Editor's notebook: The death and life of a great American city

When the census numbers for Detroit were released late last month -- not good numbers, as we all know; horrible numbers, in fact -- no one in my heavily Detroit-centric world panicked. Quite the opposite happened. Every conversation I had about it spun the statistical information on its head, taking the news not as a foreshadowing of the city's decline and fall (as did national media en masse, including the cynically misinformed Wall Street Journal and even the usually on-target New York Times, whose reporter appeared to seek out only the most dour, hysterical and self-loathing among us for reaction quotes) but as validation of what many of us have been doing for the past decade in a place where vast open space -- physical, psychological, psychogeographical -- was growing before our eyes.

Doing what, exactly? Cobbling together ideas, converting them into action, quickly; filling in the gaps, making dots, connecting dots, pouring foundations, taking risks; discarding old models that don't work, finding new models, engaging urban life on various fronts, catalyzing neighborhood and community life; having fun on top it all.

On this level of furious engagement, the Detroit of the first decade of the new century became for the first time in my memory that most coveted of urbanist dreams: a 24 hour city. Not like NYC or Vegas or Paris. Not what Youngstown, Buffalo or Milwaukee, bless 'em all, say they want to become. Nah. Different, twisted, character-rich, unique. Without aspiration to be anything but Detroit itself.

It's in the DNA, if it's anywhere: Detroit seems genetically predisposed to production, round the clock. And this pre-dates the last 100 years of sitting atop the global industrial pyramid.

It produced and maintained trade as a 17th and 18th century French settlement; was farmed productively by more French and then Germans who found the expanding East Side of the 19th century to their liking. The industrialization that came beginning in the mid-19th century and into the early-20th century was literally fueled by Irish immigrant entrepreneurs who opened saloons on the city's main commercial avenues, or hidden away on residential streets.

It is the Detroit of the past century, give or take a decade, that is mourned (or scorned) in the funereal tone of stories about the city's population loss. It has happened. You'll hear no defense or denial here.

But we are simply traveling at incredible speed -- the fastest and most interesting spurts of  ground-up growth in my lifetime have occurred in the past 10 years -- in exploring multiple new narratives that have little to do with the ersatz Motor City. Seeds for the economic diversity we've craved but never had are being planted. Creative entrepreneurship is being rewarded. Discussion of mass transit has passed from the imaginary to the real. Detroit as the non-motorized city, a pedestrian utopia for cyclist and walkers? Well, yes, it's on the cusp. 

In the packed week ahead, we have Detroit Restaurant Week, the Rustbelt to Artist Belt III conference and Art X, a festival that celebrates the work of 38 Kresge Foundation fellows. Another fellowship program, Detroit Fellows, administered by Wayne State University and intended to attract young creative talent to Detroit, is closing the application process the following week with implementation expected this summer.

It feels good, it is good, but think of it as just the launchpad in getting to the elusive tipping point. The best news to scrape from Detroit's premature obituary is that there is plenty of work to go around, for all who want to jump in and grab a piece of the unknown. No over-saturation of anything (or anyone) anywhere in sight, your desire matched by the results of over 300 years of doers, growers and innovators. Where better to make your claim on history than here?

Walter Wasacz is managing editor of Model D. Tell him what you think or, better yet, what you're doing next by sending him a note here.

Illustration above is a detail from an untitled triptych
devoted to the creative working life by Southwest Detroit artist Mark Dancey. The piece stares down at the editor's desk as he sits down to work each day.       

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.