detroit window art

A great many people have romantic associations with Detroit.  I am among this cohort; I have long considered America’s industrial cities to be far greater than their depiction in the media.  Maybe this is because I too am from a post industrial city and there is no choice but to see beauty in the breaking and broken.  Last year, I began watching closely the photography of Sweet Juniper, a Detroit transplant who has done an excellent job of documenting Detroit’s urban decay and its ongoing revitalization.  The media does a good job of perpetuating negative associations through what one Detroit artist called “ruin porn,” but Sweet Juniper manages to depict positively Detroit’s conglomerate of empty lots, feral houses, and corporate and governmental abandonment as venues of possibility.  The truth is Detroit has a lot more to teach us than we think.

Last night I stumbled upon this fantastic three-part documentary on the website of a boot company.  The film profiles the community development effort emerging within the city of Detroit.  Artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and courageous do-it-yourselfers are banding together with long-time Detroit neighbors to preserve and revitalize their city.  Seeing the potential of their surroundings, together these groups are transforming their city.  It is a renegade movement; they’re bypassing the traditional bureaucratic channels in favor of neighborhood approval.  They’re planting guerilla gardens in abandoned neighborhood lots, spurring a local food movement by supporting local farmer’s markets, they’re using street art to deter criminal activity in their neighborhoods and they’re finding inspiration in everything around them.

Most interesting to me is that this movement is not occurring because of a concerned government, the work of urban planners or the “big ideas” of economic development experts.  Government, planners, economic developers have long since forgotten Detroit and because of this Detroit has emerged as a bastion of urban potential—the ultimate blank canvas, the last new urban frontier.  Instead, revitalization and renewal is occurring at the hands of young, creative people who see the potential of everything that surrounds them.  They aren’t counting on the government for help and they’re not combating blight with out dated economic development tools, they’re employing a strategic plan called doing something.  For me, their investment is an awakening.  How long must a community be ignored before they emerge as the answer?

Detroit illustrates the undercurrent of our discipline.  We are taught the right way to approach urban planning, we are educated in the principles of planning, we are taught the importance of community input, but how well are we listening?  Portland has a lot to teach America about the potential of innovative transportation and land use planning, but I argue Detroit has lessons more powerful and deep to bestow upon us.  That lesson is that even the best laid plans are nothing without the investment of our communities in both process and practice.

– julia crain

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