Rethink, remake, redo: John Gallagher explores Detroit's brave new world in visionary book

Few have written more about Detroit's urban and architectural design than John Gallagher. In Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City, published in September by Wayne State University Press, the veteran Detroit journalist summarizes his observations, makes a few new ones and offers hope for a city he's committed to, professionally and personally.

This is a sobering account -- a wakeup call, of sorts -- that asks you to imagine a future in the midst of crisis. Written with footnotes for the academic reader and the author's own photography, Gallagher places Detroit in the context of other cities that are reinventing themselves; while shrinking, but growing through qualitative development.

Quoting the Japanese poet Masahide, Gallagher writes, "Barn's burnt down -- now I can see the moon."

Gallagher envisions a future for Detroit, but it's not what many people think.

Q. Why did you write the book?

A. Beginning a few years ago, I realized (as did many others) that traditional redevelopment strategies were not getting the job done in Detroit. A new Detroit was emerging before our eyes – less dense, with big pockets of vacant land, and with our old automotive economy fading. I saw (again, as did many others) that we had to reinvent the city along new lines to deal with our vacancy issues and our need for new economic and governance models. So I researched and wrote Reimagining Detroit to get a whole lot of new and emerging ideas out there in the public's hands in one readable format to promote a healthy debate on these matters.

Q. You refer to the emerging "middle landscape" – something between urban and rural, but not suburban. What are you envisioning here?

A. When we think of "cities," we generally envision this dense urban fabric unfurling from a downtown to the outer limits of the city, where it becomes more suburban and eventually rural. In Detroit and some other cities, we're now seeing pockets of a more rural-like landscape developing within the city itself, often interspersed between dense urban districts. Planners are struggling to come up with a new name to describe this new reality, this mix of urban and suburban and rural landscapes all within one city. The term "middle landscape" has been suggested, but it's just a name, and other, better names might emerge for what we're talking about. The key is that this new landscape is different from what we normally think of as urban, suburban, or rural – it's a strange mix of all three.

Q. You cite several individuals who have made a critical difference in the redevelopment of their cities, from mayors Valentino Castellani of Turin and Jay Williams of Youngstown. Is there similar political leadership in Detroit? How important is leadership from the private sector?

A. There are many leaders in Detroit trying to grapple with our need to "reimagine" Detroit. Certainly Mayor Bing is tackling this issue head on with his planning process to develop a new land use framework for the city. I also see leadership developing at the neighborhood level in local community development organizations such as U-Snap-Bac, University Cultural Center Association, and the Southwest Detroit Business Association. The local foundations are also providing key leadership, with Kresge Foundation, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and others providing money and technical guidance to Detroit. And I think a variety of corporate leaders and academic and professional planners are coming up with innovative ideas for the city. So, yes, leadership is emerging from many quarters for this task of reinventing the city.

Q. You also identify several others who have made a difference at a more grassroots level, such as Joan Nassauer, a landscape architect in St. Paul, Minnesota, who helped create a wetlands park. Do you see innovation coming from grassroots leaders?

A. Yes, as in the previous question, innovative ideas are coming from many different quarters, including from other cities. Places like Youngstown, Ohio, and Turin, Italy, have been undertaking their own efforts to reinvent themselves in the wake if de-industrialization and population loss, and Detroit can learn a lot from them, just as they can learn from what Detroiters are doing.

Q. On a historical level, do you believe that people make change or that movement and circumstance make change?

A. Well, it's a combination of both. Certainly the economic crisis of the past couple of years seemed to hit Detroit like a tidal wave that nobody saw coming and nobody could stop. Yet we also see individuals making important changes in their communities all the time through hard work and dedicated effort. I'm thinking of those folks in Indian Village who patrol their neighborhood mowing lawns at empty houses and even putting curtains up inside empty homes so the houses looked "lived in" and less susceptible to burglary or blight. And there are thousands of people working in community gardens throughout Detroit. One of the important lessons about "Reimagining Detroit" is that individual effort does make a difference, even in the face of overwhelming, impersonal forces.

Q. In a couple references you refer to Detroit as a "canvas" for new ideas. How can creatives in Detroit develop and nurture something sustainable on that canvas?

A. I think the creative community of artists, architects, landscape designers, urban planners, and so forth can play an important role. They provide us with new and exciting images of what a renewed Detroit can look like. Consider the look of the Rivard Plaza on the RiverWalk. That's certainly a creative and attractive addition to the city. Or consider the modernistic glass front entrance to the Renaissance Center that GM added a few years ago. That provided a shot of architectural adrenaline to our downtown skyline. And of course artist Tyree Guyton has taken a run-down street in Detroit and made the Heidelberg Project a major tourist attraction. So, yes, I look for creatives to be a major contributor to a better Detroit.

Q. The city was once known internationally as being at the forefront of modernism and innovation. What happened?  

A. Sometime around the late 1960s or so, Detroit seemed to lose its edge as a leader in the creative world. Motown moved out. Car companies started designing dull cars. Perhaps we all got too complacent with our success. Or perhaps the automotive companies stopped paying attention to their customers and lost ground to imports. Perhaps the wrenching dislocations of the racial unrest of the late 1960s proved so debilitating that we stopped trying hard. Whatever the cause, Detroit's creativity seemed frozen for a long time. Thankfully, we're just emerging from that period with a lot of new and exciting work going on now.

Q. How can this manufacturing city change its paradigm for recovery from jobs and productivity to sustainable living and entrepreneurship?

A. We have to accept that the Auto Century is over. The definitive event came in 2009 with the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. The domestic auto companies will never again employ the number of people here they did in, say, the 1960s, nor will autoworkers ever again enjoy the generous pay and benefits they once did. So it's up to us to start creating a more entrepreneurial economy. Some of that may emerge from the green energy industry, and in fact we're already seeing the emergence of advanced automotive battery companies. Other new entrepreneurial players may emerge from incubators like TechTown at Wayne State University. The Michigan movie incentives have quickly brought many movie productions to town. So this new entrepreneurial economy could emerge from a lot of different directions. I suggest a few other ideas in the book.  

Q. There is a ton of recent media attention and growing evidence that people outside of the city are recognizing the opportunity here. How can this be cultivated into a new source of creative immigration?

A. Well, the good part is that these creative types often find themselves.  New York's famous Soho district emerged as an artists' enclave when the old manufacturing firms left and the artists took advantage of cheap loft space. You can't really plan for that. It just happens. But I think we can help by making government as responsive as possible. Recently U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke came to town to announce how CommerceConnect, a sort of one-stop-shop for all Commerce Department programs, was up and running. We need to do a lot of that sort of thing. I also would keep the state's movie incentives in place for now, and not trim them back as some suggest.

Q. You believe that "Detroit can embody a gritty success." How do you define this success and what do you believe is really possible here?

A. I think that Detroit can become a greener, more entrepreneurial city, with a healthy mix of dense urban districts mixed with less urban uses such as wind farms, urban agriculture, greenways, and parks. I think light rail can become a reality, along with the retail and commercial development that may rise along the routes. I think Detroit can be better governed as we devolve power to the district level, and as special-purpose entities like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and the Eastern Market Corp. emerge to oversee specific part of the city's fabric.

Q. Reimagine Detroit in 20 years. In 50 years. 100 years. What do you see?

A. Detroit's history fits neatly into hundred-year blocks. There was the colonial period that ended with the city burning down in 1805. Our second century saw Detroit become a leader in shipbuilding, stove making, railroad car manufacturing, and a financial center for the timber and mining industries. Our third century was, of course, the Auto Century, now ended. We've yet to see what our fourth century will make us. Detroit will continue to suffer for awhile, but at some point the multiple efforts we're seeing to green the city and to create a new economy will blossom into some as yet unknown new city form.

Editor's note: John Gallagher will talk about his book and sign copies at U-D Mercy Monday, Oct. 25 at 5 p.m. Gallagher will join Dan Austin and Sean Doerr, authors of Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins, for an appearance Oct. 28, 7 p.m., at Leopold's Books, 15 E. Kirby, in Midtown Detroit's Cultural Center.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit freelancer and a regular contributor to Model D.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


John Gallagher reimagines a new Detroit

Detroit skyline

At Rivard Plaza, a sculptured glass map highlights Detroit's international shipping route

John Gallagher at the Detroit Free Press

Research at Tech Town

Detroit Riverwalk

Facing blight in Detroit; The Imagination Station


Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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