You have no doubt heard of the trials and tribulations of the City of Detroit: the near death of the auto industry, massive population loss, infrastructure woes and high crime rates. The negative connotations have led to a public image of a city abandoned and in upheaval whereas the best-case-scenario associations portray it as a playground of urban decay and rock-bottom housing prices. When I learned that the National Main Street Conference was being held in Detroit this year, I was pleased that I would be able to see it for myself, albeit in the cocoon of a programmed conference setting.
Having now been there I can make a few comments. First, it is a stunning city. There are architectural marvels (both in use and abandoned), striking parks and trail networks and an eclectic mix of things to do. Second, the city is hard at work. Travelling in and around the downtown core, there is evidence of a community working to rebuild and repair. Third, the city seems to be acutely aware of the volunteerism and resources required to improve its image. Bike patrols and on-foot clean-up crews strive to ensure the downtown core is safe and clean. Residents are cheerful and exceptionally welcoming.
This said, did I really see Detroit? Visiting as part of a conference I no doubt had a curated experience of the city and limited time for exploration. It is important to remember that there are layers that we do not understand: a history of labour and race disputes, urban renewal programs and community activism. There is a long-standing population who is probably growing weary from being under the microscope. I would encourage everyone to visit and appreciate the people, public spaces and community spirit, along with the many restaurants, sports events, markets, museums, and music that make up Detroit. However, visit with an appreciation of the modern urban realities facing the city. Acknowledge and be aware of the complex layers of economic, social and political issues (past and present) that continue to inform the fabric of the city. Detroit is a fascinating and many-faceted city and I would encourage you to make the trip.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the content of the National Main Streets Conference!
Written by: Rebecca Goodenough, Municipal Heritage Services Officer