THE MIDTOWN RENAISSANCE
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
THE MOTOR CITY IS LOOKING TO TURN THE PAGE ON ITS RECENT PAST MARKED BY BANKRUPTCY AND URBAN BLIGHT. LOCALS HAVE FOUND HOPE IN THE MIDTOWN NEIGHBORHOOD, WHERE PLUCKY ENTREPRENEURS AND URBAN VISIONARIES ARE WORKING TO LAY A NEW FOUNDATION TO GET THE CITY ON THE ROAD TO ECONOMIC RECOVERY.
For decades, when most Americans thought about Detroit, what jumped to mind was the auto industry or the music of great artists like Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson or Diana Ross and the Supremes. This was the unabashed Motor City, the home of Motown and soulful music, the metropolis where a century ago Henry Ford set a precedent by offering high wages to factory workers that heralded the beginning of America’s middle class and an economy that was driven by consumer demand.
Fast forward to the 1980s and pop culture foreshadowed the problems ahead for the Motor City when the cyberpunk action film RoboCop portrayed a dystopian near-future Detroit that was bankrupt, overrun with crime and hit by urban flight to the suburbs. Of course, this all came to pass. There was the Great Recession in 2008, the US government bailout of the Big Three automakers and the city of Detroit throwing in the towel in 2013 when it declared itself insolvent.
Now, just two years later, Detroit is making headlines for upbeat stories that revolve around its rebirth. There’s a renewed interest by those who exited the city for decades (first whites and then middle class African-American Detroiters) to now look for work and a place to call home amidst the many vacant structures that populate the city’s sprawling confines – in 2014, it was estimated there were nearly 80,000 empty buildings of varying sizes rotting away in Detroit and attracting tourists and journalists eager to document what has been coined “ruin porn.”
While a full-blown turnaround is still a long way off, early signs of urban revival can be found in Midtown, an area of the city known for its varied mix of architectural styles and that is anchored by Wayne State University — a large public university — and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It has two major health care systems, the Detroit Medical Center and the Henry Ford Hospital; and there's the vibrant College for Creative Studies.
Midtown has always been one of the denser areas of Detroit – a city that lost a million inhabitants to urban flight in the recent past and which encompasses 140 square miles, much of which is vacant or in disrepair. The neighborhood, like the rest of Detroit, still faces challenges but the transformation over the last five years has been dramatic here. Residents are flocking in large numbers, including to Wayne State’s campus where students have even been temporarily housed at a hotel due to high demand for on-campus housing. New businesses, from organic bakeries to Bikram yoga studios, are opening every day. And there are festivals and events drawing visitors from across the city.
While restaurants and bars pour into Midtown to cater to a hungry workforce, there’s also been interest shown by members of the New Economy who are giving the former manufacturing powerhouse a second look. In 2000, Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and General Motors came together to found TechTown, a nonprofit business incubator located in an old General Motors factory where the popular Corvette automobile was conceived. Getting people to take Midtown seriously as a hub for software and other new ventures is the job of Ned Staebler, the CEO of TechTown Detroit. “One of the best things about the tech community in Detroit is its focus on practical ingenuity. So you’ve got an automotive engineer addressing gun safety with a biometric gun lock or ear-nose-throat doctors developing a really simple, cost-effective tool for tonsil removal—innovations that have the potential to improve life for people across the economic spectrum.”
Adds Staebler: “That said, there’s lots of room to try out off-the-wall ideas because it is still quite affordable here, so the price of failure is low. Perhaps most importantly—and this is something entrepreneurs here talk about a lot—Detroit is a place where everyone can make a mark. Many members of the startup community here are committed to addressing the challenges that have historically faced Detroit and other urban areas, and they’re making a true difference in the city and in people’s lives. That’s a really powerful reason to come here.”
As the dotcom crowd pushes real estate prices through the roof in Silicon Valley Midtown Detroit is home to two-story Victorian residences that are going for a steal.
Take historic West Canfield, nestled between Detroit's Second and Third avenues and only blocks from Woodward Avenue, the long street that leads to Henry Ford’s old factory that was the birthplace of the modern assembly line. The block that makes up West Canfield is an oasis of preserved Victorian splendor, with homes fronting a cobblestone road and a beautiful green canopy of trees. Abodes boast wraparound porches, spires, carvings and ornate details that offer passers-by a glimpse of 19th-century Detroit decadence.
A few blocks away from this urban refuge one sees industrial grit, with one-time factories or auto dealerships now housing start-ups or a microbrewery. Just west of Woodward, there’s one of the largest projects under development, the $28 million renovation of the old 8-floor Strathmore Hotel built in the 1920s. It is set for 129 units, a mix of affordable housing and more swanky flats.
Despite its deep roots tied to the auto industry, Midtown is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the M-1, slated to begin operations in 2016, a light rail service that will ferry passengers into downtown and help eradicate blight by attracting even more businesses and residents eager for a car-free commute.
Sue Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., a non-profit planning and economic development agency that works to encourage new business and housing here, often walks the blocks of Midtown to get a sense of the change underway. A 30-year veteran of urban planning, she foresees a rebooted Detroit, led by the progress being spearheaded in Midtown, that will be a leaner and more attractive destination in the coming years and all the talk of the Rust Belt and ruin porn will be consigned to the dustbin. “Detroiters are increasingly looking at smaller projects to solve their economic woes, rather than the big developments that were favored 10 or 20 years ago.”
For Mosey, places like Midtown will signal an important change as urban sprawl is reversed and communities focusing on creating density in their neighborhoods will win out. “We create a smaller, more efficient, better run, more interesting city, and bring back basic services for residents who are here and want to be here. It’s a tall order, but it is the only order. I mean what other order are you going to have?”