For Christmas this year we visited family in Windsor, Ontario. It made sense to stay in Detroit so we found a rental apartment called Honor and Folly, located in Corktown near the lot where Tiger Stadium used to be and within sight of the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. We arrived on Christmas Eve with hungry kids in an empty city. I set out immediately to track down groceries and dinner as nothing was open on the hip Michigan Ave strip where our apartment was located. I knew that Detroit had a Yemeni community - a fact I had learned after talking to the owners of a Coney Island Hot Dog diner visited in 2003 - and Yelp pointed me to a grocery store in Hamtramck, an area that I remembered as being mostly Polish, about 15 minutes away.
I drove along empty streets, past abandoned houses and lots, and through a blend of history and the future. As I drove along Caniff Ave I rolled down the window to listen to the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer that was echoing through the neighborhood on Christmas Eve. The Yemeni grocery store and kebab restaurant were exactly what we needed and were both busy with customers from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I returned to Corktown with food.
Corktown was empty. It wasn't hip or cool it was just empty. I started thinking about urban renewal and what a long and unpredictable process it can be. How is it that neighborhoods transform and cities make the transition from decline to growth? Perhaps it all starts in the fringes. The areas between the downtown skyscrapers and the sprawling suburbs. Detroit is a city of many fringes. Born of the exodus that dropped Detroit's population from 1.86 million in 1950 to less than 700,000 today. These fringes are areas where people are inventing their lives, building communities of art and commerce, raising families, and testing ideas of what it means to live in a city. In these fringes there are fits and starts. Successes and failures. In these fringes many people want to grow their own food, buy goods from each other, celebrate homegrown music, and most importantly, build.
Previous forms of construction won't meet the needs of these new communities. Skyscrapers, factories, warehouses, mcmansions, malls, and corporate parks won't belong. There may be some retrofitting, but there will also be new kinds of structures and even more exciting, new models for mixed-use. What does mixed-use mean when it's coupled with renewal? A garden, solar power generation, affordable homes, and affordable retail?
New communities have new tools at their disposal to allow them to produce rather than simply consume. These new communities of makers can grow generate most if not all of their own power, grow their own food, design schools for their children, and create art. It's possible to see these movements as a sum of their parts: local arts, farm to table, renewable energy, makers, hipsters, off the grid, co-living. Like minded individuals forming communities based on shared values and that wonderful blend of optimism and empowerment that is required to create a cultural shift. I saw all of these qualities in Detroit, in natural tension with the neglect and fear inherent to the status quo. It reminded me of the neighborhood where I grew up in Toronto, the neighborhood where we bought our first home in Miami, the neighborhood where our daughter was born in Brooklyn, and developing areas of Seattle where we live now.
At the edge of Corktown is a structure would appear to exemplify the challenges inherent to renewal. A multi-story home, built from shipping containers, next to an abandoned house, next to an interstate, and in the middle of what feels like nowhere at the edge of what could reasonably be called Corktown. A residential builder decided to make a go of it and built a new kind of home. As desolate as the area was when I visited on Christmas day, there was a woman running her dog in the vacant lot behind this home. I couldn't tell where she had come from but it seemed obvious that she was a local. An early member of a new community that on Christmas Day seemed nowhere to be found. The Corktown shipping container home was pushing the neighborhood outward.
A recent Curbed article claimed that shipping containers serve as a model for urban 'infill.' In the short time that I was in Detroit I learned of a number of projects at various phases of completion that were using shipping containers for housing, retail, and arts centers. Architects and developers in Detroit are taking urban spaces and using shipping containers as canvas for their creativity. Containers are cost effective sturdy, readily available, and easily combined to build homes, stores, retail complexes, and small communities. We started blokable because we're excited about the potential of shipping containers to solve problems including, but not limited to affordable housing and urban renewal. We're just getting started and the fringes of Detroit were a vivid reminder of both the potential and the challenges that lie ahead.
And then on the 26th, Corktown was busy again. Where one night before I would not have taken the kids out for a walk at night it was now impossible to find parking. The bars and restaurants on Michigan Ave were packed with generations of patrons. The block was vibrant and alive and was the most lively scene I've witnessed in over 25 years of visiting Detroit.