By **Jay Walljasper**
Photo by **Scott Polikov**
As the son of a geography teacher, who spent endless hours of my youth poring over maps, I’ve always been fascinated with borderlines. As a kid I imagined that crossing from, say, Nevada into California would offer an immediate change of scenery from desert to Redwood trees.
But I later discovered that off the map things are not so dramatic. (You’d hardly notice the transition from Italy into Switzerland without a sign to mark the border.) At least that’s what I thought until yesterday, when I toured Detroit in a van full of seasoned urban observers from the Citistates Group and program officers from the Kresge Foundation. The city limits between Detroit and the suburb of Grosse Pointe Park astonished me. It was every bit as stark as you might expect from a city widely viewed as the poster child for urban decay and a community whose name has long been synonymous with wealth. A picturesque brick sidewalk and row of mature locust trees along Kercheval Street abruptly ends at just the spot where the city of Detroit begins.
A society rooted in a sense of the commons would not foster such disparities…But that is not the society we live in today. The basic realities of everyday life differ greatly depending on which side of a municipal boundary you reside.
On the Grosse Pointe side of the line, which cuts through the middle of the block, stands an antiquarian bookshop that looks straight out of London, with carefully assembled displays of leather-bound classics in its windows. Next door in Detroit, sits a St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop where cast-off household goods and clothes for poor families is collected. In Detroit, the sidestreets were gap-toothed with rundown specimens of once elegant homes and apartment buildings standing next to vacant lots on every block. The sidestreets in Grosse Pointe Park, built at the same time in the same red brick glory, were immaculate.
This kind of urban-suburban divide—more pronounced in Detroit than anywhere that any of us in the van had ever seen—raises questions about the commons. A metropolitan area is a single organism; municipal boundaries are mere abstractions, arbitrary lines sketched on a piece of paper. Yet in a poor city like Detroit, these distinctions can make all the difference. One wonders how much longer you’d wait for an ambulance or police car to answer a 911 call in Detroit. What are the schools like in suburban Grosse Pointe compared to the city?
A society rooted in a sense of the commons would not foster such disparities. Public services, social responsibilities and local tax revenues would be shared by the whole region. No community would be allowed to sink into such decline. But that is not the society we live in today. The basic realities of everyday life differ greatly depending on which side of a municipal boundary you reside.
The Kresge Foundation, based in suburban Troy, along with a number of other foundations in the Detroit region and around the country are dedicated to lessening this disparity through an initiative called Reimagining Detroit 2020. They are pursuing an ambitious agenda , including improvements for the public schools, major sustainability initiatives, cultural programs, and local business development. The thrust of this effort is the conviction that Detroit is not a basket case, but a vital community in need of some help after four decades of disinvestment. And they know the metropolitan area as a whole cannot thrive with a dying city at its core.
But in showing us Detroit, the Kresge Foundation officials did not spare us the sight of utterly devastated neighborhoods where most of the houses and people were long gone. But we also saw thriving areas sporting locally-owned businesses or well-kept homes: downtown, the midtown area around Wayne State University, the Indian Village historic district and others. These neighborhoods are standing up to the tide of urban blight largely through the hard work and indomitable spirit of entrepreneurs and grassroots organizations—sources of positive energy the foundations want to join with in their efforts to revive the city.
Detroit faces serious troubles that are as deep and daunting as any American city, but my visit turned up evidence that Detroit’s famously feisty and proud residents have not given up on their hometown. And if offered hope that some day strolling from Grosse Pointe Park into Detroit, will be no more eventful than traveling from Kansas to Nebraska.
Copyright 2010 Jay Walljasper
This essay originally appeared at Onthecommons.org.
Jay Walljasper is an editor at On The Commons. He is a writer who covers urban, community, environmental, cultural, international, and travel issues. His most recent book is the The Great Neighborhood Book, a guide to how people can change the world on their own block. He is a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces and senior editor at Ode magazine and writes a blog on green cities for the National Geographic Green Guide and covers sustainable travel for National Geographic Traveler. For many years Jay was editor of Utne Reader.