Motown’s Optimistic Tune

Posted on May 23, 2011

Detroit was once one of the most important cities in the world, but lately it has been labelled one of the most dangerous. The mayor has marked 10,000 buildings for demolition, and the population is less than half of what it was at its peak, of about 2m, in the 1950s. Detroit’s middle classes began fleeing in the 1960s and the recent failings of the US car industry have seen a huge rise in unemployment. Michigan’s largest city has become a byword for urban failure and post-industrial decline.

But this is the city that moved the world, giving birth to the assembly-line method of car manufacturing and to the music that reverberated around the globe from Motown. Today, public transport is almost nonexistent and services are problematic. However, the city is beginning to project different images: the familiar plots of abandoned houses are evolving, in some areas, into the largest spread of urban gardening the country has seen. A new generation of artists and other creative entrepreneurs are turning some of the derelict buildings into studios, theatres and restaurants. Such investment is still small and independent, but driving around the Cultural Center, just beyond downtown, it’s easy to spot a trendy café here, a new design boutique there, among the boarded-up premises. And, 40 years after the infamous race riots, the city is being praised as a place of increasing racial harmony.

Dave Bing, who took over as mayor in 2009, is on a drive to get people back into Detroit. He has instituted programmes to entice medical, academic and law enforcement personnel who commute from outside the city to “live where they work”. The schemes, subsidised by some of those city employers, include cash incentives for buying, renting and renovating property. This is tricky in a sprawling mix of neighbourhoods, badly served by past planning. So efforts are concentrated on creating “areas of density”, attracting people to more cohesive neighbourhoods where services could be targeted and improved.

Bill Heaphy, a public attorney, grew up in Detroit and returned 20 years ago to live in Grosse Pointe, one of the more genteel suburbs east of the city along the river. Here, trimmed gardens contrast sharply with the rows of abandoned strip malls a few blocks away. In Heaphy’s view, however, there is a promising vibe emanating from the city itself. While previous efforts have failed to solve problems with infrastructure, crime and investment, now, he says cautiously, “there does seem to be a more focused plan, though it’s too early to say whether it will work”. As a prosecutor, Heaphy has seen his fair share of what’s bad about the city. But he is clear about what is good: “I wish it could make better use of what it has going for it,” he says. “Detroit has all of the things a big city has: great places to eat, culture, music.” There is also Belle Isle, a 982-acre public park on an island in the Detroit River that was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted (one of the designers of New York City’s Central Park) in the 1880s. All of this with a population that makes low demands on capacity.

After a 50 per cent drop in prices over the past five years, you can buy a house in Detroit – within city limits, well away from the smarter suburbs – for less than you might spend on a new car. But more attractive options exist as well. A grand old house in the historic districts or a condominium on the waterfront costs a fraction of what it would in other US cities. One of Bing’s targeted areas of density is the Cultural Center, or “midtown”, where Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Medical Center are located. North-west of midtown, Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods and Boston Edison are well-maintained historic enclaves that date from the early 20th century. Closer to the centre is Lafayette Park, the largest concentration of Mies van der Rohe buildings in the world.

It is often forgotten that Detroit is such a hub of modernism, with this Miesian development, buildings by Minoru Yamasaki (architect of the World Trade Center), and its proximity to the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art. James Griffioen, 33, moved to Detroit in 2006, when he and his wife found that, even with two lawyers’ salaries, they couldn’t afford the type of home they wanted in San Francisco. Instead they bought a three-bedroom, van der Rohe-designed town house in Lafayette Park for around $100,000. So far the family has no regrets. “The neighbourhood is safe and beautiful and our neighbours are great,” Griffioen says. “We can walk to the market and all the downtown amenities. Last summer, my kids learned to grow their own food on plots of land downtown.”

Although prices are still low, this may start to change. Kelly Sweeney, chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker Weir Manuel, has been a local estate agent for 30 years and is convinced of an upward trend. “Because of the loss of manufacturing jobs, our market went into freefall well before the subprime crisis,” he says. “But we reacted quickly to that, and we are in a better position now. And there has been some improvement in employment. Also, our inventory of bank-owned properties is going down.” As for buyers, Sweeney has noted that, in addition to families and corporate transfers, there is a sliver of people interested in the larger luxury properties, “who have just been waiting for the market to stabilise. It’s doing that now.”