Driven to destruction

At the heart of everything — especially a city as complex, tortured and promising as Detroit — are stories; big stories that explain smaller ones, and small stories that turn into big ones, all of them folding in and out of themselves and taking you as close as you can get to important things. Detroit’s story over the past 100 years began so well — Ford and Fisher, mass production and union organizing — and then headed south: road building and riots, white flight and poverty, and acres of empty lots.

Lately, though, Detroit’s story is decidedly more assuring. Which brings us to Kelli Kavanaugh, a young, single engineer and writer whose small story of urban accomplishment reflects the unfolding drama of city grit and genuine optimism blossoming in Detroit. Ten years ago Kavanaugh slipped out of Livonia, where she was raised, to earn an engineering degree at the University of Detroit Mercy and then do something more and more talented young people are doing. She decided to stay, putting her skills to work as a community organizer in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

In almost any other American city, Kavanaugh’s choice would cause no stir at all. In Detroit, for a young white woman, it’s a social statement. The reverse flight thing, which left her high school friends mildly aghast, perfectly suited Kavanaugh’s need to devote her energy to something larger than herself: a majority African-American town that’s endured more trauma than any other U.S. city for four decades, and now in the 21st century is steadily rebounding.

Kavanaugh and the growing ranks of the agile, tough, reform-minded and resilient young adults, black and white, that are living and working in Detroit are helping to make that happen. They are expanding home-grown businesses (check out the Avalon bakery on Willis some day), playing music (the Movement techno festival is among the best in the country and the Hamtramck Blowout is the largest local music fest in North America), restoring the environment (the River Rouge cleanup is the largest watershed improvement project in the United States), raising families (Detroit is in the midst of a $1.4 billion public school construction program, the largest of any city in the Midwest), pursuing the arts (the $60 million Max M. Fisher Music Center opened last year) and reinvigorating neighborhoods (with 3,395 permits last year, Detroit had more new-housing starts than Seattle, Los Angeles or San Diego.)

It’s been 43 years since Jane Jacobs explained in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that the highway building, neighborhood clearing, cul-de-sac sprawling joyride then being launched was a titanic error that would eventually ruin urban cores before rolling over the suburbs too. Jacobs, who is now 84 and lives in Toronto, insisted that it was the seemingly small things — sidewalks, interesting storefronts, safe parks, affordable homes and offices, good schools — that make people want urban life.

History proves she was right. In the 1950s, when Michigan poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building the Lodge, the Ford, the Chrysler, and the Southfield expressways, Toronto built a subway. It was among the many smart and thrifty human-scale projects that Toronto accomplished to preserve its vital downtown from ruinous freeways and make its urban neighborhoods among the nicest in North America.

Detroit, meanwhile, lost more than half of its population. It now has fewer residents than it did in 1920. Its suburbs are so spread out and misshapen that they’ve become the seventh most congested in the nation, according to a survey done last year by the Texas Transportation Institute.

But congestion is just one measure of the indignities and the exploding financial and personal costs of sprawl. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the region’s population has the distinction of being among the most obese in the nation, a problem caused to a large extent by sedentary lifestyles conducted mostly from behind the wheel. Beyond the windshield, suburban Detroit has among the worst flooding and sewage contamination problems in the nation; rain washes off the increasingly paved-over landscape and inundates treatment plants. Studies have concluded that fixing the sewage-treatment system to better manage that torrent could cost $52 billion over the next generation, a plumbing repair that nobody knows how to finance.

Another study put the cost of serving the region’s 20-year need for transportation at $70 billion, which is roughly $30 billion more than the entire state has budgeted for transportation during the same period.

It’s no coincidence that Michigan’s northern lower peninsula is the fastest growing region in the Midwest. In interviews, migrants to northern Michigan — some are retirees but most are working people — cite metro Detroit’s congestion, cost, pollution, and harried lifestyles as critical reasons for leaving.

Someone is finally taking notice. Last year, the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan panel of 26 business and civic leaders appointed by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm to recommend ways to curb sprawl and rebuild Michigan’s cities, held a public hearing in Detroit. Hundreds of suburban residents showed up to insist that they were fed up with sitting in traffic, bathing at polluted beaches and migrating ever outward to find decent housing. By a margin of 15-1, residents who testified said they saw no end in sight. They called for bold changes.

Wendy Barrett, an environmental engineer, told the panel that in the 1990s southeast Michigan built 54 percent more homes than there were new households.

“So this is a shell game,” she said. “We are just creating new holes as people move into other, new places. This is eroding the tax bases in all of our inner suburbs. We are beginning to see this even in such places as Troy. Right now if it’s a good social measure, the Detroit area is in the bottom 10; if it’s a bad social measure, we’re in the top 10.”

Kelli Kavanaugh has already made two contributions to reverse those trends. The first is the Furnace, a literary magazine she helped found and edits, which features poetry, prose and illustrations by many of Detroit’s top young writers and artists. It puts her at the center of a scene of thinking people, many of them single, who are now deciding just what it is about Detroit that attracts and may permanently keep them. Affordable housing. Ready employment. Devotion to Detroit’s unique calling.

“Not everything’s been ‘done’ here,” she says, adding that a lot of why she’s in the city also has to do with a socially useful conceit. She and her friends feel needed. “Not to discount the current population of 950,000 or so,” Kavanaugh says, “but Detroit needs about a million more me’s.”

Kavanaugh’s second big contribution is a sidewalk. Actually two blocks of new concrete and brick sidewalk, and 14 blocks of handsome black iron streetlights along Michigan Avenue that slide up to old Tiger Stadium. Four more blocks of new sidewalk and streetlights are coming, a project that will cost $7.6 million when it’s finished in a couple of years. At $580,000 a block, most people might ask, what’s the big deal? It’s only a sidewalk.

But it’s a big deal to Kavanaugh, who, as the administrator for the Corktown Citizens District Council, first entered the maze of city contracting in 1999 — the same year Tiger Stadium closed — and came out the other end with a cogent response to the human needs of the scraped-off landscape that baseball left behind. It’s also a big deal to the city, because Kavanaugh, who raised the money from the city’s general fund, and state and federal economic development and transportation grants, helped to design and coordinate the project. She is now a young master of the Detroit public works system. She delivered something basic and beautiful to the cityscape.

If you follow Kavanaugh around Corktown, it’s easy to see how her work fits in with what else is percolating. For all of the thrills the Tigers provided over the years, their stadium’s great contribution to Corktown was a handful of sports bars and acres of dead space, much of it owned by suburban landowners, where fans parked their cars. The closure of the stadium, hard by the Lodge and Interstate 75, left the neighborhood in turmoil. Corktown, in effect, exposed one of the basic flaws in the economic development strategy that has ruled in metro Detroit for more than half a century. If parking lots and freeways determined prosperity, then Corktown and the region should be one of the world’s choice places to live.

They aren’t, of course. Metro Detroit is growing more slowly than almost any other urban region in the nation, shedding manufacturing jobs by the thousands and turning off young adults who flee the suburbs for more vibrant cities and states. Michigan in the 1990s ranked 47th among the states in its ability to retain talented 25- to 34-year-olds. The result is a climate for business growth and career opportunity that Forbes Magazine last year ranked 141st out of 150 U.S. metropolitan regions. Planners and land use authorities who’ve studied the Detroit region insist that not even car-crazy Los Angeles has been as intent as metro Detroit in promoting a landscape of vehicles, concrete, and parking lots that eventually produce blight and decline.

But in a classic example of the resiliency of urban landscapes, Tiger Stadium’s closing caused some parking lot owners to sell, producing an opening for new housing and business opportunities. The Lager House, a watering hole for baseball fans during the Tigers era, is now one of the top indie music venues in Detroit. Construction is set to turn the old Roosevelt Hotel into a 32-unit condominium. The lot to the north of the hotel, once used for baseball parking, will house new townhouses that will feature residences above storefronts. On Michigan Avenue, the Greater Corktown Development Corp. bought six 19th-century, two-story storefronts, invested in new facades, and sold the units for homes and offices. The old Mercury Bar is being renovated with lofts above.

Tying it all together are Kavanaugh’s new sidewalks and traditional streetlights, gifts to the neighborhood she calls home. A year ago Kavanaugh paid $129,000 for a 1,400-square-foot Victorian home and the lot next door in a leafy neighborhood down the block from her office at the Corktown Citizens District Council.

“There aren’t many places,” Kavanaugh says, “where a single woman with only one income and no inheritance could afford a fully restored Victorian that’s only a 15-minute walk to the center of downtown.”

In 2002, Granholm, a Democrat, became the first woman to govern Michigan by appealing to black and ethnic urban Democrats and white suburban Republicans alike. She did it by campaigning hard on the novel and untested idea that Michigan’s competitiveness depended on curbing sprawl and traffic, reviving inner cities and conserving the state’s natural heritage.

The central premise of Granholm’s thinking is that in an era of globalization, when companies can move jobs anywhere, Michigan will have to be a much better place to live and work to compete, and that begins with Detroit and its inner suburbs, which also happen to be the governor’s political base.

As a wife and mother of three who lived in Oakland County, Granholm was intimately familiar with suburban disenchantment. As a former lawyer on the staff of Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, she knew a lot about how state government almost seemed to take pleasure in sticking it to Detroit.

After she won, Granholm set out to reverse years of downtown neglect. She signed an executive order last year that directs state agencies to build and open their offices in downtowns, not outside existing communities as was done in the 1990s under Republican Gov. John Engler. She worked with Republicans to pass legislation that speeds the sale or destruction of abandoned and tax-reverted properties. She went around the Oakland County Republican delegation to establish a new regional transit agency to improve bus service for Detroit and southeast Michigan.

But there are two programs that will truly test whether Granholm is intent on making Michigan cities attractive again. The first is her “Cool Cities Initiative” to drive a greater share of public investment to central business districts and urban neighborhoods. The second is her unfolding approach to transportation spending.

Both are the political equivalent of walking unguarded across a Baghdad boulevard. In order to alter the pattern of urban sprawl, Granholm and her aides know the state will need to change how it spends scarce taxpayer dollars. In place of existing programs that have spread Michigan out — highway construction, sewers, generous subsidies for building industrial parks in farm fields — Michigan needs to give just as rapt attention to the things Kelli Kavanaugh is doing: sidewalk construction, street repair, storefront renovation. The state must also invest in a rail transit system for southeast Michigan. In short, these are projects that literally bring people closer together.

So far, Granholm is making the sort of progress that a governor with 60-plus percent approval ratings should make. This month, she announced the 20 winners of $100,000 Cool Cities pilot grants. Three were awarded in Detroit — to renovate Shed No. 2 at Eastern Market; to redevelop three buildings in the Jefferson East neighborhood into 28 apartments, a TV production studio and retail and food service businesses; and to renovate Odd Fellows Hall in southwest Detroit.

Beyond the first 20 grants, the Granholm administration says it is ready to open to the state’s cities and town centers the billion-dollar trove of subsidies, grants, low-interest loans and other economic development tools that were once reserved almost solely for luring factories and employers to Michigan.

If the governor is serious, some portion of that money, perhaps a great portion of that money, will come from transportation and the more than $600 million a year spent for moving people and goods in southeast Michigan. And here is where it will get very tough, in part because the Granholm administration itself is divided about what it should do.

At the center of the administration’s thinking on transportation is Gloria J. Jeff, a native Detroiter and a nationally prominent planner and engineer who is now the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. Jeff, a single black woman who is blunt, capable and surprisingly vulnerable all at once, is not your father’s highway builder. Last year she helped the governor negotiate an agreement with state Sen. Shirley Johnson of Royal Oak and other Republicans that delayed 17 expensive and questionable highway projects and invest the savings in repairing existing roads, particularly in and around Detroit.

Jeff introduced the governor to a new approach that more fully considers the design, context and location of new projects, especially highways, in order to minimize their harmful effects on neighborhoods and ecologically sensitive areas. Granholm embedded this theory — “context sensitive design” — into state transportation policy. The governor, with Jeff’s help, also has pushed to increase spending on public transit over the objections of Johnson and her Republican colleagues.

But Jeff also supports proposals to spend $550 million (in 2004 dollars) to modernize and widen 17 miles of Interstate 75 from three lanes to four in both directions from Eight Mile Road to M-59. She likes the idea of spending some $1.2 billion to widen Interstate 94 to eight lanes, from six, in downtown Detroit, which would mean leveling at least 42 homes, apartment buildings and businesses, most of them at Fourth Street. A $60 million project is proposed to extend Interstate 375 nearly to the shores of the Detroit River, and Jeff favors that too.

It’s easy to see how adding lanes to highways could be a big plus for a metropolitan region that has no rail transit and a dubious bus system. How else are people supposed to get around even if the cost of the proposed expansions is certain to double, perhaps triple by the time construction would begin?

But Jeff, perhaps more than any state official, also knows how highway building in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, coupled with a massive slum clearing program, which she calls “urban removal,” pushed the Motor City into a long economic slide. Urban renewal leveled thousands of homes owned and rented by African-Americans. Those homes were never replaced. Freeways demolished even more of the city, and made it possible for suburban residents to speed in and out without ever really being a part of the city.

“One of the reasons I got into planning is that my godparents lived in Black Bottom,” Jeff says in an interview. “There were three promises made to folks that lived down there when they moved them out. They were: We will build new housing. It will be affordable. And we’ll move you back in. Well guess what? They did build new. It wasn’t affordable for the folks they moved out. Urban renewal had much more of a detrimental impact than highways. The two in combination did very bad things to the city. If we had only done highways and not had an urban renewal program you wouldn’t have seen the impacts. It was the combination of the urban renewal program and the highways.”

Given such a history, it’s reasonable to question how widening I-75 and I-94 specifically helps Detroit today.

“It specifically helps to provide a competitive advantage to firms to be located in the City of Detroit and in the State of Michigan,” Jeff says. “And those firms located in the State of Michigan help the City of Detroit in the context of providing jobs for its residents and providing tax base to the city. That’s the benefit to the City of Detroit. It’s a question of not only looking at how do we more efficiently move people but how do we more efficiently move commerce and do we appropriately find the balance between the two.”

But some experts note that American cities are now dismantling urban freeways. After the 1989 earthquake, San Francisco did something it had wanted to do for years: take down the Embarcadero freeway, which blocked the city’s shoreline from the central business district. Milwaukee demolished a downtown freeway and replaced it with a thriving neighborhood. Boston buried its downtown freeways and built parks and housing and offices

Detroit, though, is getting ready again to do the opposite: knock out businesses and housing to build wider freeways.

“If you look across the country and see which cities are doing well economically, they all have strong central cities,” says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a think tank in Ann Arbor, and author of Revitalizing Michigan’s Cities, a study of urban economic development. “If Detroit and its suburbs are talking about adding capacity to the highway system to make it easier for people to quickly go through cities, that makes no sense. If we’re going to spend money on roads it should be to help people move in and around urban neighborhoods instead of quickly moving through them.”

Tom Barwin, Ferndale’s city manager and perhaps the most prominent metro Detroit critic of wider freeways, says the region should take the $800 million or more that it would cost to build extra lanes of I-75, I-94, and I-375 and use it to construct rail transit lines instead.

“The last thing we should do is widen I-75,” he says.

Since 1992, more than 20 cities have built new light and heavy commuter rail systems, among them Denver, Dallas, St. Louis, Portland, Salt Lake City and Houston. In every case ridership has vastly exceeded estimates, and economic development around rail stops has added hundreds of thousands of new jobs, tens of thousands of new housing units and billions of dollars in tax revenue. A trolley line in Portland, for example, spurred more than $1 billion in new housing, retail and office investment in one of that city’s most dilapidated districts.

Granholm can leap into this debate in a big way next summer when the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the region’s planning agency, is expected to finish a feasibility study on reintroducing commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit, with a stop at Metro Airport. The last time the Detroit-Ann Arbor line operated was 1981.

One idea already under discussion is running state-of-the-art rail cars on existing heavy rail tracks along the I-94 corridor to a new airport station. Then the cars would be directed off the heavy rail line to new light rail tracks and stations running down Michigan Avenue from Dearborn to downtown Detroit.

Carmine Palumbo, SEMCOG’s transportation director, calls the Ann Arbor to Detroit study the “best shot we’ve had in years to establish commuter rail service in this region.”

When Kelli Kavanaugh looks at Michigan Avenue, she points out the linear bulge, like a long grave, that runs up the center of the nine-lane road. The Michigan Avenue PCC trolleys operated on those same tracks until the 1950s, when the service died.

“The tracks are still in the road underneath the pavement,” Kavanaugh says. “It would be amazing for this street, this neighborhood, if we had a rail line here again. It totally should happen. It would be a great connection for residents downtown and bring people from downtown to the neighborhoods.

“Mass transit is one of the three biggest issues facing Detroit. If Detroit is to become the world-class city that everybody says it can become, it must have rail lines. You just can’t have a real urban environment without mass transit. Its good for jobs, travelers, the community; it’s good for everyone. It’s appalling that we don’t have mass transit in Detroit.”

The Motor City spawned so much of what we became as a nation in the 20th century — cars and malls, highways and drive-through suburbs. So it’s entirely appropriate to see Detroit representing what Michigan and the nation could become in the 21st. Detroit is either the first of many cities to be slowly snuffed out by the expense, pollution, congestion, and stress fostered by a culture that bows to freeways and cul-de-sacs. Or Detroit — like Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia — is at the vanguard of a new and uniquely efficient design for new development that relies on economic and cultural diversity to generate jobs, safe neighborhoods, and excellent public schools.

There is plenty of evidence to support both outcomes. The pessimists, which include most of the white suburban Republican delegation to the state House and Senate, view Detroit as a lost cause, hopelessly mired in joblessness, crime and poverty. Detroit’s critics — many of whom lived through the 1967 riot, the flight of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the crumbling of handsome neighborhoods and a bustling city center — talk as if the city’s decline was an immutable fact of economic law. Somehow, they’ve convinced themselves that spending another taxpayer dollar in Detroit is not only a profound waste, it diverts public investments from the places that people really want to be: Detroit’s spread-out suburbs.

Kavanaugh is proof that something else is going on. The city has been doing a lot of things right since she left the suburbs to go to college in Detroit in 1994. Visitors say the streets are cleaner. General Motors spent $500 million to renovate its corporate headquarters. Compuware built a new headquarters, bringing 4,000 workers downtown. Buildings along Woodward Avenue are undergoing significant renovation. A new $200 million park along the Detroit River is under construction. New downtown stadiums were built, along with three casinos. Streets in Indian Village are being repaved. Household incomes in Detroit rose faster in the 1990s than in 22 other cities studied by the Brookings Institution, and child poverty dropped by a stunning 13 percentage points. A group of young homegrown architects, convinced that Detroit is a place people want to live, is leading a project to rebuild 1,200 acres of businesses and housing on Detroit’s far East Side, the largest urban neighborhood reconstruction project ever proposed in the United States.

On a bright day, Kavanaugh relaxes at a picnic table in her yard and reflects on all that is happening in Detroit. The city is alive, she says. Even to the people who have their bikes stolen or watch the police chase a drug dealer through their back yard, or complain about high city taxes. A carpenter — bang, bang, bang — is nailing new siding up on a neighbor’s house. Across the street backhoes are digging foundations for new homes. Kavanaugh just sold her lot to a friend who plans to put up a house.

“If you sit in my office you’ll see five people a day come through or call asking about housing information for rentals or sales,” she says. “Houses are on the market in all price ranges. One just sold for $269,000. But people are coming here.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, based in Beulah. E-mail [email protected]
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