“The old system hasn’t died, and the new system hasn’t been born yet,” says one of the subjects in Beyond the Motor City. He’s talking about urban transportation.
Beyond the Motor City is a critical look at the intersection between mass transit and the renewal of post-industrial Detroit. Director Aaron Wolf is best known for his documentary King Corn, which examined the terrible impact of federal agricultural policy on the American diet and on the small farm.
Thanks to the sponsorship of Citizens for Modern Transit, St. Louis is fortunate to be one of eight cities where Beyond the Motor City is being screened free — Monday, May 17th at 7:00 p.m. at the Tivoli. Appropriately, this event falls in Historic Preservation Month. The role of public transportation in cities is often left out of the historic preservation discussion.
From the film’s website:
Beyond the Motor City examines how Detroit, a grim symbol of America’s diminishing status in the world, may come to represent the future of transportation and progress in this country. The film explores Detroit’s historic investments in infrastructure—from early 19th-century canals to the urban freeways that gave The Motor City its name and made America’s transportation system the envy of the world. But it also reveals that over the last 30 years, much of the world has left Detroit—and America—behind, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation.
In a journey that takes us into the neighborhoods of Detroit and then beyond to Spain, California, and our nation’s capital, Beyond the Motor City urges us to ask how a symbol of America’s urban decay might transform itself into a model of urban revitalization. Can we finally push America’s transit system into the 21st century?
Immediately following the film, there will be a panel discussion moderated by KETC’s Patrick Murphy with Congressman Russ Carnahan, director Woolf, and Citizen for Modern Transit’s Tom Shrout.
The Detroit Free Pressreports that Yamasaki, Inc. has closed. This is the end of one of modern architecture’s most illustrious American firms. Founded by Minoru Yamasaki in 1959, the firm’s name is found on the drawings for the ill-fated World Trade Center as well as many significant modernist designs.
The firm marked the departure of Yamasaki from the Detroit-based firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, which Yamasaki had founded in 1949 with St. Louisan George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber. The three had worked together at Detroit firm Smith Hinchman & Grylls. Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber left a tremendous impact in St. Louis, designing the terminal at Lambert Airport (1956) and most of the St. Louis Housing Authority’s projects from the early postwar era, including the Pruitt-Igoe project (1954). When the firm split, Hellmuth created the firm Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum in St. Louis, which went on to become the world’s largest architectural firm and continues to be a giant among American firms.
To some people, the current discussion about McEagle’s “NorthSide” project has roots in a project proposed for the same area 13 years ago: Gateway Village. Like “NorthSide,” Gateway Village involved a close relationship between a mayor and a private developer from outside of the city, proposed massive demolition, proposed eminent domain and large public subsidy. Unlike “NorthSide,” however, Gateway Village never moved close enough to reality to disrupt the section of St. Louis Place it would have wiped out.
In 1996, Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. unveiled his grand plan for revitalizing north St. Louis: a 180-acre golf course and subdivision called Gateway Village that would use the Pruitt-Igoe site as well as the western part of St. Louis Place. The boundaries were Martin Luther King Drive on the south, 20th Street on the east, St. Louis Avenue on the north and Jefferson Avenue on the west. The plan called for building 781 new homes (priced out of range of most St. Louis Place residents) and a 9-hole golf course (designed by renowned designers Don Childs Associates) platted for very low density at odds with surrounding historic city fabric. Going against neighborhood sentiment in an area where he had tremendous political support, Bosley supported the acquisition of 209 residences and six businesses to clear the project site.
The developer behind the project, whose identity was unveiled after the first announcement, was Waycor Corporation of Detroit. Waycor’s president was Don Barden, a wealthy Detroit businessman who has since gone on to become a major casino owner. At the time, Barden was the owner of television stations who had never developed a project on the scale of Gateway Village. Also in 1996, the Federal Election Commission determined that Barden has co-signed an illegal loan to a Detroit Congresswoman.
Whatever his inexperience and lack of ties to St. Louis, Barden gained the confidence of Bosley, Jr. and Maureen McAvey, the director of the St. Louis Development Corporation. Unlike today, where McEagle is unveiling its own plans, in 1996 Bosley and McAvoy did the public relations work for the developer. In August 1996, McAvoy released a study by Don Childs Associates that predicted that Gateway Village would be feasible and successful. The city paid the architects $38,000 for a study that championed a project in which they had a financial interest.
The study predicted that Gateway Village would precipitate “a return to living in major metropolitan cities” and that it would “act as a catalyst to revitalize the area.” The Greater Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Association, which is now defunct, rose up against the plan to safeguard the 209 homes sought for condemnation and demolition.
In October 1996, the city government requested a $8 million grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development toward the project. The total project budget was $127.5 million, an amount fairly low for such a large area. The low cost was indicative of low density construction and low construction standards. Of course, $8 million was not the only handout sought by Waycor. Waycor wanted an additional $35 million in public financing. Waycor would not commit any of its own capital unless it could secure public money first — also different than the current situation.
The feasibility study commissioned by the city outlined the path toward development, with step one being “complete agreement with Waycor.” That step was removed after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discovered that the city had commissioned a development feasibility study that not only recommended a certain developer but indicated that an agreement was already being created.
The Greater Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Association sent a letter to HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros asking that he deny the $8 million grant request. Shirley Booker was one of the authors of the letter and very active in organizing St. Louis Place residents. Vernon Betts was one of a few St. Louis Place residents who gave favorable comments about Gateway Village to the press, but the majority of residents were opposed.
Bosley’s response to the Greater Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Association’s letter is classic and timely: “It’s unfortunate that a small group now want to try and thwart the one thing that can work.” In development, there always seems to be “the one thing that can work” — what the person using that phrase wants to do.
An aldermanic election for the Fifth Ward, where the project was located, came in spring 1997. Veteran Alderwoman Mary Ross was retiring. In the race to succeed Ross, Democratic candidates April Ford-Griffin and Loretta Hall supported Gateway Village, and John Bratkowski was adamantly opposed. Ford-Griffin, whose support was for the project was not staunch, won the seat. At the mayoral level, Bosley lost the Democratic primary to Clarence Harmon.
Even before he took office, Harmon announced his plans to pull city government out of the Gateway Village project. On April 4, 1997, the Post-Dispatch published an article entitled “Harmon: ‘Dead Stop’ for Golf Course Plan,” that covered the mayor-elect’s opposition to a project that would lead to the dislocation of city residents. McAvey retorted that the project would bring the middle class back as well as retail for low-income residents.
Harmon’s move coincided with HUD’s denial of the city’s request for funding. Shirley Booker explained neighborhood opposition well. Residents wanted development, she said, “just not a golf course. We can’t keep existing with all this vacant land. The Lord didn’t mean for it to be like that. It’s a waste.”
McAvey clung to Gateway Village, though, telling the press that no one would be able to develop St. Louis Place without large public subsidy and amenities provided. Her tenure would end shortly thereafter. Ford-Griffin learned a few lessons from Gateway Village and spearheaded an often rocky but productive community-based planning process leading to the Fifth Ward Master Plan, published in 2000 although not fully adopted by the Board of Aldermen.
Harmon, of course, showed little leadership on development issues, but his decision to pull the plug on Gateway Village allowed for the kindling of small-scale development on the near north side. Many leaders, however, continued to bemoan the lack of a large scale plan for the area around Pruitt Igoe. Bosley, Jr. himself is now a backer of the McEagle project, seen occasionally accompanying Paul J. McKee, Jr. at meetings.
One of the problems with the Gateway Village debacle and the resulting Fifth Ward Master Plan is that there was no strong legislative result. The threat of a large-scale plan in the Fifth Ward remained because there were no basic protections against that mode of development. Zoning and land use recommendations were never implemented as law, historic districts and sites were not identified and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and redevelopment zones that would have broken the ward into smaller pieces were not created. The Fifth Ward’s biggest problem in recent years is the large amount of vacant city-owned land — quite a big prize to lure developers. Without safeguards against large scale projects, the ward has been left vulnerable to the supersized visions that Gateway Village illustrated.
If you think that the preservation system in St. Louis city government is screwed up, count your blessings. In Detroit, the City Council just passed a resolution calling for the emergency demolition of the landmark Michigan Central Station. The resolution comes after the council has done the following: not conduct a structural assessment of the building; not consult the building’s owner about plans for redevelopment; not implore the building owner to redevelop or sell to someone who will; and, most important, only get interested in the building’s plight after the mayor made a move.
Strange priority for a City Council that is having a hard time dealing with a $300 million municipal budget deficit.
Although the building is owned by billionaire developer Manuel Moroun, Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr. had requested federal stimulus funds for demolition work that could cost around $3.6 million. Since Michicagn Central is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, federal funds for demolition will entail a Section 106 demolition review that could complicate the mayor’s plans. (Michigan Central Station dates to 1913 and was designed by Warren and Wetmore with Reed and Stem.)
The Council’s resolution directs the owner to pay for an emergency demolition, attempting to use a 1984 ordinance that gives the council discretionary power to take down “dangerous” structures. Council President Monica Conyers, perhaps America’s most self-serving urban politician, opines that the building should have come down years ago. Despite years of decay, Michigan Central Station is not unsound and clearly not dangerous in any legal sense. Check out Forgotten Detroit and see for yourself. The old station has great reuse potential!
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has never passed a similar resolution, despite its many redevelopment ordinances that override preservation review. Then again, the St. Louis of today is a city where many aldermen are often the first in line defending the economic value of our landmarks. Thank goodness for the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit and the paradigm shift it allowed!
The administration of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is proposing selling off 92 of the city’s 367 parks. Most of the parks on the sale list are pocket parks and small playgrounds, many of which are surrounded by vacant lots and some of which are in severe disrepair. Kilpatrick seems to think that some of the park sites would be ripe for new development. The plan raises the issue of public space planning in deindustrialized cities. The amount of park space in Detroit reflects peak density that has not existed in decades. Does the city need so much park space when so much of the city itself is green ghetto land?
Maybe not. Detroit is seeing redevelopment right now. Kilpatrick’s interest in selling the parks shows confidence in their having some market value as lots. The city has shrunk, but as it grows it may need the parks. While there are many of the 92 parks that probably will never be useful, there are some that are useful now and would be useful in neighborhoods where infill construction will lead to higher density. Staking out public space now will ensure that neighborhoods don’t lack amenities that belong to all residents.
Detroit might consider holding off on a massive sale, and releasing the parks one by one after further community input and investigation of development activity. Perhaps some parks should just be mothballed — infrastructure demolished and grass planted. One thing we learn from cities like Detroit is the inherent power of a vacant urban lot. From the vacant lots will spring the development of the future — and public space needs to be part of that.
I want you to see how Nicole Rork offers a tour of the ruins of Detroit, Gary and a few other cities through images that are at once prosaic and beautiful. I want you to notice that she provides short histories of the places she documents, with accurate information and links to other sources. Rork captures the vividness of faded colors, the brightness in dark rooms and the larger world in confined spaces. She’s a bit of a conjurer — taking shots with views wide enough to suggest that life in some form is lurking right outside of the frame of the still scenes she documents. Perhaps she is confronting that force somewhere while her camera takes its picture. Perhaps not. Does it matter? The subject matter itself gains a new life through her gaze.
In how many academic debates on urban decline is the worst American case posed as a tossup between St. Louis and Detroit?
Now that’s the World Series tossup, and things have changed as the nation’s eyes turn to the baseball teams of these two cities. Both cities remain bleeding buildings, businesses and residents, but they no longer come close to their mythic no-man’s-land images (they never did, truth be told). St. Louis has started a modest population gain, and both cities are seeing major reinvestment in their downtown areas. While smaller than Detroit, St. Louis is probably the leader of the two in demonstrating how to rebound from heavy population loss and de-industrialization.
Overall, though, I’m delighted that these two comeback cities are now getting the world’s attention. Maybe this can help erase those negative myths further.