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Show Da City Sum Luv

Sidewalks, not highways, are Detroit’s path to prosperity

July 7, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

Kelli Kavanaugh: Suburban student-turned-sidewalk supervisor and community organizer.

DETROIT — At the heart of everything — especially a city as complex, tortured, and promising as Detroit — are stories: Big stories that explain smaller ones, and small stories that turn into big ones, all of them folding in and out of themselves and taking you as close as you can get to the really important things. Detroit’s story over the last 100 years began so well — Ford and Fisher, mass production and union organizing — and then headed south: Road building and riots, white flight and poverty, and acres of abandoned lots.

Lately, Detroit’s story is decidedly more assuring. Which brings us to Kelli Kavanaugh, a young, pretty, single engineer and writer whose small story of urban accomplishment reflects the unfolding drama of city grit and genuine optimism that is blossoming in Detroit. Ten years ago Ms. Kavanaugh slipped out of Livonia, the Detroit suburb where she was raised, to earn an engineering degree at the University of Detroit Mercy and then do something more and more talented young people are trying in Detroit: She settled there and put her skills to work as a community organizer. She was attracted to Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

In almost any other big American city, Ms. Kavanaugh’s choice would cause no stir at all. In Detroit, for young white women, it’s a carefully considered social statement. The reverse flight thing, which left her old high school friends mildly aghast, perfectly filled the young engineer’s need to devote her energy to something larger than herself: A majority black town engulfed for four decades by more trauma than any other major city in the United States and now in the 21st century steadily getting better.

Ms. Kavanaugh and the growing ranks of other agile, tough, reform-minded, and resilient young adults, white and black, who are living and working in Detroit are helping to make that happen. They are expanding homegrown businesses (check out the Avalon Bakery on Willis Street), playing music (the Detroit techno festival is the best in the country), restoring the environment (the River Rouge cleanup is the largest watershed improvement project in the United States), raising families (Detroit is in the midst of a $1.4 billion public school construction program, the largest of any city in the Midwest), pursuing the arts (the $60 million Max M. Fisher Music Center opened last year) and advancing professional careers (with 3,395 new construction permits issued last year, Detroit had more new housing starts than Seattle, Los Angeles, or San Diego.)

Sidewalk Supervisors and Signs of Success

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

Corktown’s classic old houses are ripe for redevelopment.

The determined woman has already made one big contribution: A sidewalk. Actually two blocks of new, concrete-and-brick sidewalk that complement the two blocks of handsome, new, black, iron streetlights along Michigan Avenue around the old Tiger Stadium. Five more blocks of new sidewalks and light poles are coming, a street improvement project that will cost $7.6 million when it’s finished in a couple of years. At $580,000 a block, most people might ask, what’s the big deal? It’s only a sidewalk. But to Ms. Kavanaugh, who first entered the maze that is City of Detroit contracting in 1999 — the same year Tiger Stadium closed — and came out the other end with a cogent response to the human needs of the scraped-off landscape that baseball left behind, it’s a big deal.

If you follow Ms. Kavanaugh on a little trip around Corktown, it’s easy to see how her work as administrator of the Corktown Citizens District Council fits in with all the other stuff that is percolating in this neighborhood. For all of the thrills that the Tigers provided over the years, their old stadium’s contribution to Corktown was a handful of sports bars and acres of dead space, much of it owned by suburban landowners, where fans parked their cars 81 games a season. When the stadium hard by the Lodge and Interstate 75 closed, the neighborhood was in a shambles. Corktown, in effect, exposed one of the basic flaws in the economic development strategy that ruled in Detroit and southeast Michigan for over half a century. If parking lots and freeways determined prosperity, then Corktown and the region would be one of the world’s choice places to live.

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

No longer serving as Tiger Stadium’s parking lot, Corktown is on its way to becoming a pretty city neighborhood again.

They aren’t, of course. The Detroit metropolitan region is growing more slowly than almost any other major metropolitan region in the nation, shedding manufacturing jobs by the thousands, turning off young adults who are fleeing the suburbs for more vibrant cities in other states (Michigan in the 1990s ranked 47 out of 50 states in its ability to retain talented 25-to-34-year-olds), and producing a climate for business growth and career opportunity that Forbes Magazine last year ranked 141st out of 150 U.S. metropolitan regions.

But in a classic example of the resiliency of urban landscapes, Tiger Stadium’s closing caused some parking lot owners to sell out, producing an opening for new housing and business opportunities. The Lager House, a watering hole for baseball fans during the Tigers era, is now one of the top music venues in Detroit. Renee Zellweger, the Academy Award-winning actress, was involved with Jack White, a Detroit garage band leader, and was seen there in recent months before they broke up. Around the corner from the stadium, rehabbers are set to turn the old Roosevelt Hotel into a 32-unit condominium. The lot to the north of the hotel, once used for baseball parking, has been sold to developers who will build new townhouses that feature apartments above store fronts.

On Michigan Avenue, the Greater Corktown Development Corporation bought six 19th-century, two-story storefronts, invested in new facades, and sold the units for homes and offices. The old Mercury Bar is being renovated with upstairs lofts. And tying it all together are the new sidewalks and traditional streetlights that Ms. Kavanaugh helped design, get funded, and drag across a long string of City of Detroit desks. They are a gift from her organization to the neighborhood that she now also calls home.

A year ago she paid $129,000 for a 1,400-square-foot Victorian home and the lot next door in a leafy neighborhood right down the block from her office. “There aren’t many places,” Ms. Kavanaugh said, “where a single woman with only one income and no inheritance could afford a fully-restored Victorian that’s only a 15-minute walk to the center of downtown.”

Roads to Ruin

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

It’s been 43 years since Jane Jacobs explained in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that the highway-building, neighborhood-clearing, cul-de-sac-sprawling joyride then being launched in full force was a titanic error that would eventually ruin American cities and then roll the suburbs, too. Ms. Jacobs, who is now 84 and lives in Toronto, insisted that it was the seemingly small things — like sidewalks, interesting storefronts, and safe parks — along with big things like affordable homes and offices and good schools that make a city work so well that people want to be there.

History proves she was right. In the 1950s, when Michigan poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building the Lodge, the Ford, the Chrysler, and the Southfield Expressways in Detroit, Toronto built a subway. It was among the many smart and thrifty human-scale projects that Toronto accomplished to preserve its vital downtown from destructive freeways and make its urban neighborhoods among the nicest in North America.

Detroit, meanwhile, lost more than half of its population and now has fewer residents than it did in 1920. Its suburbs are so spread out and misshapen that the region has the seventh-most traffic-clogged roads in the nation, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Detroit’s suburbs are now so stressful and ruinously expensive that they are chasing many people to the state’s splendidly forested northern Lower Peninsula, making that region the fastest growing in the Midwest.

It’s taken awhile, but enough people in Detroit and its suburbs have looked hard at this uncivilized brand of civilization and said they’ve had enough. Because of people like Ms. Kavanaugh, Detroit may very well be at the vanguard of a new and uniquely efficient design for urban redevelopment that relies on economic and cultural diversity to generate jobs, safe neighborhoods, excellent public schools, and all the other civic equipment needed by a world-class community.

Indeed, the city has been doing a lot of things right since she went to college here in 1994. Visitors say the streets are cleaner. General Motors spent $500 million to move its corporate headquarters to the Renaissance Center and renovate that gigantic place. City-savvy developers are rehabilitating many dilapidated buildings along Woodward Avenue. Compuware built a new headquarters and brought 4,000 workers downtown. Foundation, private, and state funds are sparking the construction of a new, $200 million park along the Detroit River.

Three new casinos and two new downtown stadiums were built, some in the most formerly blown-out areas of town. The city is repaving Indian Village’s streets. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, household incomes in Detroit rose faster in the 1990s than in 22 other cities studied and child poverty dropped by a stunning 13 percentage points. A group of young, homegrown architects, convinced that Detroit is a place that people will want to be, is leading a project to rebuild 1,200 acres of businesses and housing on Detroit’s far east side, the largest urban neighborhood reconstruction project ever proposed in the United States.

On a bright day this spring Ms. Kavanaugh settled on a picnic table in her back yard and reflected on all that is happening in Detroit. The city is alive, she said. Even the people who had their bikes stolen or watched the police chase a drug dealer through their backyard or still complain about high city taxes feel it. A carpenter — bang, bang, bang! — nailed new siding up on a neighbor’s house. Across the street, backhoes dug foundations for new homes. Ms. Kavanaugh just sold her lot next door to a friend who plans to put up a house there.

“My organization is doing what it can,” she says of the citizens district council she administers, one of 17 such neighborhood-based groups throughout the city. “We don’t write businesses checks. We do build sidewalks. The idea is to make it more pleasant for businesses to locate here and to thank those that have been here all along. These sidewalks say, ‘Thank you for staying here.’ Instead of potholes and crappy old lights, we have a place people can walk and feel good about it.

“If you sit in my office you’ll see five people a day come through or call asking about housing information for rentals or sales. Houses are on the market in all price ranges. One just sold for $269,000. I don’t want to sound like a tool. But people are coming here.”

Keith Schneider is the Institute’s deputy director and a veteran environmental journalist. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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