Longtime Detroiters: Are they obstacles or assets?

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In a dozen years of being a reporter, I've been invited to more than my share of press events. The better ones are hosted by PR companies, with plenty of food, free-flowing coffee (or booze) and attractive people in nice clothes handing out literature and giving presentations. As an alt-weekly guy, it's been a source of humor when I show up, usually the shabbiest-dressed person in the room, wolfing down bagels and taking notes on a dog-eared steno pad. As the years go by, you get used to it.

I recall one time, about eight years ago, when I went to one PR event at an establishment that was trying to get more visibility. I won't mention the name of the place. Just suffice it to say that funding was coming together, and the organization aimed for bigger and better things. It was located in a disinvested neighborhood in a very old building across the street from a storefront church, but the interior was impressive. The organizers had good backing, and everybody at the event (except me) looked elegant and well-heeled.

They had a small model of the building as they envisioned it in the future. It was an impressive little model. It showed the building, the street, and a commodious parking lot across the street for all the guests that would come. It was just what you'd expect from a venture on the upswing: plans for tomorrow.

But then I did a double-take: In the plan, the storefront church across the street didn't exist. The place where it would have stood was occupied by parking spaces. I peeked out of the front of the building to check if I'd been wrong. No, the building was there. It just obviously didn't figure into their plans. I checked the property records and found that the people who'd wooed me did own some property across the street, but not all of it, and not the building.

I didn't pursue the matter. Chances were that the enterprise would thrive and the storefront church would eventually close. Even the most famous chronicler of America's storefront churches, Camilo José Vergara, has noted that storefront churches "open and close like flowers in spring." Eventually, the better-captialized endeavor would be in a position to purchase the property and realize its dream of a parking lot.

That's the sort of thing that makes me wonder how many establishments in Detroit play this sort of waiting game. It all goes back to a deeper point about our habit in Detroit of seeing neighboring institutions as obstacles instead of assets. As competitors instead of contributors. As adversaries instead of partners.

I believe it's the people at the top who set this sort of tone. The corporate rulers, the billionaire developers. They often have big plans, big ideas, and they present those who stand in the way of their plans (by dint of toughing it out in the city for a long time) as being troublemakers, chiselers, as people holding out for a big payoff when they dare bar the way for our local billionaire lords. But it's often the little people, and the modest enterprises, that make a city interesting, that keep it from being a power center in Rochester Hills, where everything is planned out down to the last parking space. The accretion of millions of individual decisions is what makes historic urban environments so darn interesting. And if that means a business shares its parking with a church that's open one day a week, so be it.

Things are changing in our town. It's terrific that we're seeing an influx of capital, of people, of respect for traditional city living (call it "new urbanism" or whatever hot label it gets this decade). But no matter how many people bring their energy to a city, it's all in vain unless we begin to challenge this fundamental misconception that what's already here is in the way. Even our biggest players would benefit, if we could only adjust the way we see our city. A city is not a mall. In order to work, it needs thousands of people pursuing their dreams and sweeping their walks, not grand planners who see the little person, or the small business, as things to be swept out of the way.


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