Master activator: Tony Goldman envisions Detroit as "capital of the experimental"

On his first ever visit to Detroit last week Tony Goldman saw enough to come away with ideas and solutions that could fill the rest of the century. He experienced fledgling micro-economies taking shape in Corktown and Eastern Market; he also saw blighted buildings in the heart of downtown he says no major commercial center can afford. He saw grassroots entrepreneurship full of commitment and passion; but also says he encountered a lack of "central vision needed to galvanize and follow through on a campaign to the end."

Goldman came back to New York full of ideas, he tells me, after three days spent "absorbing and observing" the city with redeveloper-entrepreneur Phillip Cooley, meeting with Mayor Dave Bing, and speaking at an event at an Eastern Market space with Dennis Scholl of the Knight Foundation.

The plan was to do a 20-minute Q&A. But Goldman made it easy. I asked one question and he answered six. He talked with breathless energy and excitement about what he experienced here and what he sees as opportunities for Detroit's future. "Sorry, I'm just blurting everything out at once," Goldman says. By all means, keep it coming, Tony. "It's in my DNA to see a problem and invent a solution. I've been finding beautiful skeletons and bringing them back to life for 40 years. I'm not a young man anymore, but I still have the fire inside to make things happen." 

Indeed, the proof is in the projects, beginning with taking his chances with declining Manhattan Upper West Side properties in the late 1960s. Even more notable is the work Goldman started in Soho, the downtown district made up of hulking 19th century cast iron buildings that had seen better days long before he began redeveloping there in the mid-1970s.

"Up to that point, people were not thinking in terms of cubic environments, or live/work spaces. We helped create that," he says, at the same time helping to build a community of artists and art-related commerce at street level. "Without creating community and neighborhood life  it doesn't work, as far as I'm concerned." Envisioning the increasingly shabby South Beach section of Miami as "the American Riviera" Goldman Properties purchased 18 properties -- one a month for 18 months -- in the mid-1980s and began polishing up the famous 1930s-era Art Deco buildings.  

In the 1990s, Goldman turned his attention to Wall St., and helped remake the sterile, granite financial district into a "village." He's also tackled redevelopment projects in Philadelphia and Boston. In all of the locations he's planted seedlings and cultivated community with two primary weapons: art and food. He has opened 14 restaurants on the Atlantic coast, including the Greene Street Cafe and Soho Kitchen, which once boasted it was the largest wine bar in the world.

Detroit: catalyst for a new urban America

But here he would set his sights even higher. The rewards are greater, Goldman says. And he's not talking about money. Quite the opposite, in fact. "Throwing a ton of money at Detroit is the last thing I would do. The old models will not work. There is not enough money anywhere, it would take billions, billions, to rehab Detroit. New stadiums will not work. Give me the money that it would cost to build a new stadium -- $200-300 million -- and I would put together a plan that would use community resources and energy to change the course of the city building by building, block by block."


"I'll tell you first what I wouldn't do. I wouldn't tear down a single building. I wouldn't build a single new parking lot. I would use every piece of the city's 140-square miles to create the country's best urban parks system. I would create a thoughtful urban homesteading program and give properties away. Vacant land, farms, buildings, houses, everything. Fix up the properties, stick it out and own them after 10 years. It'll take balls, perseverance and an almost stupid commitment to changing not only Detroit, but the course of urban America. It can start here, because nowhere else is in a better position to do it. This is our best chance to do it the right way."

But Goldman says he would start the process in a place familiar to him: downtown: "You have to replace the broken windows and improve the facades of every building -- every building. When we started redeveloping South Beach the buildings we had weren't occupied but they looked like they were. Things began to take shape visually before there was real activity inside. Then we activated each building at street level and kept going up from the ground floor."

In Detroit, Goldman says he would amplify and multiply the city's strength -- its affordability to artists, musicians, designers and other creative workers. "Berlin is the most exciting city in Europe because it's cheap to live there and attractive to young people doing unheard of things. I would re-make Detroit as the capital of the avant-garde, the experimental, a city like no other in America. To do that I'd flood the city with artists, 100,000 artists from all over the world living and working here."

But first, he says, the city needs a cohesive vision to attract the foundations and the corporations. "They want to get behind Detroit, I know they do: but there needs to be strong leadership in place, incremental work and stable growth -- like a good relationship. It won't happen overnight, it's a patient process. But once it gets started, this city will be unstoppable."

Walter Wasacz is managing editor of Model D. He welcomes Tony Goldman back to theorize or practice his brand of community-minded urbanism anytime. 

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