Motown v. TreeTown: connecting the dots

For every post I write about Ann Arbor, Detroit gets two.  The reason is simple:  Detroit is inherently a more interesting and fertile topic to write about than is Ann Arbor.  It has a higher profile in the national media.  It’s more controversial.  It is, needless to say, more troubled.  And while I think Ann Arbor unquestionably holds far more promise over the course of my lifetime, Detroit will remain the most important, because it anchors a region of over five million people.

Detroit has, for me and I suspect countless others, been the troubled, vulnerable guy who you fantasize about rescuing, but who you’re just not ready to commit to, whose credit is still just too lousy, who you’re not totally comfortable bringing home to meet your mom; the damaged goods.   Ann Arbor has been the slightly boring but talented man you settle down with and marry; over-achieving, dependable to do right by you and your kids.  Detroit is Tom Sizemore, Ann Arbor is the Steve Carell character in Date Night.

Jim Russell at Burgh Diaspora caught my attention last week when he remarked on how in recent years Detroit’s image has handicapped Ann Arbor, especially in the area of talent recruitment.  He compares it to Madison, which has in contrast benefited from its proximity to Chicago (as has Milwaukee).  In his July 2010 post on Ann Arbor, he disputed a claim by Lou Glazer that the way to close the city’s gap with Madison was to emulate Portland’s land use and planning example:

Ann Arbor struggles to get out from under that ominous shadow (of Detroit)… Ann Arbor doesn’t have an urban planning problem. It has major branding issues… Ann Arbor should leverage Detroit’s current 15-minutes of fame. Madison doesn’t have access to that kind of urban laboratory. Take stock of your city’s unique assets and sell that to talent. Don’t try to be the next Portland.

He’s right:  while Ann Arbor’s residents have been in denial of this fact for decades, they are bound at the hip, they live and die together.   Ann Arbor by itself is a backwater, a small and isolated Snowbelt college town;  Detroit by itself is a doomed relic, a dinosaur.  That the Census Bureau technically treats them as two separate metropolitan areas is a mistake which we should disregard.

Even less than Ann Arbor, I have written very little about the Detroit suburbs.  This is in spite of the fact that a handful, as we southeast Michiganders know, are tragically underrated places.  Among them are  Dearborn;  the Woodward corridor in southeast Oakland County from Ferndale through Birmingham; and even Rochester and Plymouth (which lie, however, at such distance from Detroit that I don’t think they could ever be integrated into Detroit’s urban tissue the way the others I listed are.)

And yet despite this plethora of “Creative Class”-friendly hubs, metro Detroit remains much less than the sum of its parts to a greater degree than anywhere in the US I can think of besides greater Los Angeles.  Washington, DC and  Miami/South Florida are also notably fragmented, but neither as much as Detroit and LA are.  And Detroit lacks the (comparatively) coherent face LA is able to put forward to the rest of the country.  Oakland County and Ann Arbor try to advertise their highly educated workforce and their quality of place and of life by separating themselves from Detroit; but ultimately, out of staters judge the region by Detroit.

We’re getting better at connecting the dots between Detroit’s Woodward corridor and Oakland County’s Woodward corridor.  The “Night Move” between Royal Oak and downtown Detroit is perhaps the most successful example of this.  But there are still major divides between the two.  One is simple geography: there are several miles of fairly low-density, auto-dependent land between New Center and 9 Mile.  Another is political:  L. Brooks Patterson’s Oakland County is still light years from Dave Bing’s Detroit in terms of its leaders’ attitudes toward public transportation.  And a third is racial:  Birmingham remains rich and white, Detroit remains poor and black, and 9 Mile in Ferndale is the latest border in a racial frontier that continues to creep northward.

To a certain extent, the way we draw out-of-state visitors in, and where we put them, is part of the problem.  Two classic examples spring to mind.  One is the annual auto show at Cobo.  Thanks to the imbecility of its organizers, Detroit’s highest profile event manages to showcase the city at its most bleak, frigid and hostile time of year.  If my only experiences of Detroit were in the month of January, I too would write it off as a wasteland.  But for the purposes of this post I also want to emphasize how unfortunate it is that most out-of-state attendees go straight from the airport in Romulus to downtown Detroit, and back.  This route bypasses every single one of the region’s most vital and welcoming neighborhoods.

I observed the second example when the Creating Change conference came to Detroit in 2008, again in the dead of winter.   Did they hold it in Ferndale, where the region’s gay bars and gay-owned businesses, not to mention Affirmations, are most heavily clustered? No, they held it at the Renaissance Center, which might as well be Mars in terms of its proximity to gay nightlife.  (Not to mention it takes ten minutes just to find your way out of the building and another ten to cross Jefferson.)  The out-of-state attendees seemed rather bemused by this fact, and I can’t imagine most of them returned home with any sense of what the gay scene in metro Detroit is actually like (not that there’s that much of one to begin with).  It was a wasted opportunity.

These examples both illustrate a problem I think the Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, local officials, the Regional Chamber and others need to recognize and address, which is that the big convention facilities are isolated from the areas the region really needs to showcase.  From what I can tell there are no such facilities anywhere near the Woodward strip in southeast Oakland County; none in Midtown; and there is no transit infrastructure to facilitate casual exploration of these areas by visitors.  Outside of summer months, when the stunning riverfront is at its brief, bustling apogee, downtown behemoths like the RenCen and Cobo are more or less tombs.  Steering visitors to these facilities results in a lost opportunity, and helps perpetuate the monolithic image of Detroit as post-apocalyptic ruin.

Our assets are too dispersed.   The degree to which we’re able to connect the dots between white Ann Arbor, the white Woodward corridor of Oakland County, and the black Woodward corridor of Detroit over the next decade will largely determine how much progress the region makes during that time.


3 responses to “Motown v. TreeTown: connecting the dots

  1. Great post. I keep holding out for some sort of regional transportation network that will enable easier exchanges between the great cities in the region. Hopefully I wont have to wait much longer.

  2. We really need to find a way to revive the ‘interurban’ network that existed as the Detroit United Railway; that’s a potential avenue for re-integrating farther-flung cities like Rochester, Farmington, Mt. Clemens into the Detroit metro area. If we can convince planners to give up two lanes on Grand River/Livernois/Gratiot, that is.

  3. Pingback: The endangered gay bar? | Motown To Tree Town

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