Sunday, January 28, 2007

What it means, on balance (and why you should care)

I've been reading a stunning book, "The Old Neighborhood" by Ray Suarez. I picked it up before Thursday's Free Press story about metro Detroit foreclosures came out, but I just started reading it (I had to finish Anthony Bourdain's new book first). Timely reading in light of the article, it's an analysis of the changes that transformed American cities, particularly older eastern ones, from a harmonious idyll (in the national memory, since this pre-dates my generation) to the emptied, impoverished shells of their past glories.

Lots of Detroit metro residents don't view the city's success or viability as connected to their own. They left, or never lived there, and they don't feel economically interdependent. They go downtown rarely, if at all. I don't go as much as I like anymore (I did work and hang out downtown every day for the first four years I lived here), which is due to working in a far northern suburb and wanting to spend my free time with my family, not at the Majestic (much as I loved going out downtown every night when I was 21). It is misguided to ignore the city, any city you live near, because if you care about your place, your home, you care about being "from" somewhere. If it doesn't do well, its failure will spill over and seep through your whole region.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio and then a suburb of Toledo*, I identified with Toledo as my home. We went to the downtown libary on Sundays. We went to dozens and dozens of Mud Hens games. Rally by the River. Rib Fest. When I got a car, I would go downtown at night to hand out in dive-y diners downtown. I have not lived there in ten years, but I will be a Toledoan until I die. It helped that it was safe enough, clean enough, and people who live there really care about it, as much as they say it is really a nowhere kind of city. (If you want a taste, click here. I really recommend watching "Jacob and Joel" on page four.)

When I started Michigan State, I would ask people in my dorm where they were from, and I would scratch my head when they replied "West Bloomfield" or "Farmington Hills." I had and still have a tough time identifying with a suburb, a place that only exists because of a larger, more important place. Real "places" have history, baseball teams, giant columned downtown libraries amd statues in public squares. Massive fountains! No collective identity? No thanks. You can't just claim the basketball team and the farmer's market. You need to look at the whole situation and realize that it's on you too.

But why? Why should you care, if you don't live in the city, and don't have to deal with problems in your day-to-day? And how can I be so certain, when I don't live in the city either? "The Old Neighborhood" puts it best, describing "...central-city neighborhoods as the economic canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us. Don't be satisfied with putting economic and social distance between yourself and the poorest members of our society..." because we might be next. (I wish I could share more of the book's insights, because it really is tremendous, but you just need to read it and absorb.)

Think of Detroit in our region, and the Detroit region in the USA, as the tip of the iceberg. Market forces, labor competition, and the rest of America just not being that interested in our traditional manufactured products is forcing dramatic change in our way of life. The foreclosures in affluent areas are just a symptom, and how we deal with this has major implications for the whole region. I can't claim to have answers (and sometimes I hate the blog format, because it discourages serious discussion of topics that merit in-depth analysis), but we should all be looking. If Detroit (or Cleveland, or any of the other former rust-belt powerhouses) are in fact the canaries, it's well past time to start thinking about fixing the mine. With 5 million people in the balance, shutting it down isn't an option.

*Because we left the "old neighborhood" too, beautiful Old Orchard, in search of better schools. Did my parents make the right choice? In retrospect I agree with them that the best options for my brother and I were suburban schools or private school, and now I know that with what you spend on private high school you could buy a very nice house. At the time I was very sad to go, because I loved our neighborhood, and what we moved into is definitely a subdivision, not a neighborhood. The first thing the new owners did was to knock my bedroom off of the back of the house to build an addition, giving me an early lesson in transition. You can't go home again.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jon -
I think you are missing the mark just a bit on what makes a city a city.

It isn't the monuments, pillars, stadiums , and majestic fountains. These projects might spruce the place up a bit, though most recent wave of major beautification projects executed in the 70s now look tacky and dated (i.e. "the fist"). They also make no meaningful impact on the lives of the people that live and work there, whom are the constituent parts of neighborhoods and communities.

In my view, what makes a city great is vibrant neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that foster interaction among neighbors. Neighborhoods that cope with changing economic and demographic change. And neighborhoods that call for residents to love and tend to them in a public way.

Major public interventions are typically guided by major corporate actors. I believe empowering everyday citizens to take control of their city on a scale that is meaningful to them, be it their own block or boulevard, is the way towards sustainable urban revitalization.


Anonymous said...

I actually missed the mark the first time I read you posting. It is clear you recognize the importance of neighborhoods. But how do we get there?

If you are interested, I recommend you check out a book called "Inside Game / Outside Game" by David Rusk. Along the same lines as your post, he argues for a regional perspective. And he advocates for coalition building among central cities and inner-ring suburbs to get there. The inner-rings are starting to face the same plight and share many of the same interests as the central city. And he says the cantons and howell's of the region should pitch in their fair share.

Jonathan said...

I wonder if the Detroit area will ever be capable of a regional perspective. You grew up here, so you can probably speak better than I could about the possibilities, but there seems to be so much hostility between the city and the suburbs that the atmosphere is very toxic, to the point of zero visible cooperation.

There is a tremendous unease in the suburbs about the future, and I wonder if people are starting to wake up to the fact that our economy really isn't more secure just by being outside the city.

Suarez talks about the fact the cars made suburbs possible enabled flight from the cities to be practical. It's a well-documented irony that Detroit, which did more than anyone to make personal travel a reality, is now totally done in by its ingenuity. I'll have a look Rusk's book, it sounds pretty timely.