IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

Detroit, USA Letter Home

By Trustees Fellow Daniel Woodard with input from Megan Bowman, Rebecca Coven, Jessica Nunes, Leah Rosenberg and Nick Wilder.

Hauling their bags as they entered the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center, the students of the Fall 2011 class of IHP Cities in the 21st Century started their semester-long journey with smiles and handshakes. Faculty and staff were present to give introductions and welcome the newest members  and their family and friends to the IHP family. Oliver Ragsdale, Jr., the president of the Arts League of Michigan (owner of the Carr Center and our classroom space) was also present to give the students their first directive of the semester: “Check all preconceptions about the city of Detroit.  The city is misunderstood in many ways and students need to understand it for themselves.” Challenging students from the beginning, Oliver asked them to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the city.   

Students rose to that challenge. Leah Rosenberg recounted a walk with other students to visit Roosevelt Park and enjoy a meal from Slows BarBQ, Detroit’s most famous barbeque restaurant. During the walk, she began a conversation with a friendly local who told her that Detroit is “the smallest town and largest city.” This slogan was repeated by many throughout the first week as presentations from guest lecturers pointed to the city’s large size, and interactions with residents invited students to engage with its friendly, small-town atmosphere.

During their keynote address, Stephen Vogel and Dan Pitera of the University of Detroit Mercy (our Detroit host institution) explained how the City’s phenomenal growth in the early 20th century was due to Ford’s doubling of  factory wages (to $5/day) and related accessibility of homeownership.  The city burgeoned with single family houses, wide streets and plenty of work through World War II and into the 1950’s. While changing economics have currently left Detroit neighborhoods with high rates of abandonment and blight, Stephen and Dan challenged us to see unused land as an opportunity for reuse and reinvestment. During the first week, we met with city agencies and non-profit organizations to learn more about their efforts on behalf of the future of the city. One group of students met with Olga Stella from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and learned about the non-profit’s efforts to retain and draw business into the city. Nick Wilder was struck by the spirit and passion of Olga and other employees of DEGC.

However, as students visited more areas of Detroit, they noticed different plans and dialogues, often uncoordinated or contradictory, emerging. Even the names of neighborhoods sometimes lack consistency. Leah Rosenberg recounted her experience in a neighborhood that was titled “Claytown” by the city government. However, she also saw signs, made by the Skillman Foundation, which declared the area to be the “Chadsey-Condon” neighborhood. Most residents she spoke with claimed the area to be Southwest Detroit. This battle over identity became an interesting display of different power players and the influence that they hold within a neighborhood.

Students were eager to continue their discussions outside of the classroom to understand themselves and the city more deeply. Inspired by a presentation on issues of race and class in Detroit given by Freda Sampson from the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, students led their own forum on the topic of privilege. As we discussed the racial segregation that exists in Detroit, we struggled between the personal drive to provide the best opportunities for one’s own family while also recognizing the values of living and investing in an ethnically and socially diverse neighborhood. The discussion was a great example of the open approach that the group has taken while discussing difficult issues.

During the second week, we explored different city neighborhoods to learn about the individual places and identities that exist within the web of the larger city. One group of students visited Indian Village, a historic Detroit neighborhood that used to be home to executives of Detroit’s big three auto companies. On her exploration, Megan Bowman spoke with neighborhood residents including Ray, who gave her a detailed history of the neighborhood and insight into its distinct character. Megan states, “I’ve learned so much over the past two weeks, and my most memorable and positive experiences were interviews with residents.”

Throughout the two weeks, students heard over and over again that Detroit’s strength is its people, and Rebecca Coven offered a story about witnessing that strength firsthand. “One Sunday we came across a barbeque with over 700 people. Asking around we learned that there was once a city resident named John who held parties for the neighborhood at his business every weekend. After John passed away, his building was left vacant and was eventually demolished. However, because many Detroit residents still had a connection to the space, they decided to hold a jazz celebration every Sunday to keep the memory alive. The residents were very inviting. We were asked to join in on their dance circles.”

Speaking to this sense of place, Jessica Nunes also found inspiration in the residents of Detroit. “The passion, love, and dedication that these residents have to their city have reinforced the fact that no place or space should ever be forgotten or disregarded.”

The students left Detroit on a melodic note by writing songs about the city and its future and performing live before the faculty and our hosts from the Carr Center. The creativity and variety in the students’ messages showed how they had experienced Detroit and made that experience their own. Detroit was a great start to the semester and we all look forward to the developments that lie ahead.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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