GEOGRAPHY AND DESTINY
One of the stories that has come up again and again during this recession is the long-term effect on cities across America. I think this may be more true in this recession because housing is a major (the major) part of the contraction. It seems beyond doubt that places like Las
Vegas, parts of California, and places like Coral Gables, Florida will be scarred for years to come by the recession and the downturn in the housing market. What is more interesting to me though are places like Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Buffalo.
The New York Times had an article
about the Slavic Village section of Cleveland in the magazine last Sunday. Cleveland, like Detroit and Buffalo has been getting killed by the change in the housing market. Entire neighborhoods are more or less boarded up, and are now havens for drugs and criminality, as well as severely undermining the remaining neighborhood. Even to the extent there are home sales, they are being made to "bulk buyers" who are buying as many houses as possible for as little as possible and hoping to essentially flip them. These owners are almost all absentee and not providing the sort of strength for the neighborhood that homeowners usually provide. It is difficult to see how neighborhoods like this will bounce back.
That being said, in the long term, what happens to Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore, and Cleveland? If I gave you a blank map of North America, where would you expect cities to spring up? New York, New Orleans, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, and Seattle are all probably pretty obvious. They are natural ports (New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle), or they are located at areas where goods and people will transition from one mode of transport to another (Houston, Chicago, St. Louis).
If I added some information and told you that (a) Canada was the United States' largest trade partner, and (b) that the largest population centers in both the United States and Canada were from the bottom of Lake Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean, where would you add cities? In fact, the more you look at where the rivers and lakes are, and how goods move, the more it seems inevitable that major cities will exist where Detroit/Toledo and Buffalo are. They are the natural land bridge outlets around Lake Erie, as well as Detroit being the link between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Whether you drive, or move merchandise by water, Detroit/Toledo and Buffalo are places that you will need to stop. How can they not regenerate? Similarly, Baltimore seems destined to be a major crossroads, given its location and port. Cleveland is uniquely placed on Lake Erie to be a port and travel crossroads.
What seems clear is that Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Buffalo are not currently configured in the way they will be 100 years from now. The people who live there now may well not be the people who will live there (not literally the same people, but the mix of skills). I expect that there will be massive, massive dislocation in this transition. However, it is possible that there are already changes taking place. Sunday in the New York Times they ran a series of op-ed articles about housing in different markets. The Detroit piece
told the tale of an emerging community within a larger neighborhood.
A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.
Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.
Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.
The piece goes on to talk about the artists who have already come to Detroit to capture the ruins of the city, as well as to execute massive installations that a more vibrant city would never allow. Also, Mitch Cope apparently has been outfitting these houses with green technology, so that this sub-neighborhood may actually be sustainable, and potentially a model neighborhood for the future. Could Detroit grow into a major center for the arts? Today is seems absurd, but as the city transitions from Motown to its future (whatever that may be), it seems possible.
To be clear, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Baltimore cannot all be America's next arts center. It is also not clear to me that ultimately this would fully utilize Detroit's geography. However, even in the midst of what appears to be an existential crisis for Detroit, everything about this story is cutting edge. If they had high speed wi
this little community would be at home the Bay Area that we all imagine in the future. With a thirty year head start on these cities, Pittsburgh
may be the model for how to transition. Who would have predicted in 1983 that Pittsburgh would be the successful post-steel city it is? Smaller? Yes, but still a major city (being at the head of the Ohio River is the major geographic benefit for Pittsburgh) and doing much better than Detroit or Cleveland right now.
Finally, as much as I like comments, I know that there are a thousand factors that go into how cities regenerate. Pittsburgh is blessed with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquense
University (and others) that give it a leg up in some of the areas it has excelled in. Detroit has University of Michigan close by, but not as close as the Pittsburgh schools. That is a problem for Detroit and Buffalo, although it is a serious benefit for Baltimore with Johns Hopkins. Still, I have neither the time, nor the expertise to lay out the plan for each of these cities. They have city planners for that.