story, they can ne­glect the fact that there are problems that were gen­er­a­tions in the mak­ing and that will take gen­er­a­tions to solve.”

And from an ur­ban plan­ning per­spec­tive, it’s clear that Cox wouldn’t want to be any­where else.

“Our com­mer­cial ad­van­tage over other cities is an abun­dance of land,” he says. “Forty per cent of the city is un­der pub­lic own­er­ship. So when we talk about an ex­per­i­ment, we can ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment the ex­per­i­ment. I think it’s taken a while for the city to un­der­stand that what they saw as a drag on their re­cov­ery would in fact be a cat­a­lyst for re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion.”

Af­ter Seabrooks leaves, I look up at Rivera’s auto work­ers, heav­ing away at Ford’s River Rouge plant. At the time it was painted, Detroit’s fac­to­ries were the most pow­er­ful and in­no­va­tive in the world. Rivera spent months in Ford’s plants, watch­ing the work­ers, un­der­stand­ing the daily rit­u­als of life on the as­sem­bly line. There’s no ques­tion who the he­roes are in his paint­ings: the work­ers, black, white, Mex­i­can, all slog­ging to­gether. On the south wall, there’s a por­trait of Ed­sel Ford, in a suit, his arms folded while the labour goes on around him.

When the paint­ings were first re­vealed, they were de­cried as Marx­ist, and even blas­phe­mous. What they ac­tu­ally are is a per­fect por­trait of the Mo­tor City’s 20th cen­tury; an Amer­i­can Dream that had, em­bed­ded within it, the mon­sters that would even­tu­ally turn it into an ur­ban night­mare. But all night­mares end, even­tu­ally. The real truth about how to make Amer­ica great again is un­fold­ing qui­etly, right now, on the streets of Detroit.









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