Day Four – Urban Ruins

I spent the day driving around the city on a mission to find urban ruins. I knew of a few, and during my traveling I found more than I could imagine. The city is truly FILLED with old abandoned, sometimes damaged buildings that have been rotting for years. Some of the most famous ruins such as The Fisher Body Plant, The Packard Plant, and Michigan Central Station are easy to find and are well known. What I did not expect was to find so many other buildings, from multi-family housing, to fire stations, to small shops. The abandonment just gives the city an eerie feeling.

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I began to wonder what the city would look like if all of the abandoned and damaged buildings were torn down. What would the city fabric look like then? This sprawling city would be reduced to nothing more than a downtown area and satellite areas of neighborhoods and business. There was an article in the paper for the day that highlighted some of the public work changes that are occurring around the city. It noted that the city was going to begin to focus its efforts in neighborhoods that had potential for a successful future. The city will only spend money “where it will do the most good.” This statement foreshadows a bleak future for neighborhoods that are in long term decline. A map accompanied the article which highlighted neighborhoods and their potential. This map illustrates how the city could be transformed if neighborhoods in decline were removed. The downtown area would be on an island and most of the population would be situated along the river bank and northern areas of the city. A greenbelt could be situated around the downtown area, providing much needed long term greenspace for the city.

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City finding a way to make Detroit Works actually work,

Why has the city held onto these buildings for so long? Why are there no requirements by the property owners to do something about a majority of these buildings? Is the issue neglect or just pure abandonment? If it is abandonment, why has it taken so long for the city to do something about the problem? I drove up to the Packard Plant and was amazed that I could just walk into the building. The building appears to be very unsafe, as parts of the building have collapsed, and others are showing extreme signs of decay. There was no fence around the building and it was literally trashed out. The ground was covered in debris, almost like a landfill. There were piles of tires in one corner, remnants of old burned up furniture in another and nothing worth anything was left in the building. Is it not the responsibility of the property owner to provide some sort of security on their site?

The shocking part of this trip is the history that sits behind many of these buildings. So many of the iconic buildings are directly tied to the automobile history of the city, and other than the original Ford Plant on Piquette Street, the remaining buildings sit in disarray and ruins. The Ford Piquette plant was recently restored and now has tours that run from April to November. Many of these buildings, including dozens in downtown are local, state and national treasures, but they sit with little to no attention.

The nightly news is pretty depressing, as it is mostly filled with reports of the downfall of the city. One report was about how the city ambulance fleet is in such poor shape that they are asking for donations from municipalities around the country. They want other cities to donate their older ambulances, ones they are not using or are looking to get rid of. The report began with an account of a women dying because the ambulance broke down on the way to get her and the backup unit did not make it in time. Watching the news while I have been in Detroit makes me fully aware that the city has no money, but that has not always been the case. Much of the abandonment has been going on for quite some time, but the recent economic downturn has exacerbated the issue. So why did the city wait until they were flat broke? What has the citizens tax dollars been used for over the last 30 years? Has it been used on endless efforts to build new ideas and provide typical and expensive urban public projects like the Detroit People Mover? This may be the largest example of how to not run a city, and why it is important to remember that a city cannot change its direction by just building a football stadium or putting in a public transit system that only serves a small population.

I have a friend who is from Detroit, but moved away about 4 years ago. He still visits the city as some of his family lives just north of Detroit, and he recounts that the city has been like this for some time. He noted on our trip while we drove around that he had not realized it had gotten this bad. On the other hand, his mother kept telling me that the city is not all that bad. She is very positive about the city and believes that there are pockets of good things happening. I want to agree with her, but after what I saw over the last few days, my reaction is semi-hearted. I personally feel that this is just about as bad as the city could get, and that it only has the potential to go up. I do believe that it is heading in a better direction that it has in quite some time, but it is going to take some time to make a big dent in the over 30 years of decline. It appears that Mayor David Bing has the right idea on what to do with the city. Although it may be tough to tear down so much of the city and its history, this may be the best opportunity for the city to start over. How many cities get this opportunity? Cities like Houston just keep building on top of itself. This is where I think the biggest potential lies with the city.

During the afternoon, I went to the Detroit Historical Museum just north of Wayne State University. The museum had on display much of the city’s history, most of which focused on the automobile industry and the early discovery and development of the city. There was a small section dedicated to the architecture of the city. This area highlighted the movement and development of the Big Three car manufacturers and architecture accompanying their movement. The city has a rich history and it was amazing seeing the pictures of the city in its hay-day and then driving up Woodward Avenue and seeing the stark difference of the city today. The city streets, like Woodward, were once bussing with activity and future, but today most residents opt for the highway which provides a quick in and out of city. This leaves streets like Woodward relatively empty and less traveled.

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I learned of an organization by the Big Three automakers to collaborate on technological advancements. This effort is called USCAR (United States Council for Automotive Research) and they are partnered with Ford, GM and Chrysler to provide and promote advancements in automobile technology. At first glance, it is difficult to tell how successful this organization is and how integrated it is with advancing technologies in automobiles. It will take some more digging and research to determine the full extent of its involvement and contributions to the automobile industry.




Day Three – Downtown

The day was spent downtown, exploring the vast abandonment that has been occurring in this area. According to residents, a majority of the buildings in the downtown area are now in the ownership of Detroit businessman, Dan Gilbert. Dan Gilbert is the chairman and founder of Quicken Loans as well as owner of the NBA basketball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gilbert founded Rock Ventures LLC, and is also a partner for Detroit Venture partners. His goal is to aid the redevelopment of downtown Detroit by fostering a business incubation process that invites technology and small business startups to lease space in these vacant buildings. The process is designed to bring small companies that can feed off each other and ultimately diversify the business portfolio of the city. Gilbert has also moved his company, Quicken Loans, to downtown Detroit, which brings around 1,700 employees and a potential for 4,000 to the city’s core.

Quicken Loans founder buys historic Detroit site, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert buys historic Federal Reserve Building in downtown Detroit,

Interestingly enough, during my tour around Grand Circus Park, I learned that Gilbert owns the Madison Theater Building which he bought last year in 2011 to house Detroit Venture Partners and start the incubation process. The surprising part was that this building is located right next to the David Broderick tower and is an integral building to the site and project idea. The building has just opened and now has a few startup companies that are in the beginning stages of engaging the business incubator process.

Detroit Venture Partners,

Quicken Loans completes deal for Madison Theatre building; will be renovated for business incubator,

Refurbished M@dison Building shows off entrepreneurial chops,

After a short lunch break at Lafeyette Coney Island, I took a trip on the People Mover, an elevated train that provides quick access to many different areas of downtown. The train is not widely used and has been an issue of consternation with residents of Detroit. It provides little service to the downtown area due to the lack of people living downtown, ridership is meek, and it contributes to a lack of street life at ground level, as those who would possibly walk just take the train. The project was instigated and completed by the controversial Mayor Coleman Young and opened in 1987.

Detroit People Mover,

The architecture in downtown Detroit is amazing. Through the architecture, you can see that the city was enjoying its best times during the early 20th century. Many of the buildings were built before 1940, and the city has a large population of high-rise buildings. As you walk around it really is amazing at how many of these buildings are vacant, some in worse shape than others. Some have been left to decay for years, even decades. Due to when most of these buildings were built, many of them are difficult to retrofit into many of the functions required by businesses today. Most of the buildings have no future due to this, or their only hope is to be transformed into housing condominiums or lofts. This has been the model for quite some time, but it may become successful in the near future due to the desire by many young people to live in the downtown environment.

In the Grand Circus Park area, almost all of the buildings around the site currently are vacant, although some work was being done to several of the buildings. The park itself does not serve as much of a gathering space for people. At the time of visit, there was nobody present in the park space. According to residents, there is quite a bit of movement in and around the site during baseball and football games at the neighboring Tiger’s Stadium and Ford Field. Although there are times of little movement in this area, the baseball and football seasons bring movement almost year round. Baseball runs from the spring through fall and football runs from the fall through winter. There is only a short time of inactivity which occurs around the time of my visit.


Day Two – Ford Rouge Plant

I began my tour of Detroit with a visit to the Ford manufacturing plant in Dearborn. I decided that it would be beneficial to visit the factory and view the current state of automobile manufacturing. I took a tour of the Ford F-150 truck assembly plant at the Rouge complex. This building was only a speck on the map in what is an extensive manufacturing giant. This building is known for its green roof, which is considered the largest in the world. The plant was showcasing its “green” initiatives quite extensively. William McDonough worked with Ford in 1999 to restore the factory and grounds as well as improve the grounds, buildings, and operation through sustainable measures. This was most evident at the observation deck which overlooked the plant.

The plant operations are a well-oiled machine and the way these vehicles come together is amazing. All of the operations of the plant work together in a symbiotic relationship. One hiccup in the line affects everyone. As a matter of fact, at one point we witnessed a snafu in the line when a tailgate would not fit properly in the truck bed, shutting the line down while the unit was adjusted. The portion of the manufacturing process we saw was only a small area of the entire process. The rich history of Ford was amazing, and witnessing the manufacturing process was truly a sight I never imagined. The tour also included a few videos on the history of Ford, and the transformations that have occurred over the generations of these vehicles.

As I walked around the plant and watched the employees in action, their movements almost effortless, I began to wonder what it would be like to work in one of these plants. You are stationed at a position in the manufacturing line and are tasked with doing a particular job for the entire day. Your job may be to put a piece of trim on a door and then add the side mirror casing to the door before it heads to the next station to receive the door speakers and mirror glass. You do this task all day, other than your 30 minute lunch break. I am sure that you are moved around to various stations in order to break up the monotony, but you are still completing a similar task day in and day out. I believe you would have to have patience to complete this work year round.

What are these employees thinking as they are completing their work? Are they considering different ways to complete the work? Do they go home at night and draw up their own designs for the next great vehicle? Or do they worry about a robot taking their job? Surprisingly, there were very little robotics involved in the process of putting these cars together. A pair of robots put the windshield on, only because of the precision that is required in this process. Additionally, they aid in painting as well as checking the quality of the vehicle. Other than that, all other actions are completely by human hands. At this plant, one vehicle is completed every minute. They produce enough cars in one year, just at this plant, to stretch bumper to bumper from Detroit to New York City. Wow.

Do Ford and the other car companies have any idea the possible creativity that lies within its employees? How much would the company change if its employees were a part of the incubation process, contributing ideas, inventing the future and delivering innovative thinking that progresses the business? An incubator process is designed to do just this and it is welcoming to all, no matter the skill level.


Day One – Project Introduction

I arrived in Detroit yesterday afternoon, and traveled to Troy, MI where I will be staying during my trip. My friend’s mother has graciously taken me in and given me a place to stay. We spent the night talking about my project and she gave me plenty of insight into the city, including the history. The firm I work for also has an office in Berkley, MI, which I visited. I shared my project with a few colleagues.

Overall, everyone is excited about the idea of providing a technology incubator. They agree that the city does not need an infusion of new buildings, nor does it need old abandoned buildings and areas replaced by new shiny buildings that house shopping, movie theaters, restaurants and the like. They appreciated the idea of re-using existing structures rather than constructing new buildings. Mayor Dave Bing has taken a stance for demolishing and removing abandoned buildings throughout the city, as many of them have sat for years as eyesores. He is focusing his efforts on reducing large areas of development in order to reduce the responsible area the city must provide services to.

For this reason, when driving down some of the streets in declining neighborhoods you can see where lots and houses once where, but on a street you may only have a handful of houses still remaining. The unfortunate part is that these houses are typically in good condition and the owners have no intention of moving out of the neighborhood. This still causes a problem with how the city provides services, because although there are fewer houses, the services in these areas are only being used by a handful of people.

This work will ultimately lead to new “greenspaces,” as the city consolidates and lets go of areas in poor or abandoned condition. We all agreed that the city needs to be reduced and that these areas that are being demolished need to return to open space. This move alone could potentially change the city in many ways. It will take dangerous, questionable areas and convert them back to green space, something that is somewhat lacking in Detroit. A city of pavement which has been long known as the “Motor City”, friendly to cars, will have something it has not had in quite some time, vast areas of open space.