Reclaiming Detroit Means Reinventing A City These days, stories about Detroit paint the American auto mecca as a city that's lost its way. But for the remaining residents of the shrinking city, it's also an urban frontier of the imagination.
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Reclaiming Detroit Means Reinventing A City

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Reclaiming Detroit Means Reinventing A City

Reclaiming Detroit Means Reinventing A City

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

LYDEN: From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. Many stories about the city of Detroit view the American auto mecca as a city that's lost its way. Drive down the Chrysler Freeway which cuts through the city's heart and you see wave after wave of rotted-out, burned-out homes that one fireman compared to neighborhoods of broken teeth. Driving us was arson investigator, Steve Varnas.

Mr. STEVE VARNAS (Arson Investigator, Detroit): Back in the day, Detroit had the most single-family dwellings of any city in the country and now, we're still the same size, 137 miles which is roughly the size of San Francisco, Boston and the island of Manhattan inside the city limits. And as our homes are continually destroyed either by neglect, abandonment or fires, now we're left with vacant land.

LYDEN: There's no way a million people are going to come back to repopulate those neighborhoods. Detroit's population has fallen from two million 50 years ago to 870,000 today. Detroit is going to look different in the future. Apart from the neighborhoods, Detroit is a mausoleum of enormous empty auto plants that need new life. The Russell Industrial Center is one of them, a behemoth of a building. It draws dreamers and it was designed by one, Albert Kahn, the architect of Detroit, as he was called a century ago. On the top floors of the Russell, artists reinvent everything from industrial fans to car parts. Twenty thousand square feet can be had for peanuts. Here, we meet up with Robert Boyle in the cavernous street market on the first floor. We're surrounded by giant mushroom pillars eight stories high.

Mr. ROBERT BOYLE (Chairman, Geography and Urban Planning, Wayne State University): It almost feels medieval because when you stand in the middle of it, you're surrounded by these ramparts of a concrete building that you can imagine was buzzing with activity 40 years ago, but is now very gradually coming back as part of what we like to call in Detroit, the new economy.

LYDEN: Boyle who's originally from Scotland, is chairman of geography and urban planning at Wayne State University. He wants to get Detroit thinking about what it means to be a city in the 21st century, especially one that was such an icon of the past.

Mr. BOYLE: Detroit now has at least three meanings, possibly four. Detroit is a city where we are. Detroit means the automobile industry and which is often the headline - Detroit doesn't get bailout. But the third definition of Detroit is now for a city that is part of mid-20th century model of industrial and economic development that has moved on. We're a poor city trying to support the infrastructure of a city that needs two million well-paid people with their families - in the city of Detroit and they've gone.

LYDEN: Boyle does have a fourth possible definition for Detroit and it's not one he wants to realize, a place you pass by. You can't save every neighborhood. What's needed, he says, are thoughtful visions of what makes a good neighborhood and a rearrangement for the land no longer used in traditionally urban ways.

Mr. BOYLE: We've often used village metaphor. Wouldn't it be good if we could reconstruct a village around the school, the church, the housing, and some - maybe a little bit of retail. Once you've got these villages identified and you're beginning to focus activities into them, what do you do with the rest of the real estate? What do you do with more than a third of the city that's no longer being used? We don't really have a clear image in our mind as to what to do with it. We've talked about urban farming, some cities are discussing opening up the old creeks and riverbeds that were covered over. These are all ideas that should be looked at seriously.

Mr. MIKE WIMBERLY(Executive Director, Friends of Detroit and Tri-County): We see ourselves and I see myself, as leading the charge for a re-imagined Detroit.

LYDEN: If Boyle's is big picture, top-down restructuring and macro, Mike Wimberly's vision is bottom up and micro. He's the executive director of Friends of Detroit and Tri-County. His mission is to reclaim a blighted commercial district on the city's east side, and he's bought up a few square city blocks, rechristening it The Hope District. He's inside his own building, a former meat packing plant. He now calls it Club Technology.

Mr. WIMBERLY: We've got people working on computers, upgrading the computers on this whole building, 23,000 square feet is hardwired for the Internet. And then we've got wireless fidelity for about a mile outside this building. And then we have Carrie Anderson over here sowing clothes.

LYDEN: And outside on the streets, they've painted murals for the museum of hip, another called Little Egypt and the design for a three-wheeled neighborhood bike delivery system Wimberly calls hustlerothy(ph). Wimberly's grafted his own vision onto classic dictums from urban thinkers. Think locally - it's Detroit's new vibe.

Mr. WIMBERLY: You don't dare move from your development until you complete one block. So it's block-by-block-by-block. So, as we go down the street, you'll see more of fruit trees that we planted. And one of the things that we've noticed from doing these green space is that there's been a up-tick in civility. People are a lot more civil since we started this action, and some neighborhood land owners have started to fix up their homes.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. WIMBERLY: Oh, hey, Invincible... (unintelligible) You too, thanks, darling. Thank you.

LYDEN: Mike Wimberly greets two young women, both of them community organizers, and both of them hip-hop artists. Starlett Lee is 20. Invincible - as she calls herself, is 27. Now, this is one of the many places where Detroit - whatever you've heard, has some enviable synergy. It isn't only academics or developers trying to re-imagine the city. It's people these two young women. Invincible's already re-imagined herself. Born in Israel, she's come a long way to these streets and started her own record label - Emergence.

INVINCIBLE (Hip-hop artist, Community Organizer): For me, I feel like - you know, we have to re-imagine what a city looks like. You know, right now, people look at every city as needing to be a high-density space. So, here in Detroit, being - we're no longer even a metropolis, you know. And so we have an opportunity to rethink, you know. You wanted to speak about that?

Ms. LEE (Hip-hop artist, Community Organizer): Yeah, everyone knows that Detroit's been burned down, you know, a few times, and I was...

INVINCIBLE: In history there was...

Yeah, in history - and I was using - that term deforestation, that you know, once you burn something down, everything native comes back. I think that's what's happening now with Detroit. And now it's time for, you know, everything that's native to come back and restart all over again.

LYDEN: Starlett Lee knows about starting over again. She grew up with her grandfather and brothers and sisters. Then last year, her grandfather started sending checks to magazine sweepstakes. Now the home is gone and her siblings scattered. But she's going to college soon and writing rhymes. Invincible is her mentor, and she's a master at adapting the material at hand. And Detroit gives Invincible a lot of material.

Ms. INVINCIBLE: (Rapping) Locusts and buzzards circle and hover above the abandoned houses shattered windows with the crooked shutters cross the street construct a cookie cutter condominium lining Woodward its the Prime Meridian...

LYDEN: Invincible thinks music has always functioned as a remedy for Detroit's problem. This is, after all, Motown.

Ms. INVINCIBLE: To me, a lot of Detroit musicians and artists, you know, we don't necessarily have an overt political message in all of our music. I mean, I tend to be more overtly political than most artists, but still, I think all of us have a way of slipping the medicine in.

LYDEN: Slipping the medicine in and getting better.

Ms. INVINCIBLE: Detroit's official motto on our city flag and all that is, 'It will rise again from the ashes.' And that's something that, you know, we really look to as the concept of the phoenix and the city really rebuilding itself.

LYDEN: That motto goes all the way back to 1805. In full, it says, 'We hope for better things. It will arise from the ashes.' Of course, everyone knows it's not just about hope, but that's a good place to lay a foundation. Then you plan.

(Soundbite of song "Locusts")

LYDEN: The Detroit artist, Invincible, performing her song "Locusts".

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