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Reinvigorating A Detroit Neighborhood, Block By Block

NPR | July 28, 2013 9:31 a.m. | Updated: July 28, 2013 11:17 a.m.

Contributed By:

Sonari Glinton

Woodward Avenue runs through Midtown, a Detroit neighborhood that is reviving in the midst of the larger city's decline. In the background is downtown Detroit.

Woodward Avenue runs through Midtown, a Detroit neighborhood that is reviving in the midst of the larger city's decline. In the background is downtown Detroit.

Carlos Osorio, AP

The debt-laden city of Detroit has been an incubator for new strategies in urban revitalization, including a downtown People Mover, casinos, urban farms, artist colonies and large scale down-sizing.

In the wake of the city’s bankruptcy, many in the community are thinking small.

Just outside of downtown Detroit is a neighborhood called Midtown. Like many hip, urban neighborhoods, it’s got hipsters on fixed geared bikes, yoga studios, boutiques for dogs.

And while urban neighborhoods in other cities have been redeveloping for a decade or more, things here are just now starting to take off.

Part of the reason is a woman who’s often called the Mayor of Midtown.

Sue Mosey is president of Midtown Detroit Inc., a non-profit planning and economic development agency that works to encourage new business and housing and preserve the history of the neighborhood about two miles north of downtown.

“It’s been an area that’s experienced a lot of disinvestment over the last 60 years,” says Mosey. “But over the last 10 to 20 years there’s been a lot of reinvestment coming back into the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood has a large public university, an arts college. It has two major healthcare systems, the big cultural institutions. It’s anchored by Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Medical Center and the Henry Ford Hospital and the College of Creative Studies.

Walk around Midtown with Mosey, and you realize how large Detroit is. By square miles, it’s one of the nation’s biggest.

“In Detroit, because you had this very very large footprint where all these assets were built, that really is something that has worked against us today when you’re really trying to create dense urban fabric,” Mosey says.

But as we walk, we see many many parts of Midtown showing signs of life.

“We have a whole set of small businesses over here, everything from small women’s boutiques to small organic markets, and our big organic bakery is there for the neighborhood.”

A Whole Foods opened a store in Midtown in June. Mosey says 26 more new businesses will open within the year. This is a key to Detroit’s economic survival — or the survival of any city: Commercial real estate taxes can make up as much as seventy percent of the revenues for a city.

With Detroit, when the people left — and nearly a million have left the city — the businesses followed them.

Mosey has been working in this neighborhood for nearly for 26 years, and she says now, finally, things are turning around, with Mosey’s organization working block by block to encourage development.

That strategy, even though it takes a long, long time, is one that could work in other parts of Detroit, Mosey says.

“Regardless of the bankruptcy and the finance thing — and it’s not like that’s really new news to people here — I mean we’ve had a city that we’ve known has not been able to fund basic services for years,” she says. “But I do think that for parts of the city, certain neighborhoods, and certainly this corridor and downtown, that there’s definitely more optimism than ever.”

Detroiters are increasingly looking at smaller projects to solve their economic woes, rather than the big developments that were favored 10 or 20 years ago.

“How can we just create a smaller, more efficient, better run, more interesting city, and bring back basic services for the residents who are here and want to be here,” Mosey says. “It’s a tall order, but it is the only order. I mean what other order are you going to have?”

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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