With a number of parallels between revitalization efforts in various neighborhoods in Chicago and beyond in our work, WJW traveled to Detroit, an iconic 20th century American city which, after losing its industry is now bouncing back with new forms of urban redevelopment. With limitless areas to explore, we attempted to focus on revitalization efforts with the Detroit city limits.
After the five-hour drive from Chicago, WJW was welcomed to Detroit by the beautiful David Whitney building–our home for the next three nights. The hundred-year-old skyscraper, designed by Graham, Burnham, & Co. in the style of Daniel Burnham, now hosts a hotel and residential condos. After finding our rooms, we ventured out for dinner at a nearby restaurant. Downtown Detroit on a Wednesday evening felt quiet, partially because we are used to Chicago, which is four times as populous.
We kicked off our first full day in Detroit with a delicious breakfast at Avalon Bakery. After everyone was well-fed and adequately caffeinated, we embarked on a guided walking tour of the downtown area. Historic buildings such as the Guardian Building were definitely a highlight. We also learned about how and why Detroit’s downtown started making a ‘comeback,’ and saw lots of evidence of investment into renovations and, more recently, new construction projects.
After orienting ourselves downtown, we drove just outside the downtown core to the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. MUFI has been exploring alternative ways to add value to vacant lots for the past seven years. Today, the farm grows 20,000 pounds of produce annually, and distributes it for free to the surrounding community.
From MiUFI, we drove to meet with CASS Community Services to learn about their Tiny Homes initiative. Through a seven-year program, CASS helps people in need become first-time homeowners. Their tiny homes are thoughtfully designed to maximize utility and affordability. We were very impressed with how efficient the spaces were, and enjoyed a tour of a few of the homes that are currently under construction.
For dinner, we headed to Selden Standard–an excellent example of Detroit’s thriving culinary scene. We debriefed the day over many rounds of small plates and a few nice cocktails. Following dinner, we ventured to the Detroit Shipping Company for some after dinner drinks and socializing.
On Friday morning, we met with Robin Toewe at IFF at the Fisher Building, designed in 1928 by Albert Kahn. WJW has worked with IFF in Chicago on multiple accessible & affordable housing projects. IFF is a midwestern organization that strengthens nonprofits by assisting with lending, developing, and visioning. In Detroit, IFF is currently working to improve early childhood education in neighborhoods with the most need. We learned a lot from Robin about IFF’s research methods that led to their focus in education. We also discussed the barriers to developing affordable housing in Detroit and IFF’s hopes for a more equitable future.
After our meeting, we piled in our team mini van and drove around to see Detroit’s infamous abandoned infrastructure. It was pretty amazing to contemplate the history of such grand structures, now lying in decay as spectacle. Our driving adventure ended at the Heidlberg Project, which takes a different approach to disinvestment. Instead of abandoning his childhood home, Tyree Guyton took it upon himself to revitalize the street he grew up on by creating art. His project brings an original type of joy to a neighborhood that had been through many less-than-positive changes.
Our next stop was the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy. DCDC is a design studio that emphasizes community participation at every step in the design process. This was illustrated through a presentation of The Alley Project, an inspirational graffiti art gallery that evolved into a new community center. DCDC’s methodical and user-centered process enabled the community to truly take ownership of their space in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
Our Friday ended with dinner downtown and an exploration of The Belt, an alley that has been transformed by murals and vendors to become a happen’ nighttime hotspot. From there, we ventured to D’Mongo’s speakeasy for a taste of old-style Detroit nightlife.
On our last day in Detroit, we went to Eastern Market for breakfast and exploration. Eastern Market is not only known for being a fantastic market, but also for the many beautiful murals painted on the surrounding manufacturing and packing buildings. Wandering through murals was a nice end to a very full and informative trip. Many of us left with a very different idea of Detroit than when we had set out, and we are excited to see how Detroit continues to grow and thrive in the years to come.