In 1977, The Renaissance Center, a modern, $420 million structure went up on Jefferson Street in downtown Detroit. From its name to its warm reception by local and national observers, the building triumphantly heralded the dawn of a new era for the city — the start of a Detroit Renaissance.

Jess Cox

The building opened; the Renaissance it was supposed to spark fizzled.

Today it sits, a glassy monstrosity pressed up against the banks of the Detroit River by miles and miles of crushing poverty. Sadly, the RenCen suffers from the same problem that has predictably and systematically stricken other such revitalization projects:

It’s in Detroit.

The RenCen. Cobo Center. The People Mover. Ford Field. Comerica Park. All great ideas, choked by their proximity to the poverty and ruin they were created to mitigate.

It’s like clockwork — these places draw the people in for the afternoon; then, as soon as the day is done, the people go home, most doing their damnest to avoid spending one second longer in Detroit then they have to.

It turns out that, even if you do build it, there is no guarantee that they will come, and, more importantly, come to stay.

Admittedly, I’m not saying anything new here. It doesn’t take a particularly astute observer to notice how the masses filed in for last week’s North American International Auto Show, and, after seeing what there was to be seen, predictably filed out to places outside the city to dinner and to home.

Everyone knows that these projects have in many ways fallen short of expectations. On some level, most can admit that Detroit is a failing city.

Despite that, city and state leaders have begun pushing plans to expand Cobo Center — at a cost of anywhere from $650 million to a whopping $1 billion — as the next step in this mythical Detroit Renaissance.

Their point man? Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who, in between the accusations of adultery, thuggery and lying to the press about his wife’s taxpayer-leased Escalade, has been stumping on the importance of a larger Cobo in order to accommodate its signature event, the North American International Auto Show. The logic goes like this: In order to attract and retain big-name conventions (and the dollars they bring in) Detroit needs a more modern, spacious convention center.

We’ve heard this before.

Doesn’t he get it?

It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest convention center in the world if, earlier this year, you had to close schools and lay off teachers.

It doesn’t matter if you have a multi-million dollar monorail if, only this month, you announced plans to cut busing that serve the city’s poorest citizens.

It doesn’t matter if you have thousands of square feet of high-end office space if your neighborhoods are struggling, your roads are crumbling and, after a wave of violent crime last April, your police department responds not by hitting the streets, but with a department-wide, Monday-afternoon prayer session.

The cops just put down their weapons and turned to Jesus for help, and we’re talking about a new convention center?

Money is tight: Earlier this month, Kilpatrick announced that, facing a $214 million shortfall, the city would be cutting roughly 900 jobs and lowering wages for nonunion employees. He said in his Jan. 12 speech, “We have failed for decades to make tough decisions by spending millions as our tax base was shrinking, by making government bigger, and tens of thousands of people were leaving the city.”

But he wants to sink hundreds of millions into Cobo, when the city still hasn’t finished paying for its last renovation in 1989?

He doesn’t get it.

Cobo Hall expansion is just another in a long line of glitzy, hyped-up development projects — projects that have historically fallen far short of expectations and failed to revitalize a failing city. While the auto show is a tremendously important event for the city, so too are any number of its most pressing human, infrastructural and technological needs.

A Detroit Renaissance? I hear about it. I just don’t see it.

So, to anyone still talking about it:

Please stop.


Adams can be reached at dnadams@umich.edu.

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