Saturday, April 21, 2012


Detroit has become a metonym for “urban decay,” a pejorative term that misleadingly implies that cities are primarily responsible for their own decline. As Detroit’s manufacturing economy has relocated (first to other states, then overseas) and its population has shrunk by half, the city fabric has suffered from neglect, abandonment, arson and poor redevelopment decisions. Meadows and parking lots have replaced too many buildings, leaving the city fabric as a patchwork quilt with pockets of vitality isolated by vast swaths of open space. So why is Detroit such a wonderful city?

Three days in Detroit isn’t enough time to figure out what makes the city so compelling, but it gives you plenty of time to encounter people with as strong a sense of civic pride as anyone on the continent. Folks in Detroit – whether natives or transplants – love their city with a passion that rivals partisans of New Orleans, Chicago, Montreal and other towns that engender deep emotional attachment. And they all seem dedicated to making the object of their affection better. Whereas Miamians tend to ask “what’s in it for me?” (and thus lack almost any sense of civic pride), Detroiters are emotionally invested in their home, and seem motivated by a sense of generosity, service and common purpose.

The city remains culturally rich. The institutions that were nourished by the fabulous wealth of automobile barons – such as the Detroit Institute of Art, whose phenomenal collection includes an incomparable series of murals by Diego Rivera (left) – have been joined by artists’ cooperatives and grassroots movements that engage communities directly through public arts initiatives. People are moving to Detroit with a desire to contribute to the city’s next period of growth.

The city has an extraordinary architectural patrimony, too. The surviving buildings from its multiple golden ages – like the awesome Spaulding Court row houses built after the first world war (left), the breath-taking 1929 art deco skyscraper now called the Guardian Building and the amazing Lafayette Park designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others in 1949 - are a delight to experience and offer templates for future development.

Particularly wonderful is Lafayette Park, which Mies designed with Ludwig Hilberseimer and Alfred Caldwell in 1961. Mies was responsible for the complex of row houses, courtyard houses and tower apartments in the project, which was built by a private developer for a middle-class populace. Lafayette Park includes a shopping center, elementary school and the eponymous park. The superblock planning allowed children to walk to school without crossing streets, and provided an excellent balance between the urban density that supports vibrant communities and the verdant setting of a lush city park. It is a gem of city planning.

No comments:

Post a Comment