Cities Marked by Devastation Rise Again

New Orleans and Detroit have little in common -- except their ability to persevere.
November 2, 2015
Detroit (Kevin Chang)
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Over the past decade, two very different American cities -- Detroit and New Orleans -- have attracted the attention of city planners, politicians and urban designers as both have struggled to recover from disaster. Through the years, a parade of well-meaning professionals arrived in New Orleans and Detroit with special skills, heightened energy and idealistic intention to help them recover and revitalize.

Despite the fact I find both cities incredibly interesting, I was not one of those people. This shouldn’t be taken as an indication of my lack of interest in their welfare. It simply reflected my belief they already possessed the seeds of recovery -- if in fact it was ever in question.

My first street-level experience with Detroit was some 20 years ago and I was impressed -- or perhaps I should say depressed. It was no doubt an important, historic city and one I had heard about all my life. I had witnessed the Great Migration of African Americans from the South -- intrigued by the promise of jobs and opportunity. I had also heard stories from adventurous (and somewhat unscrupulous) used car dealers who traveled to Detroit to bring back cheap, rusty relics. They would take a bus to Detroit and buy two cars, driving one back and towing the other. Pulling "hook-ups" (that was the term) was a widely conducted, if shady, enterprise. Listening to the tales of adventure, I had an image of Detroit as an Oz-like city of industry. When I finally had an opportunity to experience it, I found my youthful imagination was not far off the mark.

But time and the shifting tides of the national economy had not been kind to Detroit. Twenty years ago the decline was in full swing and many of the streets looked like scenes from a Mad Max movie. As a somewhat well-traveled city planner, I had a high tolerance for deteriorated urban environments. But the empty streets and ghostly abandoned structures struck me as particularly sad and unnerving.

Over the years, I have traveled to Detroit many times, but my visits were usually quick, with little time to fully experience the city. However, recently I had an opportunity to see it through unhurried eyes. I drove around and compared the city I experienced 20 years ago with the Detroit of today. Once again, I was impressed, but this time my experience was far more positive. I found a revitalized downtown, alive with people day and night, and a reopened Belle Isle Park -- once again an island jewel with the best views of Detroit's skyline. I saw acres of once-empty lots converted to urban gardens. I found all the signs of life any urban professional would appreciate.

In short, I'm happy to proclaim  that  Detroit is rising once again. Best of all, it has retained much of its diverse ethnic charm with an enviable multicultural restaurant scene. I had lunch in a restaurant owned by relatively new arrivals from Yemen and dinner in a well-established Polish tavern. Driving into downtown, I saw a city in full recovery and preparing to blossom. Even the old Packard plant -- empty for decades and a must see for curiosity seekers on the “disaster tourism” circuit -- is now slated for a multi-million dollar refurbishment.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick Internet search of "rebuilding Detroit.” Not surprisingly, I found dozens of applicable references. Land Lines, the quarterly magazine of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, features a comprehensive summary of the unfolding story of Detroit. I also recommend a lengthy piece in USA Today and a TED talk by planner and architect Toni Griffin. For those unrepentant city lovers like myself who still want more details and context, I suggest reading Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli.

The other comeback story in this unlikely coupling of hard-hit communities -- New Orleans -- is part of Cohort II of the City Accelerator. Though we've mentioned the city and described the efforts to rebuild in previous posts, I actually haven't been back to visit since Katrina. Similar to Detroit, an Internet search for “rebuilding New Orleans” produced a number of sources, including a piece in USA Today. Of course there is more -- much more. The studies and plans produced for Detroit and New Orleans by talented city planners, architects and urban development professionals could fill a large warehouse. And the efforts to understand and apply the best practices recommended therein will keep future planners busy in the decades to come.

I have described how my city, Chattanooga, opened its arms and took in hundreds of refugees from New Orleans following Katrina. After the storm, like many cities, we sent teams to aid in the recovery. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to talk with their current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, as well as former mayors and other officials. I have admired their work to rebuild their health infrastructure to replace "Big Charity" hospital that was destroyed by the storm. I have seen presentations about the reconstruction and strengthening of the levees. I have read about the restoration of neighborhoods, additions to the already world-class restaurant scene and all those other special qualities that contribute to the city’s unmatched culture.

It is my understanding that just like Detroit, New Orleans is back -- and I’m ready to see it for myself. I plan to be in New Orleans before the end of November and I might just sit in the French Quarter, sip a café au lait and nibble a beignet while I'm there.

Stay tuned.

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