Detroit III: Downtown Renewal
September 6, 2013

The documentary film, Detropia (2012), explores the decline of the city’s automobile industry and its consequent effects on the city’s residents.  Featuring striking shots of abandoned buildings in the center of Detroit, the film includes a beautiful scene of tenor, Noah Stewart, singing Puccini in the abandoned Michigan Central Station, his sonorous voice reverberating through its hallowed halls.  The documentary’s strength lies in its ability to highlight the consequences of the rise and fall of the automobile industry, by focusing on the compelling narrative of the community members who were integral to the industry’s workforce and whose livelihood and standards of well-being are directly affected.

Another narrative, however, is the nascent story of Detroit’s attempt at renewing its downtown area.  Walking through the downtown area on a summer afternoon, I came across this:

Picture downtown Detroit!

Large-scale advertisements in Chinese.  Building rubble.  Abandoned construction.  Could these also be signifiers of Detroit's decline?  Arguably not, as it turns out that the city had hosted a location for an upcoming Hollywood film, allowing the downtown area to be a stand-in for Hong Kong.

Bob Goldsmith lives and works in downtown Detroit and gives informative walking tours of the area.  His tour started at 1515 Broadway (which is a café featured in Detropia).  Showing examples of still-standing abandoned buildings that included the Renaissance Revival-style Wurlitzer Building (c. 1920s), he also pointed out singular buildings including the Art Deco Guardian Building (1929) and Minoru Yamasaki’s One Woodward Avenue skyscraper (1962).

1515 Broadway Cafe

Walking through Campus Martius Park, which was newly created in 2004, Bob mentioned the recent influx of investments made by the likes of Quicken Loans’ chairman, Dan Gilbert.  Not only has Gilbert moved his business headquarters to Detroit since 2010, he is attempting to re-invigorate the city center by purchasing buildings, and providing incentives for businesses and non-profits to operate out of the downtown core.  (Whether Gilbert is a white knight appears to be up for robust debate.)

After the tour, I stopped into non-profit, D:Hive, a brick-and-mortar space that connects visitors, individuals and organizations with resources to live and work in Detroit.  It’s worth a stop-in if you’re looking for visualized city data, classes for start-ups, networks for potential collaboration, or just tips about downtown Detroit.