For a few blocks, all six lanes of Michigan Avenue, the major commercial strip of Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, are paved in brick. Petunias bloom in plastic bins underneath the street trees. Original buildings now home to shops and cafes and offices line the wide sidewalks. The going is easy, interesting. There are a few spaces for lease, but most of the real estate is taken up and appears to be doing well.
But it wasn’t easy getting there. If you don’t have a car in the Motor City, you’re at a disadvantage. Heading west from the Renaissance Center in Downtown, where I was staying to attend the Docomomo US Symposium, I had to trudge past long stretches of vacant land and negotiate unfriendly infrastructure. A bus or two rattled past. I didn’t see any other pedestrians. As I walked, a wide strip of asphalt down the middle of Michigan stuck out, not quite covering up the streetcar tracks that signify how connected Corktown used to be.
The night before, I’d walked to the George W. Young Post Office, a 10-story building that dates to 1959, on the eastern edge of Corktown. Once served by rail, it looms as an underused relic on the site where Rice School of Architecture professors Albert Pope and Jesus Vassallo envision a new mixed-use development built out of wood. As Daisy Ames writes, Pope and Vassallo imagine a “New Corktown” that includes similarly wood-constructed, high-density developments throughout the neighborhood amid one-block-long, five-block-wide stands of trees. The trees would work to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, offsetting emissions, grow into building materials, and provide passive greenspace.
In 2015, Pope discussed the research that informs “New Corktown” at a Rice Design Alliance civic forum. [His talk starts around 5:08 in the video below.] What became clear, as he spoke, was that the prosperity of the future for cities like Detroit or Houston won’t necessarily look like the prosperity of the past. For Pope, what we know about climate change must affect how we design. Manhattan’s widely accepted as the “greenest” city in the U.S., because it’s the most dense, and it’s the best served by public transportation (Owens, Speck). Though not all cities can or should resemble Manhattan spatially, the end result of its energy efficiency leads Pope to ask questions about what and how we’re building elsewhere to achieve a similar density. “You can’t separate out the problem of redevelopment and the problem of climate,” he says. In 50 years, we’ll be asking: “Did we build what we needed to build? Did we imagine what we needed to build?”
As I stood near that post office, these questions took on urgency. I was surrounded by some of what Amanda Kolson Hurley calls “the sheer amount of vacant land — estimated at 20 to 40 square miles” of the total 142 square miles that constitute Detroit. What do we do with all that emptiness? Besides visions like New Corktown, Hurley writes about efforts to change the city plan to allow for expanded urban farming and livestock raising. Jen Kinney writes about an initiative to use the basements of abandoned houses to build stormwater retention gardens.
As focused investments in Downtown, Midtown, and the Civic Center around Wayne State University pay off and Detroit is slowly revitalized, highlighted by the construction of a privately funded $135-million light rail down Woodward Avenue, I wonder what developments might come to neighborhoods like Corktown, which lie outside the city’s areas of priority. It’s difficult to imagine that business as usual will be enough here. It goes beyond real estate. Will we build what we need to build?