Generally, “unprecedented” is not a word to throw around lightly. But the partnerships around the preservation of historic Detroit neighborhoods and the “blight busters” rightly could be described that way.
This is a story about how a bunch of people who love Detroit – genuinely feel this city in ways that go beyond “Top Ten” lists – are truly, desperately trying to find common ground. And I chose that cliché for good reason. Their mutual passion is seeing Detroit fulfill its motto of rising from the ashes, and that means cleaning up its ruins while keeping what is important.
Let’s back up for a second. This whole thing started last year when Bill Pulte started knocking down buildings in a kind of “Surprise! Your Demo is on Candid Camera!” kind of way. His work, while legit and pretty great, seemed to come out of nowhere. Then came Dan Gilbert at the Techconomy event, speaking out for his idea of busting blight in a completely different way. He was going to bring it all down and put up a big billboard to register every smited structure.
Gilbert’s named attached to the Detroit Blight Task force got people to look up from their smartphones and tablets. But it was that billboard idea that got people talking. We all knew the city was taking down houses here and there. But wholesale neighborhoods disappearing? Taking out homes and businesses that are part of the city’s essence? That got things moving.
What do we save? What do we destroy? What happens in between to the wood, the windows, the stained glass, the majesty of Old Detroit?
Moving toward our topic today…that unprecedented event. Two groups – Preservation Detroit and The Michigan Historic Preservation Network – came up with their part of the solution. With skilled volunteers (and those with just a keen interest who could drive said volunteers around…read:me), they would spend much of January doing a “historic preservation resource survey” like no other.
It is like no other because we are at a strange and possibly monumental time in Detroit. Excuse my language, but shit is getting done. People are quitting their “real” jobs and opening businesses. Foundations are putting their reputations on the line for people and ART. Companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to move into what the rest of the nation sees as a sink hole. So if people say they’re tearing down every blighted building in Detroit, they were going to do it. That meant taking action – now.
Background: The Michigan Historic Preservation Network is a non-profit organization that advocates for Michigan’s historic places to contribute to the state’s economic vitality, sense of place, and connection to its past. Preservation Detroit (formerly Preservation Wayne) is a non-profit organization dedicated to historic preservation within the City of Detroit.
Six areas the survey will hit are eligible for the demolition money the Feds and others have contributed. These districts are within “Hardest Hit Fund” target areas. And they happen to possess some of Detroit’s most important historical assets. Of the $100 million allotted, there is $52 million for Detroit and area demolitions – we need to stretch that money further than most other cities. We have so much at stake.
Small groups of well-educated and trained individuals went out in small carfuls, snacking on granola (natch) and reviewing every house and building within Grandmont Rosedale, Jefferson-Chalmers, North End, UDM/Marygrove, Southwest and Morningside/East English Village. The Detroit Land Bank Authority identified these six as deserving the bucks; but did every structure deserve to be torn down? Informed eyes would offer their opinions via this unique survey.
“My Big Takeaway is that this survey represents how the preservation field is really being proactive. We are at the table with the decision makers,” said Emilie Evans, one of the organizers and a Preservation Specialist with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The Detroit Land Bank Authority and the Detroit Blight Task Force are making decisions about what properties are being taken down. We had an opportunity to be part of that process, and we took advantage of it. We made it happen. It is a collaborative effort – it is precedent setting in many ways,” Evans added.
The conversation about what to tear down can be simple – that building is ugly, old, worn out. Let’s demo it. But that’s not the whole conversation; there has to be a discussion about preservation priorities, being reactionary versus proactive and what has architectural integrity versus what was built hastily or without connection to the rest of the block (like a fill-in house that doesn’t match the looks of the rest of the area).
Evans said after about two weeks of work, they have surveyed about 14,500 properties. This is their third weekend out and there are still thousands more to view. Like the U.S. Postal Service, neither rain nor snow nor frigid temperatures have stopped them.
“We’ve been able to do this because of the outpouring of support of people around the Metro area and the state. The support has been really phenomenal,” Evans said. “Everyone cares. We don’t want to see everything torn down. We want to be a voice for preservation – that’s all we’re asking for. And the decision makers have been happy to listen.”
The data these advocates have been collecting of six historic Detroit neighborhoods will “compliment” and “inform” the demolition decisions, the preservation groups say. Could there be any politer words? No, Preservation Detroit and The Michigan Historic Preservation Network will not tell Dan Gilbert or Bill Pulte what to do. Rather, they asked to be heard. And their voices were acknowledged, respected and…rather shockingly, heard.
Yes, Virginia, it is unprecedented. This is one for the preservationists to consider, to study and to replicate. Remember all those newscasts that said Detroit is a model of how to handle a massive downturn? That the rest of the nation should consider our issues and how we resolve them? Yup. We’re weird right now, but we’re also innovative with just how much we get done.
I went out with one group, and it was an awesome experience. Truthfully, spending a morning with the survey crew was a highlight of my time in Detroit. We drove around streets that had a fair mix of both empty houses and homes that were full of pride and finery. There was so much amazing brick and stone work. There were carvings and creativity galore. You could see craftsmanship that inspired awe for the men and women who built these structures long ago.
Sadly, you also saw water damage. Huge cracks. Covered windows and doors that attempted to protect structures that someone had walked away from months or years ago. There were in-fill houses that clearly didn’t belong, like a rough ranch among regal Colonials or beautiful bungalows.
Every house was scrutinized. The data collected will be considered with the citywide survey being done through Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies (some call it blexting – Lord, what an awful word). It all falls under the direction of the Blight Task Force. And they’re all listening to the Preservationists. I took away huge respect for all involved, and they’re my heroes in many ways.
Demolition has to happen. But historic importance, albeit in disarray in some instances, also must be honored. It’s not right to tear down something that might look a bit disheveled can be fixed and lived in for years to come. That is why preservation matters. For Detroit to succeed, it must honor its past while accepting what needs to be done for the future. For Detroit to succeed, we must listen to each other with both open ears and open hearts. And, for once, I think we’re ready to succeed.