In this section we will examine each of our four case studies in turn. We will discuss what changes have occurred in each area, who the major actors or stakeholders are and how they have worked in a variety of ways in order to attempt to alleviate quality of life problems and provide services not given by the City of Detroit. Table two gives an overview of some key statistics for each area and Fig. 1 displays a map of the city with each of the four areas indicated. It should be noted that while they have all experienced some form of decline between 2000 and 2010, this is often much milder than the city as a whole.
Downtown is the historic heart of the city. Downtown’s fortunes were a product of the decline of the rest of the city; as Detroit’s population suburbanized, businesses catering to them also followed. Low points were when the J. L. Hudson’s department store—once the tallest in the world—closed (1983) and was later demolished (1998). Yet even as Downtown was declining, a number of speculative, growth-oriented, entertainment-led developments took place (McCarthy 2002). The most prominent of these are three casinos and two sports stadiums.
Downtown Detroit has been at the heart of Detroit’s urban entrepreneurial strategies. Organizations such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a non-profit partnership that works closely with the City of Detroit and others to support existing businesses and attract new ones to the city.
The combination of incentives aimed at attracting businesses and people to Downtown together with historically low property prices led several high-profile firms to relocate downtown, including CompuWare (2003) and Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans (2011). This produced some impressive statistics: Detroit was ranked second in growth in ICT companies from 1998 to 2009 (DFC 2012, p. 68). Quicken Loans itself has moved more than 15,000 of its employees Downtown and more and more workers are living in the vicinity; between 2000 and 2010 there was a 55.8 % increase in the number of households Downtown.
While Downtown has been the focal point of urban growth strategies for decades, today’s changes are largely being driven by Dan Gilbert (Akers and Leary 2014; Austin 2014; Segal 2013). The billionaire founder of Quicken Loans and a native of the Detroit-area has bought more than forty buildings Downtown, through his property arm, Rock Ventures. Opportunity Detroit, whose banners and posters can be seen all over Downtown, is part of the marketing and promotional wing of Gilbert’s growing Downtown property empire. They provide one of the amenities greatly lacking to the new Downtown employees and residents: good quality public transport. Small ‘Opportunity Detroit’ shuttle buses (Fig. 2) cater to employees working in Gilbert-owned buildings and run bus services throughout Greater Downtown. Gilbert is also one of a consortium of private-sector investors behind the construction of a new light-rail line along Woodward, from Downtown to New Center.
One of the biggest signs of gentrification in Detroit has been the growth of urban cycling. The city’s first bike sharing scheme is run by Zagster, a company specializing in custom bike share. However this scheme reflects the privatized nature of the new services and amenities which can be found in Greater Downtown Detroit. The main page on their website asks: ‘What kind of Detroit rider are you?’ This scheme is available to two types of riders: Quicken Loans riders—an employee of Quicken Loans or its family of companies—or Sponsored riders—who work for other companies which sponsor Zagster’s downtown bike share. There are ten locations to access bikes and rides are free. At the time of writing, no other bike share program was in place in Detroit, meaning this amenity remains available only to selected downtown employees.Footnote 3
The regeneration of Campus Martius, the historic heart of Downtown, has been one of the most visible signs of change and investment. New investments into the public space have reinvented and redesigned Detroit's main civic square (Fig. 3), with significant emphasis on place making. The company hired by Gilbert to oversee the redevelopment of much of Downtown’s public spaces stated on their website:
You may have heard about downtown Detroit’s big comeback story. Campus Martius has become one of America’s great urban squares … downtown Detroit became the Rust Belt comeback kid to watch … He [Dan Gilbert] is a new kind of visionary who understands the fundamental value of great places, and the need to work with his fellow citizens to shape the city’s future together, rather than imposing a singular vision from the top down.
One of the biggest challenges in the regeneration of a city such as Detroit is dealing with crime and safety. Downtown, Dan Gilbert has provided his own solutions, as Austin’s (2012) article in The New York Times pointed out: “Only 35,000 of Detroit’s 88,000 streetlights actually work, so some owners are buying and installing their own. In Gilbert’s downtown, a Rock Ventures security force patrols the city center 24 h a day, monitoring 300 surveillance cameras from a control center.” (Austin 2014). This is one of the key features which have attracted new residents to live Downtown. During our interviews, a local realtor explained that people “really want to live in a tower of security and they are willing to spend a lot of money for it”. Downtown has the type of police and security that the City of Detroit – at least before emerging from bankruptcy – was unable to provide (see books such as LeDuff 2013 and Martelle 2012 for some sensational accounts of the Detroit Police Department’s lack of capabilities). In addition to the security forces, piped music and new lighting contribute to the goal of providing a safe area to work, walk around and consume (Gilbert has been influential in bringing several high profile retailers to downtown). Yet there is a cruel irony that was noted in Segal’s (2013) New York Times celebration of the Downtown which Dan Gilbert has created:
These guards keep an eye on what is actually one of the safest parts of the city. Few people live downtown, which means that the area is largely empty at night, and during the day it is filled with white-collar workers. There are rough patches, and a block-wide hole where the Hudson’s department store once stood. But the place feels more sterile than threatening. (Segal 2013)
The redevelopment and privatization of security around Campus Martius raises serious questions about access to public space, in this case, Detroit’s most important civic square. The policing of this space, as well as control over its design, amenities and facilities are now in private hands.
As Akers and Leary (2014) have noted, Downtown is rapidly being controlled by tycoons such as Gilbert. In many ways, Detroit has always been a product of its richest individuals. However, they note a striking difference between Gilbert and predecessors such as Henry Ford: “he [Dan Gilbert] has managed to earn a reputation for civic-mindedness mostly by attempting to lure tenants to his properties. Tycoons of an earlier era had to pursue something besides their main hustle to earn the laurels being heaped on Gilbert.”
One of the consequences of this is that while Downtown has seen new investment, residents and social activities, not everyone has benefited from this transformation. The demand for Downtown living, particularly among white, young professionals, is increasing and consequently gentrification is occurring. Rents are rising and residents are being displaced. Two of our interviewees, both African Americans who had close family members who were displaced from Downtown apartments stated that:
The rent went from 1100 to 2400 a month in a 3 to 4 year time period;
People who have been living there for 20 to 40 years have to move because of the increased rents. This has all happened in only the last two years.
The displaced now reside outside Downtown as it now lacks subsidized affordable housing. While the developments in Downtown help to bring back a tax base for the city [tax revenue from the three Downtown casinos accounted for 16 % of total city revenue in 2012 (Bromey and Gallagher 2013)], it is rapidly becoming a prosperous and safe island, economically, socially, racially pulling away from the rest of Detroit.
Many of our interviewees indicated that Detroiters were glad that improvements were taking place Downtown, and that these business tycoons could ‘accomplish things’ which the local municipality could not. As a local mortgage broker noted: “the regeneration can help to bring the tax base in place to restore our government’s functionality and then be able to fund the services that are needed for people to have a family, have a life, and have a career without having to sacrifice something that they can get in another city”. Nevertheless some question whether they would be excluded from these developments. As a long-term African American resident noted: “the focus should not be solely on Downtown because the people that revive Downtown have plenty of money and other neighborhoods should not be forgotten. Displacing the people who kept the city up and running, even though those people did not give the tax base that was needed, is not fair”. These two quotes highlight the difficulty between regenerating a declining city and maintaining spatial and social justice. While regeneration and spatial and social justice are often both a goal of the local government, this is not necessarily the case for the private sector.
Midtown is the largest of the four areas we studied. It includes businesses, residential areas and three of Detroit’s major anchor institutions [Wayne State University (WSU), Henry Ford Health System and Detroit Medical Center (DMC)]. These anchor institutions have been driving the current changes in Midtown. The anchor institutions cooperate to improve Midtown through a non-profit economic development organization, Midtown Inc. which has a 30 year history as the university-cultural association.
The changing relationship between Midtown Inc and the neighborhood around it has been central to its new spearheading role in stimulating revitalization and extending its services beyond the grounds of the three institutions. Initially, these institutions did not coordinate as a team. Instead, they looked solely at their own piece of the neighborhood. Over the past 10 years, Midtown Inc. underwent a paradigm shift from being growth-oriented to incorporating community services. As an interviewee from the Detroit Revitalization Fellowship Program noted, WSU had a long history of neglecting the neighborhoods around them and even causing hurt to some neighborhoods as the university wanted to demolish an adjacent neighborhood for its expansion. This growth-oriented paradigm changed when the anchor institutions began to understand that the decline of Detroit was affecting them too. This change in attitude may be connected to the changes that occurred in Midtown from 2000 to 2010: the area experienced a population decline of 11.3 % and an almost 20 % increase in the number of vacant homes.
Today, the three large anchor institutions are more concerned with the role they play in Midtown. Improving the local quality of life by reducing crime and dealing with housing abandonment and vacant lots are now primary goals of Midtown Inc. One way in which safety has improved is by extending the remit of the Wayne State University Campus Police to include all of Midtown. This fits within the changing paradigm shift mentioned above; rather than just looking out for their own territory, they see the value in good security for the entire neighborhood (and even some adjacent ones). Another has been the creation of a security council consisting of WSU police, residents, and business owners. The patrolling of WSU police in Midtown neighborhoods along with other security measures has had a massive influence on neighborhood regeneration largely because Midtown began to be perceived as safe.
All of the interviewees we spoke with about Midtown were positive about the role of the WSU police in keeping the neighborhood safe. The presence of WSU community police attracted new residents, especially whites (see Table 2), as our respondents noted that the WSU community police are more responsive than the Detroit Police department. As a real estate agent put it, ‘people don’t call 911 anymore, they call WSU police.’ A new resident explained that when the public police services declined in the city, this area actually improved at the same time due to the increased presence of the WSU police. One resident stated: ‘Their response time is tremendous; we called the WSU police and they were here in 40 seconds’.
Midtown Inc has taken a leadership role in providing other services and amenities within this part of Detroit. This includes the creation of bicycle lanes—a task normally reserved for a city’s transportation department. As a Midtown Inc representative noted, “someone has to act as the leading organization to speak, lead, direct, guide, to create vision and implement and coordinate all the moving parts of the revitalization”. The same interviewee argued that waiting for the local government to take action would take too long because the local government has neither the resources nor the local knowledge of the neighborhood. As with the public–private partnerships surrounding the redevelopment of Campus Martius in Downtown Detroit, questions arise about accountability; input from the community is often limited or selected.
Midtown Inc., through its brand ‘Live Midtown,’ has also been an active agent in encouraging new residential activity. The Live Midtown scheme offers employees of the three large institutions up to $20,000 cash for the purchase of a property within Midtown (www.livemidtown.com). Incentives to renovate are available for existing homeowners and tenants can also receive financial assistance towards rent. As a result, vacancy rates in Midtown are very low, despite numerous home abandonments over the past decade and gentrification is now pricing out many low-income residents. Nevertheless Midtown Inc. aims to manage gentrification. As an employee of Midtown Inc. notes: “I think gentrification can be managed or controlled by organization. First of all, Midtown has 30 % of the rentals available that are subsidized while the surrounding neighborhoods have only 6–8 % and that 30 % in Midtown will continue to be 30 %”.
Woodbridge is a small residential areas situated to the west of Midtown, across the John C Lodge Freeway from Wayne State University (Fig. 4). Because of this proximity, and because Woodbridge is home to many students and faculty, WSU campus police have extended their patrols here. Consequently, Woodbridge is now far safer, and, equally important, is perceived as being a safe island in an unsafe city. As the respected Detroit-based artist Lowell Boileau explained: “Detroit is like a city of islands; if you know where they are, they are the safest places on earth.”Footnote 4 Woodbridge is one such island.
Before the WSU police patrols began, Woodbridge was in decline. As an interviewee explained: ‘Woodbridge, in particular the areas south and west, declined heavily and had a lot of crime and fires.’ Today this has radically changed, as another of our respondents noted: ‘now there are kids on bikes without parents. You would not see that in many other neighborhoods in Detroit.’
However the regeneration in Woodbridge is highly localized and primarily concentrated around two north–south streets, Avery and Commonwealth. Surrounding these streets are large areas of blight and abandonment. Woodbridge initially tried a CDC approach but it had become inactive as a result of underfunding. Interviewees suggested that a strong community network of long-term residents and new residents exists, but that they lack scale, coordination and resources. One of the residents explained: ‘There are a lot of things where people want to participate and contribute, but people have their own lives… You really need paid staff and input from the residents rather than just sitting around talking and never getting things done.’ Woodbridge, despite its gentrifying nature, was simply too small to organize itself at the level where it could seriously impact quality of life using a CDC model. The main enhancements to quality of life have come through services from Midtown being extended into the streets of Woodbridge.
From our interviews, one other strategy employed by local residents was noted. To counter the lack of street lighting [forty percent of the streetlights in Detroit do not work (DFC 2012, p. 160)], residents adopted small-scale ‘DIY solutions’ (Kinder 2014) such as consciously leaving their porch lights on to provide at least some lighting on the streets. As one resident explained
[the darkness of unlit streets] makes it very easy for someone to commit a personal crime without being caught and it discourages people from walking at night. There were a couple of initiatives by people to put more lights on their porches to basically light up the streets since the street lights are not working
Other, localized solutions residents have employed include: organized clean-up activities (such as cleaning up dump tires, trash and maintaining abandoned buildings) and organized neighborhood watches. Residents also undertake actions to prevent neighborhood decline, for example, a resident explained that:
there was an absentee landlord on Commonwealth who let the house fall to ruin but kept paying the taxes, so it stayed in his hands, and the neighbors really pressured them to keep up the house by saying they will go to the media with pictures of the house and say that he lives in Grosse Pointe or whatever and look at what you are doing to our neighborhood.
Another example of ‘DIY urbanism’ (see Kinder 2014) involved a combination of clean-up and security patrols: ‘lawnmower patrols whereby volunteers would cut grass all season long because that really does make a difference in terms of perceptions, that somebody is taking care and watching the area’. While this indicates that residents would like to actively improve their neighborhood, it must also be acknowledged that there is a limit to what residents can do since, as our interviewee explained, “people are busy mowing their own lawns and having their own lives, so it is hard to do extra”. This highlights the contrast between this neighborhood and the other areas we studied. Because Woodbridge lacks the presence of both a strong local government and a strong private or institutional employer, it has to rely on the community and the goodwill of external institutions such as Midtown Inc and the patrols of WSU campus police. The provision of services, especially policing, comes from these external sources; Woodbridge’s community, while middle-class, is too small to provide services for itself because of the lack of resources (e.g. time, money, organization etc.). This lack of resources is common for many residential neighborhoods across Detroit (Kinder 2014) and in declining cities more generally. Woodbridge benefits from its geography and proximity; many other neighborhoods outside of The 7.2 face a much grimmer future.
Corktown is a small mixed-use neighborhood and a recognized historic district. It has a tight community of long-term residents and has been historically more stable than other Detroit neighborhoods. Small-scale gentrification has been occurring for several decades (Hartigan 1999). Despite this, there are many long-term residents. A local resident who we interviewed noted that, ‘houses were passed along through the family so generations grew up here and that might have helped keeping a tight community.’ Because of its proximity to Downtown and Midtown and good quality, historic homes, it has become an attractive place for professionals and artists to live in. Also the built environment plays an important role, as a mortgage broker noted: “the homes are very close together and because they have stayed intact, there is not a lot of blight in these neighborhoods. That makes these neighborhoods safer and more appealing to people”.
A strong community network of residents has undertaken a diverse range of neighborhood improvements including the construction of bicycle lanes, the organization of neighborhood watches, reducing blight and using vacant land as community space. This, and other factors, such as its housing stock and proximity to Downtown, has caused the neighborhood to grow in popularity. There are many signs of gentrification, and while this has been seen for some time, the process has been accelerating since around 2010, in parallel with the other parts of Greater Downtown. As a resident noted regarding the changes in the neighborhood: “this neighborhood is becoming very popular for hipster, white, young urban professionals to live. We now even have bike lanes, which were not here a couple of years ago…also a lot of new hip restaurants and bars are opening up, even eco-friendly stores like Green Safe Store”.
Corktown is best known for its activities along the main thoroughfare, Michigan Avenue. The corner of Michigan and Trumbull was the location of Tiger Stadium, the former home of Detroit’s namesake baseball team; game days attracted large crowds which helped support local businesses, including a large number of sports bars. The stadium closed in 1999 and was demolished a decade later. Rather than closing up, these bars have in fact thrived since the Tigers moved Downtown; many of the bars purchased second-hand school buses which shuttle fans for free to and from the game. While Detroit city buses run along Michigan Avenue towards Downtown, pub goers prefer to use these shuttles, rather than drive or use a city bus between the bars and the stadium.
The old Tiger Stadium has also undergone a remarkable transformation. After several years lying vacant and abandoned, a small group of volunteers called the Navin Field Grounds Crew (Navin Field was an earlier name for Tiger Stadium) began cleaning up the old field, cutting the weeds and restoring it to a useable condition. Their activities fall within what Andrew Herscher (2012) has called ‘un-realestate’—where the absence of formal circuits of capital leads to opportunities for non-commercial and non-market activities to thrive. The site of the old Tiger Stadium is owned by the City of Detroit and legally, the Grounds Crew are trespassing when they enter the lot. But through their actions, they have created what is essentially a new park in Detroit; every Sunday, people gather to play and watch baseball (Fig. 5) (Jason Roche’s 2013 film Stealing Home, depicts the story of the Navin Field Grounds Crew and also highlights the tensions they faced and still continue to face with the Detroit Police).
Today, the main anchor of the transformation of Corktown has been a restaurant called Slows BBQ (Fig. 6). More than just for the neighborhood, Slows has become a celebrated focal point for the revitalization of Detroit. It has become the symbol of this new, trendy and hip Detroit. The Explorer’s Guide to Detroit and Ann Arbor (Counts 2011) writes about the importance of Slows:
While the depot [the Michigan Central Station] is the poster child for urban decay, a newer symbol of the city’s resurgence that points to the possibilities for the future is nearby on Michigan, Slows Bar-B-Q, which is jammed most days. Slows and other bars and restaurants along Michigan in the Corktown areas are a welcome sign of vitality in a city where the promise of urban renewal is long overdue (p. 129).
Counts goes on to state that: ‘this is more than a restaurant; it has become the poster child for the revitalization of downtown Detroit…Slows has become a destination for suburban residents, rather than just a place to eat before or after a sporting event, like many other downtown places’ (p. 148) Through this description, eating at Slows is about much more than eating good BBQ; it is also about consuming a piece of the revitalization of Detroit itself. Its co-owner, Phil Cooley, has been influential in the revitalization of the area surrounding his restaurant, including Roosevelt Park, situated between Slows and the Michigan Central Station.
While being one of the smallest neighborhoods in our study, Corktown shows some of the complexities and nuances in Detroit today. There are many different groups active in the neighborhood, including the Corktown Business Association, new entrepreneurs, and many local residents. But this is not without tension and controversy. Race is an important element in this equation. Most of the members of the Navin Field Grounds Crew are white and do not live in the City of Detroit (representative of the average Tigers baseball fan in general). They have asserted claim over a space they covet and hold in high regard in a city which is 85 % African American. While these differences do not play out in any violence or aggression, they show the ways in which different forces, including race, significantly affect the revitalization of Detroit. Corktown is also much whiter than the rest of Detroit; it was an Irish community and has been home to a tight-knit Maltese community for several decades. This neighborhood illustrates that a local community that consists of both private businesses and residents can organize and create services and amenities which make a difference. Compared with Woodbridge, there are more resources (including a larger business community and retail space). Compared with many other parts of the city, the historic and largely intact housing stock in Corktown gives the area comparative advantages in its economic and social capital. What the process in Corktown also shows us is that regeneration can be largely spearheaded by a small number of influential groups, businesses and individuals within the community. Yet while the spaces they create tend to be judged as ‘successful,’ they may not always reflect the needs, goals or aspirations of the wider neighborhood or the city as a whole.