This week, Strong Towns is in Detroit, following the stories of CNU participants and Detroit natives who are making their town stronger. Today we're sharing the story of Andy Walker, a Strong Towns member who grew up in Detroit. He talks about the transformation in Detroit over the last half century and his hopes for the city's future.

Andy Walker

Andy Walker

Rachel: Tell me about your childhood in Detroit. What was it like then?

Andy: My family has been in Detroit for generations.  When I was growing up, you could take the bus downtown and go to Tiger stadium. You could cruise around and you felt safe. We were definitely free range kids. I lived in a vibrant, white, middle class neighborhood. By the time I got to high school, it was “a neighborhood in transition.” That translates to: black people were entering the neighborhood. A black family tried to buy a house near us and people threw rocks at the house. That was sadly typical. There was a lot of blackbusting and realtors used a lot of scare tactics.

I graduated high school in 1966. From the time I graduated until six or seven years later, the whole dynamic changed. For example, some of my friends were doing teacher training a couple years later and had to take a class in how to teach in an inner city high school. They learned they had to sit in a certain area of the cafeteria, use a certain door—that segregation was all legal at the time.

When I left for college, my dad got transferred to a job in Lansing. My siblings left soon after. I went to school at Wayne State, which is right in downtown Detroit. I majored in urban planning. The area where the university is, it’s definitely urban. There were a lot of drug dealers and prostitution. My parents were worried, but for me it was fun. It was a leather jackets and blue jeans kind of town. And very walkable.

Rachel: How did your perspective on Detroit change when you became a planner?

Andy: I don’t know that it did. When I was first going to Wayne State, I lived at home and I’d take the bus. I was very aware that the city was deteriorating. I don’t think I was aware of anything planning related at the time. Some things I didn’t know about until later.

It’s interesting we just had Jane Jacobs week. In Detroit, we actually have this big area that was redeveloped in the early 60s as part of urban renewaly. They wanted to put in these modern buildings with lots of green space. It looks okay, but what it did was displace a neighborhood called Black Bottom. It was very dense and thriving, with tons of local businesses, but it was viewed as an African American slum.

Rachel: What happened after college? 

Andy: I left because I couldn’t get a job here. The economy was terrible. It was during the first oil crisis. But I was interested in zoning. I had a friend in an urban law class who said, “You don’t have to zone everything, there are other tools you can use.” So I wound up in Houston, a city without zoning, because I was curious about that.  

Rachel: What brought you back to Detroit?

Andy: I've been coming back here every year to visit, and I bring my kids here. Every time we come back it’s worse than when we left. When I retired, I realized I could go anywhere, so I decided I’d like to come back to Detroit to see if I can do something to help the city.

Rachel: What is Detroit like for you now?

Andy: When I first came back it was not a good time. That was right around the 2008 crisis. (There were a lot of bargains though!) Car companies were doing poorly. The city was in terrible financial shape. The mayor wound up going to jail. Since then, the city declared bankruptcy, which it probably needed to because it was broke. Detroit has a new mayor now. 

I have to laugh because Chuck recently wrote a piece about the rocket mortgage. The guy who owns rocket mortgage (Quicken Loans) is probably the biggest factor in turning around downtown. He bought up a lot of buildings downtown and started to rehab them. He helped to make it safer.  He had a great big complex out in suburban Livonia and he said, “We’re going to move downtown.” The other big influence in downtown is the Illich family (they own the Detroit Tigers, the Red Wings, and Little Caeser’s Pizza). They bought up a lot of buildings too.

Rachel: What do you think will happen with the areas of the city that are so deteriorated, that are full of vacant homes and don’t have running streetlights or trash pick up? Will they ever come back?

Andy: Everybody that visits Detroit says: “Oh my god, I had no idea it could be this extensive.” What overwhelms people is how vast the deterioration is. There are neighborhoods that are stabilized and coming back. But other areas have a long way to go. I think they will come back. The question is: Will they come back a little bit or a lot?

A big problem with Detroit is, it’s really hard to do business here. Ask a developer how hard it is to get something done in the city compared to the suburbs. They’ll all say it’s much harder in the city. In the city, if you have a big building with a boiler, you have to have a boiler operator on site. That’s a union thing from way back. The bottom line is it’s hard to get stuff done; it might be expensive and there’s lots of bureaucracy to wade through.

But having said that, we’re getting people coming in because there’s interest. You can get some beautiful homes here that in Minneapolis or Chicago might be half a million or more dollars, and you can get them for a hundred thousand dollars in gorgeous neighborhoods. We’re starting to get a lot of artists because places like New York and the west coast are so expensive. 

Another positive thing going on is that people know how to make stuff here. They’re very proud of that. They know how to make machines; you have machine shops all over the place.  There’s a little bit of a renaissance in manufacturing, and there’s a lot of know-how here. Toyota has a campus close to Detroit. We’re still over-dependent on the automobile industry though. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but we’re still dependent.

Rachel: Is the renaissance helping everyone or just the artists?

Andy: If you’re getting at the gentrification question, then yes, gentrification is a big issue here. There’s definitely this very strong history of white flight and racial tension that persists. With artists and new people coming to the city, they’re buying up places that were previously empty so I don’t know that it hurts, but the change is not helping everyone.

One of my mantras is: Growth hides a lot of sins. Detroit has been stagnant and hasn’t grown for so long. The problems just got worse here. We also have a city income tax here that’s 3%. So if you can vote with you feet, and you have a choice, you might move out of the city. Even if you work in the city but live elsewhere, you still have to pay a 1.5% income tax so many people don’t even want jobs here if they have a choice. 

Rachel: How do you feel about CNU coming to Detroit?

Andy: It’ll be interesting. I looked at the agenda. They’re not going to see the worst parts. Maybe that’s a good thing; you see what’s working. When friends visit from out of town, I give them tours of Detroit. I try to give them a flavor of lots of different things. I take them to the neighborhood that I grew up in.

Strong Towns is in the business of understanding cities. You go to a city like Detroit and you wonder how did that happen? It’s hard to understand. 

(All photos by Andy Walker)

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