Many cities across the nation are looking to re-imagine themselves—they’re trying to become more like dense, walkable cities like San Francisco or Boston. But some people say that some cities weren’t originally designed to be like that. And people don’t necessarily want them to be. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty has this report:
Many cities across the nation are looking to re-imagine themselves. They’re
trying to become more like dense, walkable cities like San Francisco or
Boston. But some people say that some cities weren’t originally designed to
be like that, and people don’t necessarily want them to be. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty has this report:
Aside from the cicadas and crickets, it’s a quiet afternoon in Victoria
park. There’s no one out on the tree-lined street, or on the large houses’
beautifully groomed front lawns.
Jerry Herron is an American Studies professor at Wayne State University. He says that this gated community has everything that people associate with suburbia.
“An artificially wind-y street, some kind of neoclassical details on the houses, a cul de sac at each end, plenty of cars in the garages, basketball hoops, all of the things that people would associate with characterstic life in suburbia. Except it’s in the middle of one of the oldest downtown industrial parts of the city of Detroit.”
Herron says that most urban planners wouldn’t expect to see a suburban-style
cul de sac right in the middle of the city.
“I think because it doesn’t look like one of those pre-arranged ideas of the city, cities aren’t supposed to look like suburban McMansions houses. Well, it turns out that that’s where people want to live, and if you build it in the city, they’ll come and buy the houses and be happy.”
That kind of thinking runs counter to what many urban planning experts might say. In fact, the success of Victoria Park might seem to be an oddity in planning circles, because most planners believe that it’s a specifically urban lifestyle that attracts people to cities, one that involves chic apartments, condos and busy streets, not lawn care and attached garages.
But Jerry Herron says that more suburban-style development is in keeping
with this city’s history.
“One of the important things about Detroit is that seventy-five percent of the people who live here – I believe that’s an accurate figure – virtually since the beginning of the city’s history, have lived in private houses, so that there’s really a dedication to this idea of private property, that they have something good, it has to be mine, it has to belong to me, which makes it very difficult then to imagine as desirable living in something I don’t own, that I have to share with other people, that I may just be renting.”
Regardless of whether they choose to live in private houses or high rise buildings, people who choose to live in the city like being able to spend less time in their cars than they would if they lived in the suburbs.
And they like the cultural attractions and diversity of the cities. And even if it might seem suburban compared to life in other cities, life in this city is still very different from life in the suburbs. Olga Savich grew up in Troy, Michigan a north-west suburb of Detroit. She now lives in a high rise building near downtown.
“I moved to the city because I just needed to get out of the suburbs, I lived
there my whole life, there’s nothing there but the mall, I didn’t
necessarily want to structure my whole life around shopping. So I moved to
the city because it seemed like it was exciting, like a new start.”
Although Savich likes the more traditionally urban aspects of the city, she
also likes the fact that there’s big open spaces, including Belle Isle park,
right in the middle of it.
“I used to walk down on a Saturday afternoon with a book and just sit on the rocks by Shane Park and you can put your feet in the water, you know, it’s really pretty. Going to belle isle, it’s almost like having your own Metropark, you know, right in your own back yard, it’s like a five-minute bike ride.”
And while a lot of people see Detroit’s big, empty urban spaces and abandoned and decaying buildings as the city’s big problem, other people are attracted to exactly those things. Jerry Herron lives in the same building as Olga Savich.
“There’s a lot of room in the middle of a city that’s 300 years old, a lot of green space in the city. And I think that people that are attracted to that kind of revitalization and the presence of significant decay find this a really exhilarating and exciting place. That abandonment attracts people, the way ruins attract people. And people who like it think it’s really unusual and unique and only Detroit looks like that really.”
Like a lot of big cities with decaying centers, Detroit is working hard to bring people in. Experts are thinking hard about what kind of cities people are looking to move to. And Herron says that anyone who’s trying to make a city like Detroit appealing to outsiders would do well to work with what the city already has, rather than trying to make it like other cities with different histories.
For the GLRC, I’m Nora Flaherty.