Detroit and New Orleans: Twin cities from different mothers

What can we learn about Detroit from the history and character of another place? Recently I was able to attend the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in New Orleans. Here are some thoughts.

New Orleans is one of the most intriguing and architecturally rich cities in America. The melding of French European traditions, island architecture and the combination of Deep South, Cajun, Creole and Caribbean cultures form a rich and tasty stew.

Detroit is equally interesting but in many different ways. Its beauty is a bit harder to see because it is so dispersed. Detroit has the beauty of neighborhoods like Indian Village, Palmer Park, Sherwood Forest. But it does not have the vital urban and walkable density that New Orleans has. Detroit has a strange beauty found in its crumbling infrastructure, and even more beauty in its energetic struggle to improve and revitalize found in Southwest Detroit, Eastern Market or in Midtown's Cultural Center.  

New Orleans is dedicated to urban life. Detroit has not been an intensely urban city since the beginning of the 20th century. Detroit embraced the virtues of the automobile and its impulse to expand. The land was there to fill and we sprawled into it with the help of cars and freeways. New Orleans is surrounded by water, confined by land difficult to build on. It remained dense. New Orleans is like a traditional European city. Detroit is a modern American metropolis. Urbanity is a New Orleans legacy. In Detroit, urbanity has been generally frowned on although that mentality is changing. The ranks of those that want an urban Detroit are growing.

Detroit's economy has been and still is dominated by the auto industry. There is an active infrastructure of factories and engineering talent that supports what is left of that industry. Cars still provide a significant amount of wealth in Detroit and that's good for us. Detroit's economy is becoming more diverse but the evolution is slow. The New Orleans economy is based on tourism. For New Orleans to flourish economically people have to visit and spend. So it must be hospitable, beautiful and vibrant. These are the tools of tourism. As New Orleans improves with every elegantly paved sidewalk, exciting restaurant, restored historic structure and well manicured park it becomes more economically viable. A quality built environment is necessary for New Orleans to survive economically.

That has not been the tradition in Detroit. Urban beauty is not a natural priority of the auto industry and it shows. But this is also changing. Community leaders now recognize that, in today's world, people -- especially the creative people that lead an economy -- expect to live in a beautiful and vibrant town. It is clear that a city needs to be vibrant and beautiful to bring in and keep talented young people. It needs to be vibrant and beautiful to keep its people happy and healthy. Tourism is not the only reason to improve the quality of a city.

Both cites have a storied musical legacy. Detroit has Motown and more recently Techno. Detroit has Eminem, Aretha, Carl Craig, Bob Seger, the DSO -- and hundreds if not thousands of others producing or performing music. New Orleans has Jazz, Zydeco, the Marsalis family, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Irvin Mayfield, and others. Here is the difference. Because New Orleans has urban density, because it has a vital street life, because it knows music is part of its allure, music fills the air everywhere. It's like another element. In Detroit because music venues are isolated from each other, because people are isolated from each other, the music is hard to find. If a trumpet is played in a city and there is no one there to hear it, is the trumpet played?

These comparisons are useful because they show that each place grows out of conditions, accidents and decisions that form its authentic character. Each place has a history and a reason for its being and no matter how much we want to alter that direction changes are slow and occur in a way that fits the place, climate, resources and the vision of its people.

We do not have control over the natural conditions but we do have some control over our vision. As we work to make Detroit a better place what is our collective vision? Are we satisfied with our disconnected life or will we embrace the beauty of living close together? Will we see that a dense city is more energy and resource efficient? Will we see that a dense city promotes community and creativity, will improve the quality of our lives and help us keep our talented and creative youth or will we remain a city of isolated beauty and disconnected resources?

We all have the opportunity to contribute to that vision by our everyday choices. Do you choose to live close to a downtown and walk to the store or do you want live on two acres and drive everywhere. These are choices that will alter the shape of our city.

Frank Arvan is principal architect at FX Architecture in Royal Oak.

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