I don’t know why but over the past few years I’ve developed a fascination with post-industrial cities, particularly Detroit. I’m not sure where this interest comes from. Maybe it’s my love of the underdog. It’s kind of like that nerdy kid who gets bullied that I always want to become super successful. Cities like Detroit are places of opportunity. They offer society a chance to figure out what didn’t work and what can be done differently.
I discovered how true this was when I was working on my Master’s of Historic Preservation thesis: Preservation and the Post-Industrial City: Preservation as a planning and policy tool in Detroit and Pittsburgh (I know the title is almost as long as the thesis). When I first arrived in Detroit I must admit I was disappointed. I think I built it up way too much in my mind into an almost romantic idea fueled by “ruin porn” and was confronted with the reality of the city.
What started to turn Detroit around for me was the people. When you talk to preservationists and planners there you can sense their frustration but also their hope. I heard stories about buildings falling apart but I also heard stories about buildings being saved, because people still love this city so much. Unfortunately, I was only able to stay in Detroit a few days but that time made an impact on me. There are some really beautiful historically wealthy neighborhoods that seem to come out of nowhere. While these neighborhoods are certainly special, my favorite areas were a little more quirky. I particularly enjoyed Corktown. It has a really good vibe, for lack of a better word, and seems to be growing and attracting a lot of people my age. Detroit provides a real opportunity for people like me who want to use their education and skills to make an impact. Plus, it’s much more affordable than a city like New York. There are so many opportunities in Detroit to create community and take part in rebuilding a more sustainable, viable city. Plus, the historic resources there are considerable, as seen in the images below.
For all of you reading this and thinking this girl is clearly crazy and that Detroit is a lost cause just take a look at Pittsburgh. Are these cities identical? No. Are they similar enough to make a case for saving Detroit? For sure. Pittsburgh suffered the same type of industrial failure and people had the same despair as population fled (granted much less and the city itself is smaller but still…), but now it is a strong city. It’s still not perfect and still has abandoned structures, but what city doesn’t?
My family is from Pittsburgh so I’ve many there many times before, but my research trip opened my eyes to it in a new way. The highlight of my exploration was the Mexican War Streets. If you’re ever around Pittsburgh…go there! It’s is absolutely charming. I kind of hate that word but in this case it’s appropriate. It has a bit of a hipster vibe to it, but even if you’re not into that (I must admit that I kind of am) you’ll still enjoy it. This small neighborhood is mostly made up of historic row houses and has a definite artistic feel to it. It feels comfortable, has some mixed use and a nearby park. I think it would be a great place to live and it’s not overly gentrified as so many of these places can be.
The point of all this discussion is that post-industrial cities are awesome and deserve to be preserved, particularly the neighborhoods. All too often theses historic neighborhoods can be overlooked if they are simple vernacular architecture. This is just my experience, and I know there are so many great neighborhoods out there. This is what preservation planning should be about and when done right is about…using historic resources of all sizes to maintain a city’s past and its future. Experiences like those I had in Detroit and Pittsburgh are what keep me pushing forward in these fields. These cities show why preservation is important and that it can and does work for much more than house museums. I want to see people living in historic buildings; not just staring at them. (all pictures taken by me)