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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Andrew Eckhous: Rejuvenating Detroit

By Andrew Eckhous, Columnist
Published January 14, 2013

During these first carefree weeks of school, take some time to explore the non-academic surroundings that make up our campus. You can witness a political rally or run into a friend on the Diag. You can take a walk, play Frisbee or just enjoy nature in the Arb — although everyone knows what really goes on there, hippie. You can even watch a pun-loving man play his harmonica and scratch his Dust Bowl-era washboard outside of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.

Those are just some of the many examples of how the public spaces around us make our lives a little more colorful. I may spend an inordinate amount of my time trapped in the dizzying dichotomy of thinking and drinking, but what will I reminisce about in the future? Decades from now, when I’m telling my kids stories from my college years, I’m sure I’ll mention the Diag, Arb and many of the other public spaces that distinguish our beloved university rather than the grimy nights I spent at Rick’s American Cafe.

Unfortunately, Ann Arbor’s dejected sibling to the east, Detroit, doesn't have much in the way of public spaces. Hart Plaza is a little run-down, the adjoining RiverWalk isn’t nearly what it could be and Belle Isle is broken. Campus Martius, however, stands out as a beacon of what Detroit’s future could hold.

Located in the heart of downtown Detroit, Campus Martius park was renovated and rededicated in 2004 with help from corporate sponsors and has been essential in the burgeoning revitalization of Detroit. It’s a walkable public space that wouldn’t seem out of place in a real live, functional city — a merit badge Detroit has yet to earn. Growth has flourished directly because of Campus Martius, as workers want to spend time outside of their offices now. Restaurants, retail shops, convenience stores and hotels all have opened their doors over the past decade or so, giving Detroit cheerleaders like me hope that change and development are possible.

If the Detroit problem is to be solved, safe and usable public spaces will play a vital role in solving it. Dan Gilbert, chairman of Detroit-based Quicken Loans and advocate for the rebirth of the city, can provide 10,000 workers jobs downtown, but if none of the employees live in the city, many of Detroit’s workers will remain commuters. The city needs to be an inviting place if the population is to grow. New green spaces, playgrounds and even renovated sidewalks would all help Detroit cultivate an image of a people and family-friendly city, and would speed up the rebuilding process.

In the 2010 census, there was a 25-percent drop in population, but a 59-percent increase in people under 35 with a college education, illustrating that there’s a budding class of young professionals in Detroit. That growth, however, must be supported. Attracting more of these young professionals into the city can be achieved through creating the types of public spaces that are common in city neighborhoods nationwide. Even something as simple as a dog park is an excellent way to encourage interaction among city residents, but only one exists in Detroit, and it’s in disrepair. However, a few Detroit residents, seeing the need, successfully launched a campaign that generated more than $15,000 for a park, and the city granted the permits.

The Detroit Dog Park is an encouraging example of what the future of Detroit could hold. If public space expands, the social culture of the city will expand with it. The same people that walk their dogs or ride their bikes during the day will frequent bars, concert halls and restaurants at night. Who knows, maybe it wouldn’t be so ridiculous for future University students to drive to Detroit for a night of drinking and dancing, otherwise known as “supporting Michigan’s economy.”

Public space can provide positive opportunities for communities as well. In December, Ford pledged $10 million to create a community center in southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood, one of Detroit’s most vibrant communities. This center will offer adult education, job training and a food bank. Most importantly, it will foster community growth and give Detroit youth the chance to succeed that they might not have had otherwise. Ultimately, these successful youths might give back to the city that raised them, and Detroit could undergo a makeover from its very own people.

When people think of New York City, they think of Central Park. When people think of Chicago, they think of Grant and Millennium Park. When people think of Detroit, they think of … wait, what exactly? If the city and state invest in making Detroit a viable city socially — not just economically — people will begin to think of Detroit in terms of its energetic social scene and thriving economy instead of its empty and factories. The future of Detroit is no longer a fantasy, but a goal to work toward. With support from University students, we could make Detroit an exciting extension of our University experience.

Andrew Eckhous can be reached at aeckhous@umich.edu.


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