Made in Detroit: Energy, Optimism and the Resurgence of America's Motor City

Posted 04/08/15 by Jake Lynch in Success Stories

Photo by Joe Gall
Here's an excellent feature from the Fall 2014 edition of Rails to Trails magazine. One of many perks provided when you become an RTC member, our quarterly magazine includes lots of great stories like this.

At the Motown Café and Grill on East Jefferson Avenue one October morning last year, a small group gathers in a booth near the window. The visitors peer out, studying with some interest the wide roadway in front of the diner. Minutes pass between solitary cars. The six lanes of East Jefferson Avenue—as wide as most interstate highways—are for the most part empty.

Photo by Joe Gall

“For people who do what we do,” says one of the visitors, a man from Ohio, “this city is amazing.” Around the Motown, eyebrows are raised. It is a description that, in recent times, is not often heard here in Detroit.

This particular spot on East Jefferson occupies a meaningful place in the living history of the city. Eber Brock Ward—steel, iron, steamship and railway magnate, and Detroit’s first millionaire—is buried just a block north of here in the Eastside Historic Cemetery District. So, too, are Jerome Cavanagh and Coleman Young, both mayors of Detroit during cataclysmic moments in the city’s history. Cavanagh led the city during the 1967 riots. The tenure of Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, was marked by both a dramatic rise in downtown development and crime rates, and the beginning of an exodus of the white middle class to the suburbs.

This stretch used to be one of the city’s most prosperous commercial areas. Its story of decline, the city’s story of decline, has by force of repetition and simplification become a defining trait of the place for many who have never been here.

But for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), and our peers and partners in Michigan, there are other stories in this city, other moments and achievements to describe the people who live here and to illuminate the landscape, physical and otherwise.

The Dequindre Cut Greenway | Photo by Joe Gall

And so, from the Motown, we look a few blocks west to a place where the new growth of a more forward thinking and optimistic Detroit is already beginning to bear fruit. It is there, at the site of the Detroit Dry Docks—where a young Henry Ford served his apprenticeship—that the Dequindre Cut rail-trail and the Detroit RiverWalk converge.

The man in the diner so amazed at the Detroit he observed was Eric Oberg, RTC’s manager of trail development in the Midwest. What impressed him and the group of active-transportation professionals that took in the wide and empty expanses of Jefferson Avenue was the space. A metropolis built by the production of, and as a monument to, the motor car, the streets of Detroit anticipated only the continued growth of its idol. The cars have largely disappeared, but the roads remain. What Oberg and his peers saw in these abandoned avenues were miles and miles of fantastic potential, the underutilized space custom built to accommodate other forms of transportation and bolster the growing culture of biking and walking that promises to upend the bankruptcy and foreclosures as the real story of today’s Detroit.

“The city is looking for a new identity,” Oberg says. “They look at walking, biking and trails as ways to revitalize their communities and put a fresh face on this vintage American city.”

The metamorphosis of the Rust Belt centers has become America’s latest genuine epoch, like the rush to the West in the 19th century or the spread of American suburbia in the 1950s and 60s. Among the traits of this resurgence, the diminishing role of the motor car in favor of walkable and bikeable neighborhoods is perhaps the most enduring. In Detroit, the Dequindre Cut, the Detroit RiverWalk and the Conner Creek Greenway, three still-expanding sections of an envisioned trail network, are perhaps the most heralded public responses to this shift.

The Dequindre Cut Greenway | Photo by Dan Pieniak

The Dequindre Cut is a beautiful example of the great potential of urban rail-trails. In the 1920s, the Grand Trunk Railroad carved a trench 25 feet below the busy street for their trains serving the Detroit waterfront. By the mid-1980s, the corridor sat vacant, trash and weeds replacing the fruitful passage of humans and goods. The only traffic of any note was usually illicit.

Today, the Dequindre Cut is one of the most recognizable rail-trails in the country and is a matter of great pride for Detroiters.

“It’s beautiful, ‘The Cut,’” says local photographer Joe Gall, whose images of the city’s bike culture have become some of the most famous products of this diverse and colorful scene. “It passes right underneath the busiest part of the city, which is nice. Everyone uses it.”

Though currently just more than one mile in length, the great utility of “The Cut” is simple; it goes where the people who live there want to go, connecting the riverfront area with the Eastern Market to the north, heading in the direction of the popular Midtown neighborhood. A northward extension of the Dequindre Cut, now under construction and scheduled for an early 2015 opening, has already ramped up development interest in properties along the corridor.

The realization of the Dequindre Cut, and perhaps almost all the significant trail development in the area over the past decade, is traced back to an organization called the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM) and a pool of money and support known as the GreenWays Initiative.

Photo by Joe Gall

About $25 million in CFSEM funding and private contributions unlocked another $90 million of public and private investment in an inspired five-year span of trail development between 2001 and 2006.

One of the first projects the GreenWays Initiative breathed life into was the Conner Creek Greenway.

“At first, people laughed. They thought we were insane,” says Patricia Bosch. A longtime resident of Detroit’s northeast side, Bosch recalls the birth of a grassroots effort in the early 1990s “to improve the quality of life in this area, and our economic development.” One of the first opportunities identified by the newly formed Norwood Community Development Corporation was Connor Creek, an overgrown and disrupted waterway running from Eight Mile Road south to the Detroit River.

With the support of University of Michigan graduate students and GreenWays Initiative funding, the Connor Creek Greenway ceased being such a funny joke and instead became a tangible asset that is now playing an important role in revitalizing the corridor. Today, about six miles of the nine-mile pathway are complete.

Photo by Joe Gall

“It’s led to this diversity of activity, but it’s also uniting our neighborhoods and creating lateral connections,” Bosch says. “By that, I mean it’s not only provided a connection between Detroit and its suburbs, but it’s also linking the neighborhoods of Detroit, and that’s the beauty of it. And it’s fun, besides.”

The story of the GreenWays Initiative is also the story of Tom Woiwode, former director of the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy. In 2001, it was Woiwode who launched the effort that would come to have such a profound impact on the city.

“Many of these investments are physically transformative in such a way that it actually allows people to think differently about their community, the way they relate to their community and the way they relate to each other,” he says. “It was important to us for people to reacquaint themselves with the city and actively participate.”

Trails and pathways have given residents a convenient, healthy, affordable and active way to explore their city. The simplicity of the concept belies its power.

“Historically, this was not available to them,” Woiwode says. “Once these transformative infrastructure investments started to take place, once people started to see what opportunities were available to them to engage with their city, the appetite for it has ramped up significantly. Now, it’s only whatever constraints our imagination may have.”

Just as the Connor Creek Greenway follows a natural and essential current toward the city’s riverine artery, in recent years the people of Detroit have begun to look again to their river as the polestar of the community. The most visible and remarkable expression of that renewed interest in the city’s waterfront is the Detroit RiverWalk.

A leisurely bike ride on the Detroit Riverwalk | Photo by Joe Gall

Up until a few years ago, the Detroit River’s edge was lined with parking lots and derelict spaces, the somehow universal no man’s land of light industry, or private, inaccessible parcels.

The formation of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, Inc. in 2003 would prove to be a pivotal moment in the city’s history.

The audacious goal was free access for the people—a 5.5-mile multi-use promenade and pathway from the Ambassador Bridge east to MacArthur Bridge and Belle Isle, which the RiverWalk’s architects knew would be an amenity that would invigorate Detroit and its residents.

The timing was right. It was a period of intense and ambitious development, and the City of Detroit provided critical sections of riverfront land and infrastructure improvements. Pursuing a creative strategy of private and public funding support, the RiverWalk project was heavily backed by General Motors (GM), one of the key waterfront landowners, and the Kresge Foundation, which donated $50 million as a challenge grant to encourage matching private and public sector contributions.

The RiverWalk today is a vibrant place. GM workers on their lunch break stroll past people fishing, tourists renting bikes from the Wheelhouse, joggers and families.

This spring, the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy celebrated the opening of two new sections of public RiverWalk parks, including the revitalized 20-acre former site of the Detroit Free Press printing plant. The original vision for the RiverWalk is now about three-quarters realized.

On the Street

In addition to these key trail segments, the local appetite for biking is also being fueled by the massive expanses of underutilized roadway. What could be perceived as a white elephant has in fact become Detroit’s competitive advantage in the race between new urban centers toward bikeability.

Photo by Joe Gall

Detroit’s wide and underutilized roads have spawned one of the greatest street riding cultures anywhere in the world. If you’re looking for the truly iconic Detroit street machine, these days it’s much more likely to be a Grown Men On Bikes (G.M.O.B.) custom-built Lowrider than a Lincoln.

The abundance of road space has facilitated an explosion in striped bike lanes—from not a single mile in 2009 to about 150 miles today, 80 miles of which were created in 2013 alone. The rapid change in the size and flows of the city over the past decade has essentially hit a reset button for transportation and movement in Detroit.

“In the past, not many people lived within biking distance of where the jobs were,” says Todd Scott, Detroit greenways coordinator for the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. “That’s changing now as more jobs are moving downtown.”

Scott says the major downtown projects—the RiverWalk and the Dequindre Cut—are just the first stages of much broader redevelopment focused around mobility and quality of life.

“That vision is to build biking and walking trails throughout the entire city to give everyone the opportunity to get out and recreate, to commute, to save money with affordable transportation and to live healthy lives.”

One might be able to dismiss Scott’s lofty ambition as wishful thinking, were it not for what he and his peers have already been able to make real.

Photo by Joe Gall

But as we explore the engines behind this new and emerging Detroit, the infrastructure is only half the story. The other half is the people. Unlike engineering accomplishments and master plans, the origins of which can always be traced to a concept draft, human passions and the collective consciousness of a community are altogether more enigmatic. Culture shifts, trends, the communal sharing of ambition; though the causes are hard to document, their impacts can be profound, and in few places is this more demonstrable than the booming bike culture of Detroit.

K’Loni Thorpe describes it as a “take the initiative” culture. It’s the perfect description of a simple idea that captures the spirit that now exists in Detroit and is as palpable today as once was the soot pollution and factory emissions. Confronted by a vacuum of civic management, a new generation of Detroiters is embracing a unique mix of entrepreneurship and collective action to create the city they want to see and be a part of.

“We take what we love,” Thorpe continues. “We love to bike, and we love to eat good food, and so we are making it happen.” She is referring to Detroit Bike and Brunch, a company/event/ social movement that Thorpe founded with her husband and a friend in 2012, which is based around the simple idea of getting together on the weekend to ride to local restaurants. Two years later, those casual jaunts with a handful of friends have grown to a calendar of regular rides, a burgeoning community of customers and followers, and a small local promotion and management staff. According to Marketing Director Brandi Keeler, Bike and Brunch is as much a product of Detroit’s growing bike culture as a catalyst for it.

“I think the city is in the middle of a really big change,” Keeler says. “You know how Harlem had a renaissance? Well, this is Detroit’s renaissance, right now.”

That optimism, and a fervent belief that a new Detroit should be shaped by the people who live there, also characterizes another remarkable new expression of Detroit’s bike culture.

Like Bike and Brunch, Slow Roll started with modest ambitions but soon captured the rising swell of energy for biking and local exploration.

Photo by Joe Gall

“It started with just a small group of friends and people we knew, about 10 of us, who wanted to explore the city by bike,” says Mike MacKool, co-founder of what is now one of Michigan’s biggest bike events. Emerging from local bike nerve centers like The Hub and Back Alley Bikes, grassroots buzz has turned this casual Monday night ride into a phenomenon involving up to 1,600 riders exploring neighborhoods, art projects, community gardens, historic buildings and local businesses.

The appeal is clear: a diversity of experiences, and inclusivity.

“Slow Roll is for everyone,” the founders proclaim on their website. “All ages and types of bikes, with a slow pace that’s geared to keep everyone together and safe.”

The “take the initiative” culture is proving fertile soil for many grassroots bike efforts across the city, few more dedicated than Brush Park BMX, downtown Detroit’s first hand-built DIY (do it yourself) BMX playground.

Completely volunteer built and funded (“Bring a shovel, dig to ride. Respect the neighborhood. Take pride in your city. Be the change!”), Brush Park’s construction was started by a group of friends in April of last year—a form of guerrilla development by people who see a world of possibility where others might see just the detritus of decline.

“It energizes you, and it gives you hope,” Patricia Bosch says of the growing movement in Detroit around trails and greenways, biking and walking. “And hope is the important ingredient. It generates the buzz that Detroit is not a bad place, and is actually an inviting place for people of all ages, of all nationalities, all ethnic groups, to come and be a part of this movement to make it a better place, and have fun here. That’s what we actually feel in our hearts, as residents.”

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