Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Celeste Layne

Celeste Layne brings experience from the streets of New York--literally--to her work revitalizing Detroit’s East Side. She implemented bike and pedestrian projects in the South Bronx and Harlem as project manager for the New York City Department of Transportation NYCDOT) under the helm of Janette Sadik Khan--who’s a hero to many for transforming city streets into places for people, not just conduits for cars.

Layne graduated with a degree in economics from DePaul University in Chicago and a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. She now applies this education and experience to a seven-mile stretch of East Jefferson Avenue, which has been targeted as a prime opportunity to show how Detroit neighborhoods can bounce back.  As Corridor Revitalization Director of the East Jefferson Corridor Collaborative, she’s focused on enlivening communities along East Jefferson between the Grosse Pointe city limits and I-375.

The area, she says, is home to vital neighborhoods like Indian Village and Jefferson-Chalmers, with a wealth of historical architecture but not enough stores that serve the needs of community residents. "There are few businesses where people in Indian Village can walk."

"There needs to be a there there," she says. "My vision is that we need better links to the Riverwalk, we need bike lanes protected from motor vehicles and we need a combination of good traffic flow and lively street life." That should not be hard to do, Layne notes, since the street is nine-lanes wide in some places. Simply take some of the excess capacity for cars on a street designed for a city twice the population Detroit is today and use it for people on bikes and foot.  

"Celeste has made a big difference," says Josh Elling, executive director of the Jefferson East Business Association, which launched the East Jefferson Corridor Collaborative in 2009 to enliven the area. "She has had a dramatic effect on the scope of our work."  

"Imagine," Elling says, "we’re talking about narrowing the street! We were in this meeting of engineers who were saying we can’t go down to three lanes. But there’d been no study in 15 years. So they agreed to do a traffic study and guess what? We don’t need all those lanes."

Elling hired Layne through the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program--a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State) that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. 

"Celeste was able to dive in, speak the language of the public sector and come up with fresh ideas and practical solutions," Elling adds. "Her expertise gets respect."

How does Detroit feel for Layne? "I have a great apartment on the Detroit River, I walk or bike to work right on East Jefferson. An apartment of this quality in New York City overlooking the river would cost a few thousand dollars a month."

And she’s excited about the energy she feels brewing around town. "The art scene is bubbling up. The food scene is bubbling up. There is this entrepreneurial environment that supports new ideas. People want to open their own store, start their own bakery, build their own tech venture."  

In other words, there is more there here--more to see, more to do, more to enjoy and feel proud about.

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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