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Before the gold rush

Detroit has had almost as many comebacks as it has had reasons to need them, beginning with the great fire of 1805 that reduced the city to cinders. But unlike past comebacks, which occasionally did restore vitality to something that had died (the Book brothers' turning a decrepit Washington Boulevard into Detroit's premier shopping and business address in the 1920s being a good example), more recent "renewals" have been largely disappointing (the destruction of Hastings Street, the building of the Ren Cen, the narrowing of Woodward). And for a reason that might seem implausible.

The reason is timidity. Though we're a raucous town, timidity has prevented civic leaders from saying no to proposals that had little to do with us and more to do with somebody else's vanity or greed. But like the drowning man who's hardly in a position to decline help, we're encouraged to be grateful for whatever aid is offered.

Let's face it. The reason people from someplace else are anxious to build things here is not altruism; it's the hope of making money, from us. And that can be good for everyone, provided we don't go all timid and needy when it comes to proposals that will (as Mayor Dennis Archer said, speaking about casinos) "have a profound impact on the social and economic fabric of our city well into the 21st century."

A large part of downtown is about to be re-created; more important still, the image of the city as a whole -- the image that maps the way all of us feel about this place and each other -- is going to be redrawn. And that affects the entire metropolitan community, and will for a long time to come. It matters whether we're offered an opportunistic, cheap cartoon, or something real, something about us, that we can believe in.

Probably the best view of the "new" Detroit -- where the casino towers will sit and where the new stadiums will go --- is from the Frederick Douglass Apartments, near I-75 and Beaubien. These high-rise "projects" were put up in the '50s. Somebody someplace thought poor folks in Detroit would just naturally want to live in a kind of housing that nobody here had expressed any interest in.

Never mind, the towers got built and families got moved into "neighborhoods" that bore little resemblance to anything Detroiters (rich, poor or otherwise) had ever thought of as desirable. That discredited experiment is looked back on as something we ought to have known better than to try in the first place.

Question is whether we're about to commit a similar error. Will further, unregulated corporate investment yield an interesting downtown? It hasn't so far. Do glitzy, self-contained casino complexes and stadiums surrounded by giant, asphalt expanses represent an urbanism Detroiters can collectively believe in and benefit from?

So, what's a city -- this city -- to do? How do we quit being timid when we've got our hand out to some of the most powerful individuals and companies around? Following are three immodest proposals.

1. Require that developers of the new stadiums, casinos and other impending wonders quit working in secret and instead show the people of Detroit exactly what they propose to put up and where, before the city agrees to go along with any more deals. As it happens, our putative benefactors have got their hands out too, so we each ought to get something we want.

2. Request that the mayor's office explain the new city slogan to the people: "It's a great time in Detroit." What is it? How will we know if it is really great? The average 10-year-old cleaning his room is held to stricter standards of quality assurance than anything our city government has offered so far.

3. Hold a public referendum on the past. Let the people vote; put it on the ballot: "Resolved, history is bunk, so get over it." If the people vote yes, then make Hudson's-hugging a crime punishable by fine and/or jail term. If the people vote no, then amend the city's building codes. Impose a novelty surtax on any new structure that doesn't make creative reuse of the past (architectural, geological or archaeological).

The designs -- it seems -- are changing daily, but certain elements persist. With the stadiums, it's a cheapjack, low-balling attitude toward the use of urban space: Out with the old, in with the shoddy. With the casinos, a fortress-building vulgarity -- Scheherazade does the Ren Cen -- with whatever is left of street life being hoovered up into tacky greed silos.

Are we too timid to urge our own needs, our own history, on developers who stand to make enormous profits here? Not that they ought to be run out of town. But when have they been invited to listen? Maybe they do know what's best for us. Maybe not. One thing's sure; by the time we find out, it'll be too late to have chosen otherwise.

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