Sure, I had read the articles about Detroit’s bankruptcy and seen the tweets, just like you. As an urbanist in Australia, Detroit seemed a million miles away from reality. It tweaked my interest, of course, but it was just some “only in America” situation from my perspective. I would never get any closer to Detroit than I already was sitting in front of my laptop screen in Sydney.

But last month, I had the opportunity to go to Detroit, stay out on the 8 Mile, and even catch a ball game. Here’s what I saw…

The city the car built, and then killed

Back when Detroit went bankrupt, I was living and working in Sydney. I remember reading that first article on it through an Urban Land Institute e-blast. “Holy crap, how does a city go bankrupt?” I thought.

Fast-forward a few years and things changed for me when I landed in the US in 2013 for a new job, a new life, and a new experience. Suddenly I was closer to Detroit; I could feel it. At work and in life, people would regularly reference Detroit. I would meet people from the city and have discussions with them on what’s next. Where do you go now? A city once the icon of the industrial age, the city the car built. That GM building, those manufacturing plants. That was Motor City.

Gratiot Ave, Detroit

When I drove out of Detroit airport, it all became apparent. This city, and its people, were caraholics. A city administration trigger-happy on accommodating the car. It is no surprise Detroit oversized itself, and then – crash. The recession of 2009. No surprise there. A XXXL fit when all you need is a comfortable Medium.

And what are you left with in this situation? A shrinking population, abandoned neighbourhoods, buildings and schools. The bones of a city having been on auto-IV for decades. A sense of place shot. Urban design? What’s that?

As I drove down Van Dyke Street, I passed school after school, shut down. Not just closed, but trashed-out. Every window gone. Not smashed, but totally gone. No ceilings. Nothing. And it didn’t stop at suburban schools. This desolation extended right into the heat of downtown. Empty buildings, one after the other. In the heart of the city.

Crockett Technical High School

While thriving cities across America are upzoning across their downtowns and districts, Detroit has been scheduling downzoning. Entire sections of the city are no longer identified for residential uses. With neighbourhoods shrinking, there was no activity, life or land use designation that could sustain.

You have all read about the vacancy and the blight. I spoke to strangers during my visit, many of them saying the house they grew up in is now gone. Some burnt out, some boarded up. All up, Detroit has 80,000 vacant homes.

Thirty six per cent of the city’s commercial parcels are vacant. A challenging market is an understatement. In the past 10 years, Detroit’s population has declined by 25 per cent. It’s a depressing set of numbers, but one that has spurred a lot of inspiration, spirit and creativity.

Detroit made, a spirit thrives

After driving around for two hours, it can get pretty depressing. Coffee time. I found myself in mid-town. Hipster alert. A hive of activity around one little shop got me excited. It was the Shinola store. You know, “Where America is Built.”

The “Detroit Made” brand is strong. It runs deep, very deep. The affinity with making, crafting and manufacturing resonates. They wear the “Detroit Vs Everybody” brand with pride. They know they are down, but not out. An undercurrent ran strong through their veins – we are Detroit built, Detroit strong, and Detroit resilient. It was clear that you can’t kill the Detroit spirit.

Khalil Ligon, Detroit native and chief executive of Vista Vantage Consulting Group.

Over the past year, I have had the chance to get to know a “Detroiter” a little bit – Khalil Ligon. We first met in Portland last year when she and a group of amazing folks came to the EcoDistricts Incubator, our three-day intensive for urban leaders that teaches the EcoDistricts approach to urban regeneration.

Born and bred in Detroit, Khalil remembers growing up as a kid there in the ’80s. There were more people around the neighbourhood back then, and playing outside was the norm. But as the late ’90s rolled around, she saw houses and whole neighbourhoods disappearing. This was well before the bankruptcy was declared.

“It was long time coming”, she says.

A planner by trade, Khalil has worked most of her career in community-driven planning, focused on outreach and facilitation. She had spent much of the time before the bankruptcy responding to the challenges that had been exacerbated over time – blight and declining population, among other problems that were mounting. When we spoke just a week ago, she said, “We were just trying to keep the grass cut, and keeping the empty houses boarded up [back then].

“We were working at the neighbourhood scale to try and keep things going, stop people leaving.”

However, Khalil now speaks of a resurgence of that “Detroit Made” spirit.

“Folks are convening, coming together to develop community vision plans, host events and engage about the future.”

She was clear that positive things are happening.

“Community ownership over public space is growing, and we are not waiting for capital investments from government, but getting on and crowd funding capital for community-led projects,” she said.

The Heidelberg Project
The Heidelberg Project

And with a bounce in their step, Detroiters are rebuilding from the neighbourhood up. And of all strategies, art is playing a key role. The Heidelberg Project – an open-air art project in the heart of Detroit’s East Side – best speaks to this. The photos speak for themselves.

I walked Heidelberg Street early on the Sunday morning, before the crowds arrived. I had the pleasure of meeting Tyree Guyton, the founder and artistic director for the project, who was preparing for the hoards of people due to walk the street that day. He walked up to me and said, “We are just trying to keep the spirit alive, using art.”

At 7am, people in taxis were driving by, camera lenses poking out of the window. Tyree said to me, “Folks land at the airport, get in a taxi, and drive by our neighbourhood on the way to their meeting in Downtown. We are proud of this project. It’s now recognised around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives.”

And for me, an outsider poking around dilapidated Detroit, I got on the plane home to Australia inspired by a broken city that I know will rise again through the work of community leaders just like Tyree and Khalil.

Adam Beck is director of innovation at EcoDistricts, a global non-profit based in Portland, US.

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