Post-bowl Detroit improved, but nowhere near super
Look for post-Super Bowl downtown Detroit to continue a resurgence, thanks to an infusion of capital and interest.
But Detroit's residential neighborhoods continue to lose 1,000 citizens a year and its once formidable industrial areas are nearly ghost towns, and that's not likely to change anytime soon, said panelists discussing "Detroit After the Super Bowl: Reflections on the City's Future" April 5 at U-M-Dearborn.
"The Super Bowl has brought additional energy to the efforts of Detroit's leadership to reverse the area's decline and there is every indication that the greater downtown is on the rebound," said John Mogk, a Wayne State law professor who served briefly on the Detroit School Board. Yet he said problems of crime and neglect remain outside the area where attention is being focused.
Joining him on the panel were moderators Lars Bjorn and Gloria House, both U-M-Dearborn professors teaching a course on Detroit this semester, and Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher. He has covered real estate, architecture and development issues for the paper for nearly 20 years and is co-author of "AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture."
"How real is this revival?" Gallagher asked. "Certainly there is a great deal of activity in the area of downtown, in Mexicantown and Southwest Detroit to the west of downtown, out along the Jefferson Avenue corridor to the Grosse Pointe line, and north along Woodward through the Wayne State district up to New Center. In the rest of the city there is only scattered new development."
"The influx of new people has not stemmed the outward migration of population," he continued. "At some point, the creation of new housing and retail opportunities in the city and the availability of cheap land should help stabilize Detroit's population, but whether that stable number will be 800,000 or 700,000 or 600,000 is anybody's guess."
Much of the panel discussion, before 60 students packing a ground-floor classroom in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters Building, traced the rise and demise of Detroit.
Sparked by the growth of the auto industry, the city's population grew to around 1 million in the early 1920s. Detroit's role as the "arsenal of democracy" in the 1940s pushed its peak population to 2 million in the 1950s, making it the third-largest city in the country for a time.
"Detroit was not unique because of the size, character or vibrancy of its downtown," Mogk said, adding other cities had nicer downtowns. "What set Detroit apart as world class was the unmatched industrial strength of its industrial base, high income and employment levels, leading home ownership rate, a quality educational system and cohesive neighborhood structure of its heartland. These distinguishing features have all disappeared."
Gallagher and Mogkwho was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Detroit twice in the 1970sboth challenged the notion that Coleman Young played any meaningful role in the city's demise. They said the historical reasons for that demise preceded Young.
"The decline that became apparent in the 1960s and 1970s can be traced to at least the 1940s, when automakers ran out of room for new factories in the city and began to locate beyond Eight Mile Road," Gallagher said.
"The causes of the rapid decline of the '70s and '80s cannot be easily summarized. Those causes include federal subsidies for highways and suburban homebuilding; racial animosity; the de-industrialization of the Midwest; and the lure of suburban design, a model of living that included big backyards and attached garages and which replaced the older model of city living on smaller lots and a reliance on public transportation instead of private automobiles."
Mogk said a drive is underway to expand the city's residential population through loft and condo conversionthe first new housing in Detroit since the 1950s was started in 1990 and other residential building has followed. But the city must deal with a problem of city services stretched thin to serve far-flung neighborhoods where in many cases only a few inhabited houses remain along once teeming streets.
He said neighborhood consolidation could ease that strain on city services, but such efforts around the country have had only limited success.
The economic pressures on the region continue to be great, Gallagher said. "I expect the story of the city to be better in the next 50 years," he said. "I just don't know how much."