“By the way, Detroit did the damn thing this year. It was a real city for one weekend.”

Morgan Morel
Fans walk traverse through the changing downtown of Detroit. (Forest casey/Daily)
Morgan Morel

Simple and elegant, that quote comes straight from a friend’s closing e-mail remarks telling me of his Super Bowl XL experience. That got me thinking. What is a real city? Can a place be a city just for one weekend? If so, Detroit must be an imposter most of the time. Detroit has tall buildings like a real city; Detroit has a downtown like a real city. Perhaps Detroit is like Pinocchio, wishing so badly to be real yet not knowing how to get there.

Surrounding the Super Bowl hype, Detroit was both delighted and petrified. Detroiters were at once prideful of being the hometown to NFL legend Jerome Bettis, and also ashamed that national attention was placed on his childhood home. A house which after Jerome left has since been sold, abandoned, transformed into a crack house, converted into a prostitute hang out and finally burned until it was left in the condition it is in now – a charred memory of what was once a home.

Being real is about having an identity. According to a Gallup poll, Detroiters are more negative about their city than natives of any other locality in the United States. That means that if you ask someone from the Metro Detroit area where they are from, they will more likely tell you “Royal Oak” over “Detroit.” Now ask a Chicagoland resident where they are from. The same distance from Detroit to Royal Oak in the Chicago area equates to only one response: “Chicago.”

Detroit once had an identity – the Motor City. But as our country shifts to a service economy, that factory-work character of the D is outdated. While automobile manufacturing dwindles in the area, the city is now looking like a magician with only one trick. Is that alone attributing to Detroit’s loss of real-city status?

Detroit might not be a real city, but it is definitely real. Think of its raw energy. The Lions are the heroes of gritty assembly-line workers. Remember that fight with Ron Artest versus the entire crowd of Pistons fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills? That was pure D-Town style. The city is home to the most unrefined rap styles and birthplace of the underground techno that spins at basement raves. Perhaps fueled by its own angst, Detroit has a harsh, but real, voltage.

So Detroit was a real city for that first weekend in February and a great place to be. The downtown was analyzed and judged by outsiders and introspectively examined by native Detroiters. Then the Super Bowl came and went without a hiccup of trouble. Now basking in the aftermath of that successful weekend, when it had become a real city again, Detroit must use that momentum as positive energy for the future.

This past fall, the University took a large step in reaching out toward the Detroit community when it opened the Detroit Center, a branch of the University located near the heart of downtown. Although most of the programs involved in the center had already been established, the center provides a symbolic gesture of support by providing a visible presence within the Detroit cultural center. Founded in Detroit during the year 1817, the University is now returning to its roots to solidify and expand its programs and research projects concerning Detroit citizens and organizations.

The overarching theme of all these altruistic efforts is to revive the city and make it “real” again. As Mary Sue Coleman stated about the city during the unveiling of the Detroit Center, the University wants “to be a part of its revitalization.” Implicit in trying to help revitalize Detroit, the University is also learning about why Detroit needs that revitalization, and why it seems to be nothing more than a pseudo-city to many.

Among the various programs at the center, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning opened a community design center focusing on the physical space and planning aspects attributing to Detroit’s current status. Architects and planners are very interested in the minute details that make up a real city. We, of all people, should know what a real city is and how it should behave. As of now, however, there is no perfect solution for how to create a real city, let alone reviving one such as Detroit. We do know that the characteristics of successful cities but do not know how the city will react to intervention.

Okay, so here is the formula: diverse buildings + walking space + shops + other people + bars + restaurants + offices + apartments + various other attractions = real city. Physically, the recipe is simply to provide the correct proportion of building to open space and provide interesting architecture as visual flavor. Throw in a good transportation plan and let simmer for 30 years, stirring occasionally. Yet this plan does not necessarily equal success. The missing ingredient is energy. There is electricity in Detroit, but it remains to be seen whether this is the positive energy needed to actually revive the city or a negative energy that will eventually harm it.

City development is a natural evolution of interweaving factors, and any architect or planner will have difficulty jumping in midstream and redirecting the flow. One might prescribe a specific plan that covers the many nuances of the city. It is wise to design based on knowledge that informs delicate decisions, but over-specificity can hinder spontaneous growth when there is a good energy present in the community. Turning to the other extreme – designing a generic framework that absorbs the changes of the city – can go dreadfully wrong if the city provides a negative spark.

Clearly, shaping a city is no walk in the park. Defining a real city and creating one is an arduous task, but reviving a city to real-city status is even more difficult. The energy within Detroit may not be fully understood, but the most important thing is that there is a network of people supplying a strong, positive current. The University’s Detroit Center is only one example of its many initiatives aiding Detroit from the outside. Within Detroit are a vast number of community organizations who see Detroit’s dilemmas not as problems but as challenges that can be overcome. In their hearts, they know that Detroit is a real city full of positive energy, and their goal is to show that to the rest of the world.

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