Detroit’s Revival: Making the Renaissance City Beautiful Again

by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:

“Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus”

“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”

Detroit’s motto 

In my previous posts, I tried to show that current initiatives trying to revive the city of Detroit were led by individuals and that the less government is involved, the better their chance of success.

The Renaissance CityMany of the Detroiters I talked to are eager to share a sense of pride in their city, and because they love their city, they want it to be reborn, which includes making it more beautiful, as beautiful as it used to be. Some of you might even have seen this in the form of two very public initiatives: a Chrysler Super Bowl commercial with Eminem and a video clip by Kid Rock.

I noticed this goal – to make Detroit beautiful (again) – in different individual initiatives. The first one being in different art projects, such as the Grand River Creative Corridor. Numerous paintings and graffiti are lining the streets near Rebel Nell’s offices. Rebel Nell’s Amy Peterson explained that there exists some kind of implicit code in the graffiti world: if someone is painting a beautiful graffiti, no one touches it. Hence several of her neighbors in the area were eager to have nice graffiti to try and prevent defacement of walls.

Brightmoor is yet another example. The neighborhood is considered one of the most blighted areas in Detroit. Yet, the few blocks we visited, though certainly not perfect, seemed peaceful and had some charm. Our host explained that when they first arrived, the area was covered in weeds everywhere. A group of neighbors cleaned it up and, she said, they saw progress almost immediately: “If you can keep an area clean and free of crime for 4-5 months, you generally win the battle.” The area comprises about 15-21 blocks. People from outside neighborhood don’t wander here, our guide told us, not even criminals.

She took us for a drive around the neighborhood. A lot of houses are nicely decorated with beautiful gardens. A few houses are still abandoned though. Usually the abandoned houses have nice paintings on them: “Once you put color on something, this is somebody’s baby, you don’t touch it.” She also explained that it is better visually for children, and also a way for them to know which houses are abandoned.

All of this is of course done through the initiative of local residents. We passed an abandoned school. It has been abandoned since 2006,—that is eight years ago. They wish they could use the building; they tried in vain to get government authorization. A billboard indicated the building was for sale. So the building remained unused, inaccessible, and unmaintained. What individuals such as our guide could have done with the building, we will never know. This former school creates blight in an area where the residents desperately fight it, because government does not seem to be able to sell the building, but does not maintain it, or would not let the residents take over.

Detroit used to be a gorgeous city, with historic art deco skyscrapers. Indeed, those are still visible downtown, although not always in good shape. We were told that people tend to focus on rehab of old buildings, instead of demolishing and constructing something new, a sign that Detroiters want to give Detroit her old glory back. Yet, the blight of some buildings is still very visible downtown, contrasting with the idea of a city starting anew.

These are just a few of some visible signs of a tentative revival of the city. Though some may find the initiatives either naïve or pointless – this should be the subject of another discussion – my point here is that again, we see people taking their destiny into their own hands and managing a serious situation without asking the government to the rescue. The neighborhood we visited in Brightmoor is an especially good and impressive example.

I will wrap up this series in a final post on general conclusions on my visit on what is currently going on in Detroit.

Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility). She is particularly interested in issues related to economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.

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