Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Wanted: A desperate willingness to experiment

S.S. Kresge on Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1934
S.S. Kresge on Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1934. At its peak, Detroit had a population of about 2 million people.

I haven't read the front section yet, but I saw this article, "With Detroit in dire straits, mayor invites big thinking" in the Post.

Immediately what came to mind is my line about urban revitalization in communities in weak real estate markets, "that they have a desperate willingness to experiment, because they have no other options."

It's the difference between Baltimore and Pittsburgh say vs. DC. DC isn't all that innovative and has a weak civil society sector. But it has a strong real estate market because of the relative stability of the federal government as a jobs generator, so it doesn't have to be all that innovative.

Working on neighborhood revitalization in the early part of the last decade in the H Street neighborhood wasn't that easy. Few people wanted to buy houses in the neighborhood. Retailers were leaving the corridor. Independent retailers were mostly marginal businesses. There was a lot of disorder--vagrancy, drug dealing, nuisance properties, etc.

And yet we were a few blocks from Union Station, less than one mile to the U.S. Capitol, less than two miles to the heart of Downtown, with a residential building stock not unlike the Capitol Hill neighborhood a few blocks to the south, where houses were worth triple, quadruple, and quintuple the value of the same type of houses in my neighborhood, plus the history of the neighborhood too, in the context of a strong real estate market in the region, if not the city.

But just think how much harder it is to work on revitalization in places like Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, or Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or St. Louis, not to mention Detroit--after Katrina on a tour, dealing with the outrage expressed by a resident, I couldn't help but blurt out that it didn't look all that different from Detroit, even though the decline of Detroit was a longer process (then again, so was the decline of New Orleans).
Abandoned house in Detroit, Michigan
Abandoned house in Detroit, Michigan by Kevin Bauman, on Flickr.

And so I used to think long and hard about how I would go about working on neighborhood revitalization in places with weak real estate markets, places like Baltimore or Detroit.

It might be that Detroit's only long term saving grace other than some residual industriousness and industry and incredible commercial building stock (which is the foundation of urban revitalization strategies everywhere) is proximity to fresh water, in a country where supplies of fresh water are likely to diminish in concert with global warming.

Detroit is the endgame of how the automobile industry intended for cities to leach out, in favor of suburban metropolises organized around automobile-based transportation. The Detroit "metropolitan" area is the most exurbanized region in the U.S.
Spread on ideal highway construction, Fortune Magazine, August 1936
Spread on ideal highway construction, Fortune Magazine, August 1936.

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