Episode 475: What Happened To Detroit's Big Plans? : Planet Money On today's show, we go see what happened to all the big dreams Detroit has had over the years.

Episode 475: What Happened To Detroit's Big Plans?

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There is a site I love on the Internet called archive.org, and they have all these old films on there from the '50s and '60s, promotional films for products and for cities, cities trying to sell themselves. And as I was going through this, there was one that, considering the news this week, stood out to me. It is about a city that calls itself the city on the move. It is a picture of glimmering buildings on the water, happy people going to work, industry - and that city...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the city of Detroit in the state of Michigan.

SMITH: This film from the early 1960s was made when Detroit was bidding for the Olympics, for the Olympics to be hosted there. They did not get it. But this film came from the city at its prime. It was around the time when the population was at its peak. People were excited. They thought that they could remake this city and it could be sort of the greatest city on Earth.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This Renaissance, seen everywhere, is the direct result of considered planning, the applied skills of planners, idea men, organizers, builders, Detroiters who welcome and respond to challenges.

SMITH: Late last week, the city became the largest one in the United States to file for bankruptcy. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.


And I'm Caitlin Kenney. Now, over the years, there have been a great number of grand plans to save Detroit. People have come in and said, I have it. I have the silver bullet, the golden ticket. This is what the city needs. This is going to revitalize it, bring it back to life. You know, they throw around words like Renaissance and catalyst is really popular. So we decided to try to really figure out what happened in Detroit, we should go back and look at these grand plans, these ideas that people have had for saving the city and see what happened to them.

SMITH: And joining us today is an old friend of PLANET MONEY, NPR reporter Sonari Glinton, who is in Detroit right now. Hey, Sonari.


SMITH: And today you're going to bring us on a tour of the dreams that might have been.

GLINTON: Well, it's interesting that Detroit seems to be an incubator for ideas. Like, if you have an idea to sort of save an urban landscape, it's been tried out or is being tried out right now in Detroit. And there's been so many of them, especially in the last 40 years. And many of them have not been successful.

SMITH: Today on the show, Sonari will take us on a tour of those plans. And we'll talk about why they didn't save Detroit.


SAMMY DAVIS JR.: (Singing) Hello, Detroit. You've won my heart. Your Renaissance and waterfronts give you a flare of your own.

KENNEY: Sonari, you spend a lot of time covering Detroit for NPR. You spend a lot of time in the city. You know it really well, which is why we thought you would be the perfect person to sort of take us there and show us around.

SMITH: And you got the call, obviously, last Friday when Detroit filed for bankruptcy. It must not have taken you by surprise.

GLINTON: No, you know, no one here was surprised. People in Detroit knew that this was coming for months, potentially coming for years. And so in a way, while you get that call, it kind of hurt, it was a little bit of a gut punch, it was also at the same time a relief. So I wanted to talk to someone who had street cred, who, you know, knew Detroit for real. So I got in contact with Bill McGraw. He's the co-founder of Deadline Detroit, which is, like, a 24-hour newspaper that's online.

And before that, he worked for 30 years at the Detroit Free Press. And we decided to meet at a place that is a real success in Downtown Detroit.

BILL MCGRAW: Right where we are, this looks like you're in one of the most vibrant cities in America. There's a lot of traffic but not too much. There's a lot of people. There's food trucks. There's a band playing. There's a big green space with people sitting out. It's about 65 degrees, so it's a perfect day.

SMITH: This sounds like one of those vibrant city centers, you know, bringing all the people back downtown that you hear cities talk about. Was this one of those grand plans that we talked about?

GLINTON: Well, it's - this is a smaller plan. And it was much more private. You know, both the owners of these two companies, CompuServe and Quicken Loans, sort of put money into helping revitalize the park along with the city. So, you know, this isn't, like, a grand plan for all the parks in Detroit. It was just to make this little area of Downtown Detroit more livable and friendly for the companies that have moved in.

SMITH: But when we think about Detroit, we always think about these open spaces, these empty buildings, nobody on the street. How far away from this park do you have to go before you start to see that?

GLINTON: I'd say, about a block, a block and a half.

SMITH: Wow. You know, it seems to me as I was watching these old films about the city that they really probably more than any place I've ever seen believed that you could remake a city, that if you just tried hard enough, if you just built enough things, if you made it look right, it would work. And I know on this tour, you went, first of all, to sort of one of the most visible examples of them trying to remake this city.

GLINTON: After the park, I wanted to go to a place that symbolized Detroit trying to reinvent itself. And you don't have to go very far. It's an iconic image of Detroit. Bill and I walked past the Renaissance Center.

MCGRAW: The Renaissance Center, it's like a city unto itself. And it was built in the mid-'70s and inaugurated in 1976, I believe. Organized by Henry Ford, by Henry Ford II as a reaction to Detroit's decline at the time and also to the Detroit riot of 1967. So Ford organized a group of investors and they built this. It was a huge project at the time - I believe $337 million in mid-'70-dollars. It never worked out financially. And General Motors bought it for a very small premium 10 or 12 years ago.

GLINTON: So what was the hope for that? What was it going to do?

MCGRAW: The hope was - and the name was picked through a contest. People wrote in the names they had for it. And so the Renaissance Center was picked to - I think it's an apt description of what people, or at least the organizers, the business people, hoped it would do, and that is to help Detroit undergo a rebirth. And it's so prominent that - and it's so big that they saw it as a statement and as something that would be an economic driver.

GLINTON: The dream was not necessarily that this one building would save everything but it would be a symbol, that it would be sort of a catalyst for change, that people would go, hey, Detroit has got his act together. Let's move Downtown next door or let's come Downtown to see what's there.

KENNEY: Right, that businesses would see look at this brand new office building. You know where I'm going to open my business?

SMITH: I want to open it in Downtown Detroit.

KENNEY: Right next to it.

SMITH: Yeah.

KENNEY: Exactly, that they wanted to be there. But, you know, we talked about this idea and this dream with Robin Boyle. He's a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. He spent two decades in Detroit. He does come originally from Scotland. He has a lovely accent. But he said, you know, that dream that it would attract all these other businesses and that new growth would spread up around it didn't really happen.

ROBIN BOYLE: Unfortunately, the businesses that were in older, lower-quality, B-quality or even C-quality office space in the city, simply moved across to the Renaissance Center, leaving a lot of empty and derelict buildings, which it eventually resulted in this large amount of vacant property in the city of Detroit. So it was a shell game. We saw lots of people moving from one place to another with it without a great deal of added advantage.

SMITH: It's as if, like, all of these viable businesses decided to move inside a fortress-like structure, sort of almost - and it's - they almost, like, turned their back on the city. I mean, the sheer architecture of this place sort of says, keep out, right?

GLINTON: Yeah, it used to have these, like, giant berms and a lot of security. When General Motors bought it, they tore those down. And I have to say, I've gone to General Motors many times and I've been in the Renaissance Center. And I can't think of an American building that is more confusing. I have gotten lost there multiple times. And there's nothing funnier than going with an executive from GM, who's been working there for a decade or so, and they get lost too.

Like, seriously, it is genuinely ridiculous.

KENNEY: And do you see - when you walk around there, do you see these empty buildings, these, you know, these former buildings that people deserted to move in when you're down in the area?

GLINTON: One of the great things to do is to take the elevator inside of the Renaissance Center and you can see which buildings in Downtown are not occupied. I mean, there are a lot more occupied buildings than I remember when visiting, say, 10 years ago or when I was a kid. But you can still see the empty buildings not very far away.

KENNEY: So it's like you're standing in this beacon of hope and you can see this sort of graveyard of deserted businesses from this beacon.

GLINTON: Exactly.

SMITH: You know, when we were talking with Robin Boyle, this professor of urban planning, he said that there's something about Detroit that loves the giant building, that they call it the silver bullet idea that if just one thing can be put in, if you just have the right piece of the puzzle, then everything will flow from that. And it's something that wasn't just the Renaissance Center.

Detroit has done this again and again. And I know the next place you went on your tour was sort of a more modern example of this silver bullet, this giant edifice.

GLINTON: So Bill McGraw and I turned away from the Renaissance Center and walked to the modern dream to save a downtown. I'll let him explain.

MCGRAW: We're actually right outside of right center field at Comerica Park. And the Tigers are in Chicago, so the park is empty. But it's interesting - they're working on the infield to keep that beautiful major league field up to snuff.

GLINTON: So what was the idea - I mean, so tell me about what the idea for this plan - what was the...

MCGRAW: Well, this and just like - now, this was a little different because the Tigers, again, were already in Detroit and had been in Detroit for over a hundred years. And they just moved about a mile from the west. It was - the football team, which is owned by the Ford family, it played for many years in the suburbs in Oakland County. And they were lured to play back downtown, to move back downtown. And they built a stadium.

There is public money in both of these stadiums. But the team owners, they put some money into it too. And, of course, there's been some development in this area as far as bars and things like that. It's a very busy area, as I said, when the games are on. But, you know, economists, neutral economists really, you know, counsel against that stadiums are big economic drivers.

SMITH: We've talked here before on PLANET MONEY about the stadium issue that a lot of cities try and use it as this economic development driver. And they fill up a stadium and it looks great and everything, but they're just drawing money from other entertainment things. It doesn't end up being that much of a net benefit for the city. Now, you've been to this one, Sonari. You say, I mean, they pulled it off in terms of looking nice.

It looks better than the Renaissance Center.

GLINTON: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's one of the better baseball parks. It's right in Downtown. It's near stuff. It is a success, you know? It's better than many of those stadiums that, you know, got built in the last 25 years. I mean, it's definitely no Comiskey Park.

KENNEY: But, you know, when we talk to Robin Boyle about this, our expert in urban planning, he said, you know, it's not just about one building. Even if the stadium is great, people love to go see games there, even a building that's good, a building that's working, it's not enough. One building is not enough to fundamentally change a city's fortunes.

BOYLE: A really, really good example, up until recently, was a major movement by a suburban software company called Compuware who came into this city very well-meaning and built a large building right in the core of the city. It was quite successful, moved maybe 4,000 jobs into downtown. But none of it was connected to residential development. So what happened was simply the people living in the suburbs had a longer commute.

They built a significant parking deck beside the building. Folks would come in down the freeways, jump off the freeway, go into the parking deck, go to work and then at the end of the day, go home. And that meant that the central city, even though it had this significant number of projects, was still disconnected from its suburbs.

SMITH: So we've talked about this sort of plan for the glimmering new office buildings, we've talked about the stadiums. But at a certain point in Detroit, planners realized that, listen, we were a city that was built on industry. We're a city that was built on the auto industry. And so if we want those people to return from the suburbs - and the city's lost a ton of population. But if we want them to come back, we have to bring the jobs back.

And the jobs, frankly, that people in this region are prepared to do are manufacturing jobs. And so they did have - their sort of third big plan was to try and get some of this manufacturing back into the city.

GLINTON: So what's important to remember is that a lot of auto manufacturing left Detroit, so there's not a lot of plants that are building cars inside Detroit even today.

SMITH: So the next stop on our big idea tour is a place where the city of Detroit tried to reverse this trend of manufacturing of auto jobs leaving the city.

MCGRAW: It built an auto plant. It's called the Poletown plant because it's in an old neighborhood that was predominately Polish. And to buy it, it was the first auto plant built in Detroit in decades. And it was built after 20 auto plants of various types had been built in the suburbs over the previous 20 or 30 years. And so to build it the city had to basically destroy a neighborhood. They moved out 3,400 people. There was a couple hospitals, a bunch of churches. It was an extremely controversial thing and they got permission to do that under eminent domain. And then they took the land and they gave it to General Motors. And General Motors built the auto plant with some other breaks from the city. So the city took...

GLINTON: Is that plant still...

MCGRAW: ...The plant is still operating. They make the Volt there. And the point was Detroit organized - the mayor of Detroit at the time, Coleman Young, organized it. And there was a lot of promises with it, that it was going to spur a lot of development in that area. That hasn't happened. There's been almost no development. There's a street nearby that was like the main street of Polish Detroit once upon a time - Chene Street. Chene Street is virtually nonexistent as far as business and commercial activity goes today. So it didn't do anything for the surrounding area. The plant itself is still there and many of the people, surveys and newspaper articles showed afterwards, moved out of Detroit once they got their money for their homes.

SMITH: And the workers who do go to the plant, I understand, Sonari, are mostly people who live in the suburbs anyway?

GLINTON: Well, that wouldn't be a surprise because, you know, those are middle class jobs. And the problem with the trade is that a lot of its middle class has exited - black and white - to the suburbs.

KENNEY: And the suburbs - this is something when you talk to urban planners, government officials, people involved with Detroit, it comes up again and again, this idea of people abandoning the city and moving to the suburbs and not wanting to live downtown near their jobs at the Ren Center or near the Compuware building.

GLINTON: There's probably no easier city to get to the suburbs than Detroit. I mean, there's so many expressways. It's like you wanted to go to the suburbs, just go.

SMITH: Yeah. And you - when I was watching all the old promotional films, they kept saying not only did we invent the car, but look at our lovely expressways. And I'm thinking the whole time, yeah, those expressways are what people are going to use to drive away from your city.

KENNEY: To run away from your city.

SMITH: And, you know, the irony - Robert Boyle, our professor of urban planning says - is that this idea of the suburbs (laughter) - this idea of the suburbs was not some sort of collateral damage that happened because of what the city did. The suburbs was the original plan for Detroit. This was their big scheme before the Renaissance Center, before the stadiums, their idea for how they were going to become a world-class city was to have these glittering suburbs and these giant highways leading out to them. This was going to fuel the Detroit of tomorrow.

BOYLE: It was called the Detroit plan. And this document and the support the media gave it really shaped the trajectory of Detroit. And that was basically to say we should develop into the suburbs. We can move out and find the new world. We can find tomorrow's city in the suburbs. We can have a bigger house. We can build wider roads. We can have the suburban mall. You can have a better life. We can still have a central city, they said, and - but our population will grow. We will attract people from all over the world and we will become a major metropolitan area. And they were talking then of 20 million people with a city that effectively spread all the way from the Ohio border almost all the way up to the Sun as we call it here in Michigan. And that set a direction for this city.

The trouble is there wasn't the immigration, there wasn't the population growth and there certainly wasn't the growth in the economy that allowed both the suburban sprawl and the central city to develop together instead. Instead, we got the suburban sprawl. We got people moving out and the businesses moved out. The jobs moved out. The shopping moved out, leaving what we have today which is a city that went from 1.8 million to under 700,000 and as we learned last Thursday night, is now bankrupt.

KENNEY: It seems like every plan since then has been trying to do the opposite - right? - to get them to come back in. Everything seems focused again on this immediate city center.

BOYLE: But on a project-by-project basis, it's not like the story of the '50s and '60s which was a cultural move to the suburbs. We have not yet seen in Detroit, nor indeed in many cities in the Midwest, a cultural shift to say we need to stop this. We need to slow down. We need to refocus on the central city. We need to come back. There are individual discussions, individual developments, small-scale initiatives, but it's not yet a turn back to the central city.

GLINTON: What's interesting about hearing that tape and thinking about Detroit is that you think about all the problems Detroit has. You know, I was talking to our colleague Don Gonyea and he said as a warning to me when talking to people in Detroit, you know, if they have a list of problems of Detroit and they're less than 20, then walk away from them because they don't know what they're talking about. Like, that it's so complicated a thing. Detroit has so many problems and the problem is is that there's probably not going to be one big solution.

KENNEY: And when you look back, when you think about all the various plans to trace had over the years, you know, they've tried different things - new stadiums, new manufacturing centers, new office buildings. But the thing that they all have in common is they all have the same goal - to build a bigger, bolder, more populated Detroit, a place that lots of people want to live and are willing to move to.

SMITH: Yeah, like Chicago or New York or LA. They had the dream.

KENNEY: Robert, you and I were watching this video of another expert on Detroit and he was saying - showing shots in New York - the High Line, bike lanes - saying this is what we could be. You know, those conversations are still happening now. But I think what people are realizing is that, you know, bigger may not be better, that perhaps the only way to really get people what they need in the city is to shrink the size of it, that they can't maybe provide services to every part of the city, to places where buildings are abandoned and people are no longer living.

GLINTON: Yeah. And what you realize when you talk to people - everyday people - is that they understand that the glory days of the Detroit, it's never going to be - you know, they're never going to be a city of 2 million people. But they can be a city that works, that is clean. They want a city where when you, you know, call the police or call the ambulance, it shows up. And those are things that Detroiters feel are within their reach.

SMITH: It just doesn't make for a good promotional film, you know, Detroit, the city where the police show up, where someone picks up your garbage.

GLINTON: Yeah, but that's what's really important to people (laughter).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: For Detroit, the city of contrasts, looks toward tomorrow, confident that its great goals will be gained through the vision, cooperation and energy of all its people.

KENNEY: As always, we want to know what you thought of today's show. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org.

SMITH: Or check out our blog - npr.org/money. I'm Robert Smith.

KENNEY: I'm Caitlin Kenney.

GLINTON: And I'm Sonari Glinton in Detroit. Thanks for listening.


DAVIS JR.: (Singing) A stroll through Belle Isle Park, Greektown after dark. You instill in the young the will to become stars and champions. Hello, my friend. How have you been? It's in the air. It's everywhere, the magical touch of you.

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