We’re Not Dead, We’re Just Pacing Ourselves

Can we please stop declaring places dead?

As a Detroit native- declared by many observers to be dead- it irks me to no end. As someone who works everyday with the cities of Flint (also declared dead), Lansing (mostly dead), and Grand Rapids (dying), I find it appalling when the national media swoops in and writes an easy story about a burned out block of buildings and sticks a journalistic knife in the heart of the entire city. To be honest, it flat pisses me off.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to present in Buffalo, NY (another dead place in the eyes of many) with representatives of universities and local government officials from throughout the U.S. and Canada. The attendees were gathered as part of the International Town/Gown Association annual conference. While in the city I also took some time to catch up with some cousins of mine, take some tours, and experience the regeneration of the core city and its neighborhoods first hand.


Larkin Square in Buffalo, NY

Wow, was I impressed. Part of the favorable view had to do with what is already working- Elmwood Avenue, Larkin Park, and the lower west side. There are other spots that are emerging, too, like Allentown, the gallery areas around Central Park, and the promise of the massive HARBORcenter investment. If Buffalo can successfully reclaim major portions of its once-industrial waterfront and reprogram them around the personal experiences of its residents then Buffalo will really have it going on!


The Goths (sort of). Does this look like a community development board to you?

Dead, you say? No way.

When confronted by people who claim that places have lost their eternal heartbeats I like to point to Milan, Italy as an example of why it just simply isn’t so. Milan’s history spans over 2,000 years (by comparison Detroit was discovered by westerners in 1701 and Buffalo didn’t really get going until several decades later). Milan’s origin goes back to 400 B.C., when Gauls settled and defeated the Etruscans. The city, which once served as the center of the Western Roman Empire, has been ruled at different times by the Celts, Romans, Goths, Lombards, Spaniards, and Austrians. While I am certainly no Milanese scholar, I seem to recall from my college history classes that conquering armies weren’t exactly easy on their vanquished subjects or their cities (you know- mass fires, beheadings, that sort of thing).  Certainly nothing close to what Lansing, Grand Rapids and Flint have suffered through, although AutoWorld comes the closest.

So what has become of this battle-scarred Italian metropolis? Today Milan ranks as a critical economic center in Italy and enjoys the reputation of being one of the world’s great fashion capitals.  The same type of regeneration can and will happen in other places, too. In fact, it is happening already to a much greater extent than many people know.

So let’s not let a few decades of decline define who we might become in the future. Grand Rapids certainly isn’t. They are becoming a medical powerhouse among Midwestern cities. Detroit is the DIY capital of a new urban movement and sports a burgeoning technology hub as well.

Where will all of these these ‘dead’ places end up? Who knows. However, just as is the case with Milan, reinvention brings new energy and opportunity to places that are willing to renew themselves.