Please check out Al Letson’s State of the Re:Union (SO TRU) from NPR, with two first person reports on Shrinking Cities: Motor City Rebound and Milwaukee: City of Vision.  Also, check out the inaugural episode of this program, focusing on DC and neighborhoods such as Shaw and H Street.  About State of the Re:Union:

“For every episode of State of the Re:UNION, we travel to a different American city or town and ask the questions; What makes Community? Who are the people that help bring it together? What issues do they face..?”


Some of you may remember the movie “Jerry McGuire.”  In it, Tom Cruise plays a sports agent sickened by the exploitation of his clients.  He has a crisis of concience, which leads him to write a memo, which morphs into a book on reshaping a more eithical sports management profession, “The Things We Think But Do Not Say.”  It’s core elements are: fewer clients, less money, more personal contact.

The day after printing this document and circulating it at an industry convention, Jerry realizes he’s sabotaged his career and desperately tries to get every copy back.  He’s not successful; as he walks through the lobby of the convention hotel, expecting a stoning, he instead recieves a standing ovation.  Jerry– and the audience — think that people have understood the rightness of his cause.

Then the camera focuses in on two of his co-workers as they applaud him.  “How long before they fire him?” one asks.  “I’ll give him ’til the end of the week” says the other, which turns out to be about right.

In the article “The Suburban Exodus: Are We There Yet?” New Geography writer Wendell Cox makes a compelling case that, despite the message from the design and planning professions that Americans are in the midst of abandoning the suburbs for dense urban neighborhoods, what the preference for — and numbers of — detached housing is actually rising.  Cox sites as a major element of his arguement the failure of condo conversions in multiple urban areas around the country.

In the commentary on this June 4, 2010 article, commentor epar states that Cox’s  conclusions are wrong because he is conflating the failure of the condo market with people’s desires for the urban lifestyle.

Maybe epar is missing the point.  It seems that the credit bubble, as the shrinking cities studio saw in Cleveland, would affect properties in all classes equally.  Homes, condos, etc. would go begging and the effects would be more determined by the credit profiles of a community than their planning/design profiles.  Also, to the extent that the multi-story urban condo is pretty much the antithesis of the mcmansion on the big lot, if people really were rejecting the suburban model this typology would be a strong selection.  Cox’s data indicates that is not the case.  Despite the existence of surveys in which people say they want more urban communities.

Shrinking cities like Cleveland are places that suffer the most from “wishful planning;” design, development and zoning decisions that don’t take a good, hard look at what people really do.  The explosion of condo development is due, at least in part, to the professions’ promotion of this typology as a key example of smart growth.

Is it possible that the built environment professions are engaging in “wishful planning” regarding dense, urban, live-work development?  Is this type of develop even necessary in shrinking cities, when land is often readily available to build suburban-style developments in the urban areas?  Can we afford to promote the ‘best’ typologies and uses, when so many communities just need bodies?

In a recent commentary in Newsweek, Lawrence C. Levy wrote that as a part of the push for healthcare reform, President Obama has “rediscovered” the suburbs, i.e., remembered that many of America’s swing voters live in suburban communities.  Also, that these communities are represent a more complicated and diverse demographic than in previous years.

Levy points out that today’s suburbs have many of the same problems that have been endemic to urban areas for decades.  He also makes the case that suburbs are challenged in solving these problems precisely because of their disconnected nature.

The article  seems to suggest that the administration will refocus their efforts on rebuilding the suburbs, beyond the needs of this particular legislative effort.  How true do you think this is?

Has Obama rediscovered the suburbs?

Austin Watkins wrote a great post on the reuse of the Detroit-Superior Bridge.  In his post, he highlights the bridge’s unique site and ways it could become the anchor for redevelopment of trendy corridor.  It’s a proposal that’s well-considered and has an obvious model in the High Line Project in New York.  I think that there are larger factors that merit taking a different approach.

First, NYC is not Cleveland.  New York has not just numerical density but, one could argue, “a culture of density.”  Part of the mystique of New York is the combination of anonymity and close quarters.  One sign of the differences between the two cities — recent articles in on Gothamist, MSNBC and the New York Post about the Standard Hotel a high-end hotel near the High Line.  Apparently, both guests and staff like to engage in a bit of exhibitionism in the windows of the hotel.  A bellhop interviewed said:

“We don’t discourage it. In actual fact, we encourage it. One of the managers even got naked in a room, and filmed it—they were considering a live feed for the Web site.”

Call me a prude, but I don’t see any parts of that story happening in Cleveland — which is a good thing.  There are other more PG activities taking place close to the High Line, including a woman who gives cabaret performances with her friends on her fire escape overlooking the High Line.  My contention is that these are mostly “only in New York” activities.

The main reasons the comparison of the two spaces needs further investigation are physical, temporal and social.  Although the High Line and the Detroit-Superior Bridge are superficially similar, they are actually very different.  The High Line is an elevated track through a canyon of multi-story buildings.  It’s only about 20 feet above the sidewalk and open to the sky.  You can easily see and be seen (see above paragraphs) on the High Line.  It doesn’t have any commercial uses on the structure to interfere with recreational use, but the surrounding buildings can be/are packed with all kinds of service and retail. 

The Detroit-Superior Bridge is … a bridge.  It’s nearly a mile long and views in are obscured by the upper deck and the steel structure on each side; the Bridge is 96 feet above the river; if you could get out on a boat, you would need to be at least 96 feet away to get a useful site line on activities in the lower deck.  This all means the views out of the structure are great, but not so good into it.  The site isn’t surrounded by real estate, so any commercial uses would be on the streets at either end of the span, or take away from potential passive recreation space on the span.

The High Line Project represents over ten years of community activism and local pressure.  A visit to The High Line’s official web site notes that a the Friends of the High Line formed in 1999, and the city didn’t formally adopt the project until 2002.  Certainly efforts to activate the lower deck of Detroit-Superior have a similar long history.  But can Cleveland afford to make the kind of investment in the lower deck that New York made in the High Line?

The Re-Building Blocks  report developed by PolicyBridge paints a disturbing picture of demographics in Cleveland.  Downtown and Ohio City are the center of a small cluster of communities that were estimated to gain population in 2009.  Between 1950 and 2000, the two neighborhoods lost 50.6% and 64.7% of their population, respectively.  Ohio City has the highest level of residential vacancies of 36 months or more of all Cleveland neighborhoods, at 66.4%.  Looking at educational attainment, Downtown and Ohio City residents with less than a high school diploma are 15.8% and 37.7%, respectively; the average for Cuyahoga County is 18.4%.  The case can be made that, with the number of universities and medical facilities in Cleveland, the Creative Class is already there — they simply are not choosing to live these two communities.  Additionally, a strategy aimed at the Creative Class overlooks the needs of the current residents.

In the case of Cleveland, it is important to develop projects hat can generate positive outcomes quickly.  They should have a low investment threshold, be easy to carry out and easy to remove if they aren’t working.  They should also take advantage of the unique nature of the bridge — it’s a covered space with great views out and controlled access.  Why not:

  1. Continue the schedule of temporary events begun with the Bridge Project in fall 2009, but analyse these to decide what uses or combination of uses are likely to work as permanent occupants of the span.   One success of the Bridge Project is in 2010, Ingenuity Fest, billed as “Cleveland’s cutting edge festival of arts, music, and technology,” is holding its yearly week-long event the lower level of Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.  It is important to remember that the Bridge Project and other Pop-Up City efforts generate “buzz” precisely because they are temporary, so it is vital to understand what will work on a long-term basis.
  2. Offer uses that can promote positive outcomes for the neighborhood that’s already there, such as a workshop on GED and continuing education or an auction of city or CDC-owned homes.  These temporary uses take advantage of the bridge’s unique situation as a space “facing” two neighborhoods.
  3. Offer options that are not available in other spaces.  As an example, many coffee chains and fast-food restaurants are no longer offering free WiFi.  What if the lower deck became a huge free WiFi hotspot?  Educational and arts organizations could take advantage of the views for painting and drawing classes.  The large open spans and heavy-duty structure lend themselves to using the lower deck as a community wood shop or to classes in making large-scale sculptures.

It is important to remember that the liability issues for temporary uses might be very different from long-term occupations.  However, a series of well-considered temporary uses can help the city identify specific uses that serve the unique needs of Cleveland.  Cleveland has a wealth of heart and talent — given time, there’s no doubt citizens will find an “only in Cleveland” use that is as specific and successful as the High Line in NYC.

What could make two old women think it was a good idea to stay on a barely populated block in a Detroit neighborhood? Evidently, a blot could.

As described in Improve Your Lot!, Interboro Partners’ essay in Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, “blotting” is the process whereby Detroit homeowners expand their yards by claiming adjacent abandoned lots – either through purchase or informal adoption.  Interboro Partners acknowledges that the results of these expansions are often unattractive; the sites are often acquired to park multiple cars.  Nevertheless, as pointed out in Thomas Sheffer’s previous post, they represent a valid, grass-roots response to Detroit’s vacancy issues.

In my opinion there are two key elements of the Interboro analysis meriting further exploration.  First, blots often coincide with multiple generations of a family staying in a neighborhood and living on a single or connected set of blots.  Second, the inference that Detroit residents would buy these lands if possible, thereby bringing the lots back onto the tax rolls; and that the biggest impediment to purchase is the poor record-keeping and convoluted approval process of city government.

Many efforts on the municipal, county and state level have been proposed to improve this process.  The simplest, proposed by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was to simply allow residents to buy any adjacent vacant lot for $200.  Interboro sees this proposal as “in the spirit of the sort of planning … that attempts to identify, document, and finally advocate for potentially progressive practices that … already exist, but are underappreciated and have little legitimacy.”  They see the professional in this case as a sort of “ghostwriter,” helping the citizen implement grassroots ideas in the best possible way. (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

The issue of lost tax revenue is by no means a small one.  At the time of Interboro’s research, estimates projected that Detroit lost $60 million in uncollected property taxes every year, with more than $1 billion lost in the past 20 years. Detroit only collects 87 percent of its property taxes every year, when most cities collect 98 percent.  Records showed 33 percent of all properties in the city are tax delinquent, and that more than $165 million is owed in back taxes.  Detroit employed a total of two tax collectors to deal with this backlog.  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)  Certainly making the purchase of additional lots would increase potential tax revenues, but would do little to increase Detroit’s effectiveness in actually collecting taxes.

By far the most interesting potential outcome of facilitating blots is the development of intergenerational families in communities.  Detroit’s lack of a tax base and poor collection would mean that many services for residents are either being eliminated, scaled back or taken up by the non-profit sector.  Social researchers often point to the disruption of kinship networks and familial bonds in distressed communities as creating the need for such services.  The lives that Americans lead today, regardless of class, are defined by high levels of mobility, disbursed families, and an increased need to purchase services that were provided by nuclear or extended families 50 years ago.  When discussing the imminent bankruptcy of the Social Security System when the Baby Boom Generation retires, the question often asked is, “how are we going to pay for taking care of all these seniors as they age?”  It seems to me that the question should be, “Why are people not taking care of their parents, and how can we as a society facilitate kinship care?”

So let’s get back to those two old ladies in Detroit.  As described in Improve Your Lot!, the site developed as follows:

“Wanda Cowans and Helen McMurray are two sisters who created a shared blot.  The chronology of their blot formation is as follows: both sisters migrated from the South and upon arrival in Detroit were renters.  In the mid-1960s, Wanda lived in an apartment and Helen rented a house at 2005 Elmhurst Avenue (fig. 4).  Helen was in the process of saving money to buy a house, but at that time still couldn’t afford one.  In the aftermath of the 1967 riot, property values on Elmhurst Avenue plum­meted. In April 1969, Helen was finally able to buy a house at 1987 Elmhurst.  That summer, Wanda bought the house at 2005 Elmhurst that Helen had just vacated, which was just three lots away.  Like so many buildings on the block, the houses at 2001 and 1995 Elmhurst were abandoned and torn down.  The sisters acquired the vacant land from the city and created the large shared yard that now connects their two houses.”  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

So let’s spell this out – two sisters relocated to Detroit and worked steadily over a period of 40 years, during Detroit’s worst decline, to buy houses on the same block. When faced with the abandonment and demolition of two houses between them, did they move out of the neighborhood into senior housing, or reduce their expenditures by moving into a single house?  They bought more property to create a shared garden.  Seems like the kind of residents Detroit needs to keep by any means necessary.

The theme of extended family is a consistent one throughout the Interboro analysis.  The Garden Blot is a six-lot blot next to Jean Anderanin’s home.  Assembled over a number of years, the lots are adjacent to Jean’s house, but three of the lots are owned by her son Michael.  Why do we care?  Michael lives in a home across the street, with neighbors on either side.  His purchase of three vacant lots did nothing to directly impact the value of his property.  Victor Toral’s expanded yard, combining purchased and appropriated lots, has allowed him to expand his garage and add a bedroom.  It has also created an enclosed playground for his kids with a tree house and swing set.

Would Michael Anderanin have purchased three vacant lots adjacent to a stranger’s house?  Would two neighbors, no matter how friendly, buy the lots between their houses to create a jointly owned garden?  Would Victor Toral have purchased or appropriated as many lots without a desire to create a really cool, safe playground for his kids?  I propose that the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no.’ Because even in today’s America, family matters.  In places like Detroit, where there is the distinct possibility that you would have no neighbors at all, family might be the only people who will stick it out with you.

Kinship and land ownership have been intertwined in American history since the beginning, and even today, accumulating land is one of the surest ways for Americans to accumulate and invest wealth.  The unexplored potential of the Interboro analysis is that it may offer cities whose lands have little material value a chance to package lands to increase their subjective value.  Detroit still has many assets, including good universities and cultural institutions.  What if it also became the place that facilitates multiple generations of families living together in close proximity, and affordably creating large compounds that offer the sort of intergenerational interactions so many of us seem to miss?

Both Thomas Sheffer and the researchers at Interboro contend that blots may be “anti-urban” or lack aesthetic quality.  I believe that nothing is more anti-urban or ugly than a street full of abandoned homes.  Further, I would contend that any of the families in these case studies would say that their blots are beautiful, not for what they look like but for what they mean.  For Ms. Cowan and Ms. McMurray, their blot is the culmination of forty years of fortitude; Victor Toral’s blot is a place his kids can play safely and with plenty of room.  Michael and Jean Anderanin’s blot is both a beautiful garden and the concrete symbol of a son’s love for his mother.  The beauty of these properties comes not from the abstract formal values of outsiders, but from deeply personal and specific meanings created as part and parcel of assembling these properties.

There are many ways that the blot process could be specifically targeted to, and marketed to, extended families.  Doubtless no program of this type could solve all of Detroit’s vacant property issues.  When approaching the phenomenon of blots, professionals need to keep in mind that beauty flows from meaning, not vice versa.  If we concentrate our efforts on facilitating residents’ efforts at creating meaning from vacant land, beauty will take care of itself.


Armborst, Tobias, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore. “Improve Your Lot!” Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, 2008: 45 – 64.

Tyree Guyton decided to change things. In 1986, Mr. Guyton and several family members decided to save their neighborhood through art. His work integrated abandoned buildings, green space and the streetscape into what became known as the Heidelberg Project. Despite winning a number of awards parts of the project were demolished twice by the city of Detroit. This has not diminished the energy of the work; the Heidelberg Project has gone on to form a 501c3 and offer children’s programs, lectures and other community benefits.
The work is not without its critics, including some residents of Tyree Guyton’s neighborhood. The Heidelberg Project would probably not have been possible in a city with more development pressure. It was fundamentally inspired and made possible by the ongoing abandonment of a Detroit neighborhood. Whatever your take on its appropriateness, it is a wholly original approach to art in community. Check them out at

From the old west, we have learned an iconic model for the homesteader – simple, hardy families far from their communities of origin, scraping a living together through hard work in an alien, unforgiving and empty landscape. In the process, they created civilization in the wilderness. These homesteaders came to embody essential American values such as thrift, toughness, stoicism and self-sufficiency.

The myth created around this archetype – and make no mistake, it is a myth – obscures a set of more interesting facts that are potentially valuable as we explore (exploit?) the possibilities of shrinking cities. What are the facts that the myth obscures?

The first is that people simply moved to the frontier for abstract notions of freedom and liberty. People moved to the frontier mostly for economic reasons – they wanted to make a decent living and decided the dangers, when weighed against the opportunities, were worth it. They were often escaping limited options in other countries or in established American urban areas, including racial and class discrimination against Eastern Europeans, the Irish and people from the Mediterranean countries in Europe. This is in addition to African Americans and poor whites from the Appalachian regions of the Northeast.

The second myth is the myth of the uninhabited landscape. Like every other area on the American continent, the west had been inhabited for centuries by Native Americans whose social and community structures were well-adapted to their environment. The sense of an alien landscape can be attributed to the common practice of European settlers applying habits of living developed in other places to the western landscape. The source of my discomfort is that the current conversation about shrinking cities mirrors some elements of the Manifest Destiny/Homesteader myth. A partial list includes:

• The discussion of “abandoned neighborhoods” that are still inhabited by long-time residents, residents who, often with no support from institutional structures, have made radical adaptations in their lifestyle in order to remain in their communities. • The planned consolidation of remaining residents in dense communities whose borders and locations are determined by governmental and institutional organizations, not people in the community.

• The previous two intellectual constructions are paired with plans to demolish large numbers of pre-existing structures and create new use zones in the now-abandoned areas. These are to be parks (wilderness), urban agriculture (farms) and, in plans such as the Detroit plan, “opportunity areas” where large parcels would be made available for future development. • The discussion of existing populations as groups that need to be re-educated and trained to fit into the new, greener city. This is while acknowledging the unique skill sets already extant in these communities, both job and survival skills.

• The published plans reveal dependence, both stated and inferred, on getting new people to move to the area. These people are supposed to be different from the people who live there now. They may be called high-tech workers or the creative class. Just as often, these people are referred to – with admiration – as “urban homesteaders.”

I believe that the danger lies in not fully recognizing that the plans proposed will create winners and losers, and that it is very possible that the winners will have greater social and class affiliations with the professionals making the plans than the existing population. If the Homesteader Myth creeps into the discussion without be recognized and debunked, all that has been accomplished is the inversion of Manifest Destiny: noble suburbanites will be occupying the unsettled wildernesses of our distressed urban cities, struggling stoically to bring civilization to the natives in the form of green infrastructure, free WiFi and 24-hour coffee bars.

Any useful conversation about this issue will reveal a larger truth to all groups: that all interest groups and their various resources are being employed by planners, designers and policy makers toward the larger goal of stabilizing major urban centers; that this is happening because these centers represent agglomerations of financial, cultural, infrastructural, institutional and social capital that our country can ill afford to lose; and that everyone is going to have to make sacrifices to accomplish this goal.