More than a decade has passed since my last visit to downtown Detroit. I was meeting an architect in an Art Deco high-rise that had few—if any—other tenants. His office’s setback terrace offered panoramic views of the surrounding blight. Equally cinematic, but on a discomfortingly intimate scale, was the walk to and from my rental car, through a post-apocalyptic gauntlet of abandoned and graffitied storefronts, bedraggled figures of indeterminate age and gender, and even—hand over heart—a fire in an oil drum.
Last month I returned to find the central business district transformed. Professionals and tourists were walking the streets well into the evening, past busy restaurants and shops. A streetcar line is in the works for the main drag, Woodward Avenue. Scaffolding and “Coming Soon” banners appear on seemingly every block, attesting to dramatically dropping vacancy rates. Without a doubt, downtown Detroit is making a comeback.
Much of the revival can be attributed to native son Dan Gilbert, the billionaire chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, who has relocated his businesses and thousands of employees to the downtown area. Gilbert’s Rock Ventures group has acquired more than 7 million square feet of downtown commercial space and parking since 2011, including a vacant block along Woodward where the J.L. Hudson department store used to be. (I was in town to judge a competition, organized by Cranbrook Academy of Art director Reed Kroloff and funded by Rock Ventures, to explore design possibilities for development of the site. You can see an image of the winning entry, ‘‘Minicity Detroit,’’ designed by Davide Marchetti and Erin Pellegrino, at the top of this page.)
If downtown’s future seems bright, much of the rest of the city remains in the shadow of high unemployment, predatory lending, and ineffective government. The state of Michigan recently handed over control of the municipality to an emergency manager, along with responsibility for retiring the city’s $15 billion debt. This is no small task, given that 47 percent of the city’s property owners didn’t pay their taxes in 2011.
But don’t rush to blame deadbeat homeowners. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Detroit metro area has the nation’s highest rate of bank walk-aways, in which a lender begins foreclosure proceedings, but doesn’t complete them, leaving the evicted unwittingly responsible for taxes and maintenance on their former homes. The question of what to do with all of the vacant lots and abandoned buildings is a procedural nightmare that must be addressed in order for the city to move forward.
Lately, the city has become something of a Gen Y paradise, the Brooklyn of the Midwest. “Recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years,” The New York Times reports. “During the same time period, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities.”
The media lionizes the young artists, designers, and urban farmers who—attracted by cheap rent, jobs (Gilbert hired more than 1,000 interns this summer), and an unlimited potential for do-goodery—are reclaiming the inner-city neighborhoods of Eastern Market and Corktown. Male-model-turned-restauranteur Phil Cooley is the most famous of the bunch—I can recommend the pork-butt sandwich at Slows Bar BQ, his place in Corktown. But still, with more than 70,000 abandoned buildings remaining, there simply aren’t enough hipsters to get the job done.
In the meantime, Detroit’s remaining 700,000 native residents go about their business, wondering to themselves whether the city is going to close the local middle school or will finally tear down that burnt-out shell of a house next door. Let’s hope that downtown’s spectacular resurgence has a trickle-down effect.