Less Can Be More

Grace Lee Boggs’ vision for Detroit trumps mundane reality. The 92-year-old community activist — who has been a voice for social justice and a proponent of civil and women's rights since the 1940s — believes the 1967 riot was the first realization that Detroit’s industrial might was on a downhill slide.

In a recent panel discussion on the future of the city, Boggs talked of the violence that erupted on 12th Street as the inevitable result of the city’s deindustrialization, and by the loss of jobs first felt by young black men in a city where for decades a living wage was available to nearly all who wanted it. Since that time Detroit has struggled to find a new reason for being. Former Mayor Coleman Young promoted General Motor’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant — a project perhaps best known for the city's use of eminent domain to raze the Poletown neighborhood — to stem the tide.

Casinos have been proposed (and eventually built) to keep jobs in the city. Yet, despite these grand efforts the jobs and the tax base keep leaving. The latest blow to the city's fragile business infrastructure came when Comerica Bank announced earlier this month it was leaving the city after 150 years to relocate its headquarters in Dallas. Like many industrial cities, Detroit is shrinking. But none, perhaps, have received as much attention in its decline as the greatest production city the world has known.      

New paradigms

As part of the ambitious and relevant Shrinking Cities exhibit now up at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and Cranbrook Art Museum some 100 people attended the discussion organized by Mitch Cope, Co-Curator of Shrinking Cities and moderated by Kathryn Underwood from the Detroit City Planning Commission. It was held in the rough-hewn space of MOCAD's central gallery. The panel included the aforementioned Boggs, Anika Goss-Foster of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's Next Detroit project, Greg Parrish from Detroit’s Planning and Development Department and Dorian Moore from the Archive Design Studio architectural firm.

The irony was palpable throughout the evening. The line was drawn between a visionary’s call for a new paradigm free of big business and the reality of a city planner focused on building back a city, hoping for private development and promoting mixed-use nodes whenever possible.

Some audience members made the nut of the issue very clear. If we build it why should they come? How can Detroit rebuild a city without the necessary jobs? People come to a city not because of the buildings; they come because there is a viable and safe community, there is a rich vibrant culture and … jobs.

Facing this honestly, Greg Parrish admitted that traditional planning tools are not well equipped to deal with these questions. I commend his non-rhetorical candor. The reality is planners traditionally control growth by forming zoning ordinances and developing master plans. They do not plan for shrinkage and they do not create jobs.  

Dorian Moore offered some examples from the Archive Design Studio portfolio. These nicely planned infill and urban space projects explore ways to knit back the urban fabric using medium density and mixed-use development. Think gentle New Urbanism. In the end, though, he too said that architects plan for growth. They design buildings and create beautiful urban space. They make the framework for community but they do not create the community and they do not create jobs.

Sustaining vision, building community

Where does that leave our Shrinking City? Between the vision and the reality there must be a place that provides a hopeful future. The problem has two parts. There is the underlying need for rich and fruitful employment and there must be effective planning to create viable and sustainable communities.

On the surface, Boggs’ vision of an earth-centered life tied to urban agriculture seems far-fetched. The reality is many of us are not farmers. The sentiment though is a good one. There is an absolute need to find an ecological way of life. There is an absolute need to create jobs that are sensitive to the earth’s limited resources.  This vision can be tied to the built world. The reality is high-density, mixed-income, mixed-use communities offer an efficient, resource-conscious way of building and living.

Detroit has a great opportunity before it. This exhibit and the connected discussions show that there is a need to move beyond conventional thinking.  There is a massive amount of vacant land in Detroit, which Parrish said awaits “suburbanization.”

But suburbanization is an unsustainable paradigm of the past. For a city like Detroit, with its great history and aspirations of future greatness, “suburbanization” would be a sad result. Instead of waiting for “suburbanization,” imagine a new city developed into sustainable dense urban village communities connected by a viable mass transit system that preserves open land. Envision a city of active neighborhoods and commercial districts surrounded by verdant parks. Some of the parks are used for agriculture, some for recreation, some for baseball, some with lakes for fishing, rowing and skating in the winter. That’s a vision that could be put into practice if we can combine the courage and energy of a Grace Lee Boggs with the expertise of the city's dedicated planning officials. That’s a vision that could become Detroit's hope-filled reality.

Francis X. Arvan is a graduate of Lawrence Technological University and Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture. In 1997, he established Royal Oak-based FX Architecture and is currently chair of the Royal Oak Main Street Design Committee.


The Rouge River in Rouge Park

Grace Lee Boggs

Campus Martius Park

The Kales Building from Washington Boulevard

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger
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