Can the Creative Class Save the Motor City?

I ran across this article in last month’s Economist titled “Detroit’s Emptiness:  The Art of Abandonment” .   It outlines the current state of the city’s many economic afflictions – massive population loss, 28% unemployment, $300m defecit, one-third of houses abandoned, $15K median housing prices, the list continues.  But within the interstitial spaces of Detroit, strange things are beginning to rise. 

The whimsy of the Heidelburg Project

A collective of artists began “Object Orange,” in which they painted abandoned houses bright orange in an attempt to draw attention to commonplace blight.  Artist Tyree Guyton pioneered the Heidelburg Project which turned a forgotten neighborhood into a whimsical art installation decorated with found objects – abandoned cars, liquor bottles, salvaged coins.  Across from the Heidelburg Project sits a house which the Detroit Collaborative Design Centre plans to turn into an independent theater with outdoor amphitheatre seating.  There are even visions of turning Michigan Central, Detroit’s main railway station, into terraced farming.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed.  The article points out that these attractions draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to streets that many would be ordinarily frightened to walk through.  But can these sporadic installments and guerilla tactics really become the catalyst for economic regeneration in a city like Detroit?  Can young artists, designers, musicians, activists – the “creative class” – be the main drivers of an urban renaissance?  In Cities and the Creative Class, theorist Richard Florida argues that the creative class has become the principal driving force in the growth and development of cities.  This has certainly proven to be the case in many cities, perhaps most recently the high-tech and artistic booms of Seattle, Austin, and even Raleigh-Durham.  But in a city like Detroit, with deep roots and traditions in manufacturing, production, and proletariat ideals, will it prove resilient enough to undergo a massive paradigm shift from working -class to creative-class?  More importantly, is this shift the answer to Detroit’s failing economy?

Landscape architects (that’s us!) have played a role in converting a total of 6 acres of abandoned land into urban farming in Detroit.  There are 17,000 acres of abandoned land in Detroit.  Will landscape architects, certainly part of the “creative class,” save Detroit?  Do the math.

“Detroit’s Emptiness:  The Art of Abandonment,” The Economist, Dec 2009:  http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15108683

Cities and the Creative Class, Richard Florida:  http://books.google.com/books?id=Dl3bvtftsV0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=richard+florida&cd=3#v=onepage&q=&f=false

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