By Roberta Brandes Gratz / Dec 24 2010

For Release Sunday, December 26, 2010

DETROIT — 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.