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Rebuilding Detroit the Sane Way — A Block at a Time

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Dec 24 2010

For Release Sunday, December 26, 2010

Roberta Brandes GratzDETROIT — Organic development, not “big bang projects” — that’s the sane, and effective way, to build and rebuild great cities.

For evidence check out hard-pressed Detroit’s corner of Michigan Avenue and 14th Street, located at the nexus of Corktown (Detroit’s oldest neighborhood), Mexican Town (the city’s largest Hispanic area), and downtown. This was abandoned territory, the desolation underscoring the fact it faces Detroit’s most visible failure — the extraordinary but abandoned 18-story, 1913 Michigan Central train station, designed by the same architects of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

But now there’s a new day. A promising group of 10 small brick buildings, varied in color and state of renovation, are thriving here. Indeed, the Michigan and 14th corner and nearby sites offer a classic example of how once thriving cities can be reborn. It’s a process that develops block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, initiated by the passion and caring of local residents, in this case mostly young people recently out of college. As often happens, one individual, in this case Phillip Cooley, was the catalyst.

Cooley, 6’1″, a film school graduate and former fashion model, grew up in rural Michigan with a passion for architecture, design and cities. He opened Slows Bar B Q at Michigan and 14th five years ago — a move that’s been the catalyst for the assortment of new businesses now either open or soon to be open down the block, with apartments above. His brother opened a real estate office next door and they both run a contracting business and live upstairs.

“Detroit is a blank canvas,” says Cooley, who traveled a lot before deciding to come back to do something “edgy” that derives in part from the experience of the family’s real estate business. “I thought I could be part of a community that needed growth and young energetic people who want to stay and create.”

First came the restaurant that Cooley, with his brother and father, created with salvaged timbers and rescued architectural details. A wood shop was created a few doors down to do the work in, to lend tools from to local people and to use for larger community projects — for example the current effort to resurrect Roosevelt Park across the street. During a recent work week-end, huge wood letters to identify the large, long ignored and neglected park, were being crafted and put in place. Once the grand entrance into the railroad station, the park is now only open space waiting to be recreated.

And that is exactly what the community of volunteers was doing. Recent design graduates of varying disciplines were getting to do things no new hire would be assigned to do in an established firm. Trees were being planted, play grounds designed, seating areas identified, websites created, graphics laid out.

Cooley initiated the larger community effort, aided and abetted by Katy Locker of the local Hudson Foundation. She connected Phil to Helen Johnson and Josh McManus of Create Here, a Chattanooga grass roots arts group, who came to help with the park and share their own entrepreneurial experience. They were joined by an enthusiastic group of local and visiting volunteers eager to participate in something meaningful. Some newcomers hope to settle here and do something entrepreneurial. Others just welcome a short term experience. But collectively they add up to a new momentum in one part of town that is being repeated in varying shapes and sizes elsewhere. Of course, none of these efforts are enough but they are essential for any larger, sustainable rebuilding momentum to take root.

“Real change takes time,” notes Carol Coletta, executive director of CEOs For Cities whose Urban Leaders Summit recently took place in Detroit.

What makes this effort particularly notable is, of course, that it is in Detroit, better known for decay. “We are defined by our deficits, not our assets,” Mayor Dave Bing told the gathering. “We need young people with new ideas who think differently.”

Well, Detroit is getting them: energetic, talented and wanting to make a difference. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 20s-30s generation flocked to vibrant Prague for excitement. Now they gravitate to New Orleans, Detroit and other cities where they can engage in something meaningful and make a real difference.

Detroit City Planner Toni Griffin recently observed that “both long term and short term efforts are needed and both talent and place are important.” The long term plans are in the works; the creative short term variety is bubbling up rebuilding places and providing opportunities for new entrepreneurs of many kinds not found elsewhere.

Experts speak about complex land valuations and building on assets but, inexplicably, never seem to identify local people and underutilized buildings as assets. Yet, they are the most valuable resource, the critical building blocks for any effort, readily available and economically accessible.
They are, in fact, the shot in the arm for real change.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted December 24, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    So true that people and underutilized buildings can be a city’s most valuable resources. How unfortunate, that the traditional property tax punishes people who add value to a building with higher taxes while rewarding those who allow buildings to deteriorate with lower taxes. Although property taxes are typically only 1% or 2% of value, unlike a sales tax (which is paid only once), the property tax is paid every year that an improvement adds value to a property. Using a net present value calculation, this can be equivalent to a one-time 10% to 20% sales tax. That’s a hefty discouragement.
    Cities would be wise to follow the example of some Pennsylvania cities that have shifted the property tax off of buildings. Without sacrificing revenues, this shift can reduce the cost of improving and maintaining buildings while inhibiting land price inflation that can often stifle the revitalization of neighborhoods.

  2. Posted December 24, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    300 miles West of Detroit is where Building Blocks has become Whirlpool Corporation’s program established in their commitment to Habitat for Humanity. Now in it’s 5th year following a discipline established in 1976 in their corporate community of Saint Joseph, MI. The former City Assessor’s son, a successful banker in California, recently paid $1.4M for an old house downtown SJMI along a public beach that was tax reverted unclaimed land some years back. The neighborhood had become drug infested and occupied primarily by those early European factory workers of Michigan industrial workers supplying Detroit’s larger corporations. It was on the wrong side of the tracks and the name best known for the “low lifes” that lived below the bluff was “sand rabbits.” 144 structures not well built. But then a freshman politico went to Lansing and co-wrote Michigan’s Home Improvement Act known as the Matheiu-Gast Act. Harry Gast knew what the real estate community called “farming” could be effective if communities embraced this block by block discipline. Tax law in Michigan prevents the tax assessor from penalizing someone for rehabilitating old houses. As long as an owner of up to a four unit residence owns a property this remains as an incentive to sustaining neighborhoods. But look at the affect of the long term. This is what investors and lenders have to do in support of this community redevelopment activity. Funding from Foundations is the source of the necessary dollars to purchase the materials whether they’re recycled barns or excess material donated by Lowes. Appraisers in SWMI have learned the value to be the land. Rules for lending would supplant other communities efforts if appraisers were directed to place true values upon land rather than the depreciated structures. It takes a long time to raise a village, especially when you have to do it over, absent the investors we refer to as banks. Bank reform is in the works and needs to be defined as the one that bails out and not the one to be bailed out. Banks abandoned Michigan many years ago.

  3. Posted December 24, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    It was the Elms. People forget about the really simple things that help to kill a town. Detroit was and still is, an architecturally “suburban” city and when it was covered with thousands of old Elm trees it was at its peak. When they were lost, a piece of its soul was taken away. We really need to remember why the simple things matter, block by block. Detroit is an excellent example of how “going back” is getting ahead.

  4. Ghebre S. Mehreteab
    Posted December 25, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Dear Neal and Roberta,
    I am now working with Ford Foundation grantees with four organizations that are invloved in the housing revitilization of the City of Detroit.


  5. Ghebre S. Mehreteab
    Posted December 25, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Dear Roberta and Neal,
    I am now working with Ford Foundation funded organizations in Detroit. I have not talked with my friend Neal for a long time and would love to hear from him.
    Sally and I are now living In West Chester, PA.