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Exploring Detroit, Part I: Abandoned in The Motor City

July 21, 2015

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Last month, I travelled to Detroit for Next Stop: Democracy, a Philly-based voter engagement project I’m working on that aims to excite Philly’s electorate – and increase voter turnout – by hiring 60 artists to create 60 “Vote Here” signs to be used in a citywide, pop-up Election Day art installation!

We travelled to Detroit because Next Stop is a Knight Cities Challenge winning project, and the Knight Foundation kindly invited all the 32 winning projects to come to Detroit, meet one another, learn some best practices from former grant winners, and then explore some of the great work currently taking place across the Motor City. Naturally, Lansie (Next Stop’s Project Director) and I stayed a few extra days to explore even further.

While my main takeaway after the visit was that Detroit is currently experiencing a RAPID reinvestment, it still has a ways to go. Before I went to Detroit I expected to be surprised by how vacant and abandoned the city was, but the opposite was really true. I left blown away by how much redevelopment there was, and by how much excitement there was in the city.

The Free Press building (photos above) that we got a little tour of, while vacant, sits in a downtown with a 99% occupancy rate. Hard to imagine it will remain vacant for much longer.

The city is going through a massive program of demolishing abandoned homes that can’t be restored, and many of these newly vacant spaces are becoming gardens where food is produced (there’s a photo of one such lot below). And the city is currently building its first light rail line to connect a number of neighborhoods to the city’s Midtown and Downtown districts. (Could you imagine if SEPTA was building a new Subway or El line right now?!)

Some more photos below, and even more photos to come… Parts II and III will explore more of the amazing architecture and redevelopment around Detroit, and then a TON of incredible street art and graffiti, respectively! 

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Above is the light rail line they’re building down Woodward avenue.

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All of the streets above are a 2-3 block walk from Detroit’s burgeoning Midtown district, where there’s a number of art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, even a bowling alley, and that famous Whole Foods. Many of the blocks here have only 1 or 2 standing houses, a result of the demolitions the city’s been conducting to make way for new developers. While genuinely pretty haunting to walk through, the hustle and bustle that lives only a few blocks away spells great things for this neighborhood. One of the residents we talked to on the block above said he’s lived here his whole life, and he’s just bought a 2nd house for his son, who he hopes will surely want to move back to Detroit soon. Until then he plans to rent it out.

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