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Rebuilding Detroit's first and last neighborhood

Cass Corridor: the revolution was not televised
Cass Corridor: the revolution was not televised
Ok folks, the holidays are dunzo. For those of you who believed in Santa, the 12 Days of Christmas were over on Sunday. Sure we may have hit -12 degrees today, but the future is warm and bright, and one for us to embrace. 

As Detroit wends its way through the difficult path of bankruptcy this year, I want to offer up three ideas over the next few weeks for you to consider as we dig out of what those jerks Hercules and Ion left behind. 

The following ideas, from small to large, all relate to finding a more sustainable path for Detroit, as we continue to dig out in other ways, and struggle to remake the city. 

Rebuilding Downtown Detroit’s first and last neighborhood

The lower Cass Corridor, the ragtag neighborhood west of Woodward connecting downtown’s central business and entertainment district with Midtown to the north, centers on a square of green that, for some, is known as "Jurassic Park." I’m not really sure what aspect of prehistory people are referring to when they use the term to describe Cass Park and its immediate environs, but it’s evocative nonetheless. 

Is the lower Cass Corridor old? Scary? Extinct? Well, maybe a bit. The neighborhood is certainly an old place, first developed in the mid-19th Century after territorial governor Lewis Cass started to subdivide the ribbon farm he bought in 1816. The area's more recent history includes a scary, but mostly sad cocktail of drugs, prostitution, and an increasingly crippling concentration of poverty.  A spiral of disinvestment over the last half century has left the neighborhood less than a shadow of itself. But it is not extinct. 

Somehow the place perseveres despite neglect, thoughtless demolition, and recent speculation, which wiped out dozens of businesses, hundreds of buildings and thousands of residents. Institutions like Cass Tech High School, Masonic Temple, and Metropolitan Center for High Technology provide stability. The Michigan Veteran’s Foundation and Mariner’s Inn continue to serve. Small businesses like Canine to FiveTemple BarHarry’sCrossFit BMW, and Cinema Detroit offer a constellation of activity to residents and visitors alike. 

And hovering over everything, like the proverbial elephant in the room, is a $650 million game changer. The new Olympia hockey arena, a heavily publicly subsidized project -- years in the making -- promises to radically alter the landscape of the lower Cass Corridor. If the history of large-scale "silver bullet" projects serves any indication, the arena’s true public benefit will be questionable. 

But one thing is certain. With the arena and its inevitable parking facilities taking shape near Woodward between I-75 and Temple, years of speculation will come to an end. And the remains of the neighborhood can begin redeveloping, hopefully in ways that are more sustainable, promoting connectivity and walkability between Midtown and downtown. As part of the overall deal, there is $200 million for additional development, such as residential and commercial projects. These, and other projects benefit from the taxes captured inside a larger, 45-block "catalyst area," a new geography that extends the boundary of the Downtown Development Authority, approved by the city council in December. 

And if development activity continues its trajectory in Midtown and the central business district, it stands to reason that the lower Cass Corridor will be the next (and last) neighborhood in greater downtown to get significant attention, especially with the arena location settled. But will it be a good investment? The better part of $300 million in taxpayer money is in play; what safeguards are there?

In terms of the arena, local groups and individuals offered a litany of concerns, in part due to a lack of transparency in the process. These issues range from the desire to secure local hires, to questions about how parking will be handled, to worries about the displacement of residents and the need to retain a mixed use and mixed income development pattern, and a host of others.

Raised to the broader scope of neighborhood and city, a poignant question emerges: How do we do development differently in Detroit so that a neighborhood like the lower Cass Corridor can be revived in the best way possible; where new development and activity can occur and succeed, that benefits the neighborhood’s soul and its residents, some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable? 

In December, I was asked to participate in the annual IdeaLab, a collaboration between Model D and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business to, "win the hearts and minds" of the world’s future business leaders to the world of possibility in Detroit. I honestly don’t know if my seven minutes created any true believers. But I tried to show in a few short words and images how some of the projects I’ve been working on over the last decade -- and what I think those projects stand for -- can help realize the potential of the lower Cass Corridor for future generations. 


When I first moved back to Detroit in the fall of 2001, one of the first things I got involved with was the Cass Tech Alumni Association. For me, despite the presence of drugs and prostitutes on the streets, going to Cass in the early 1990s was transformative, and an experience of quality education and socialization that I would never trade. Ten years after graduating, there was talk of moving Cass Tech out of downtown. 

Cass Tech alumni mobilized to keep the school centrally located, and an anchor in the neighborhood. It’s not rocket science that one of the elemental pieces of any community is a school, whether it’s an elementary, middle or high, these institutions ground a place like few other urban building blocks can. And so, after much advocacy, we were able to convince DPS that if a new school was built, it should be nearby. And in 2004, a new facility was constructed next to the historic 1917 structure to serve a new generation of Detroiters. 


Our next goal was to save the old building. It was structurally sound and had so much wonderful character and history.  Unfortunately, that dream to rehabilitate the building with a mix of residences and an International Baccalaureate program to feed Cass Tech was stopped short by scrappers, the financial crisis and the free fall of DPS. The historic property was demolished and the site now sits empty, like so many. 

Despite the loss of historic Cass Tech, there are other opportunities to heal the urban fabric of the neighborhood through historic preservation and restoration. Notably, structures along Temple and Park avenues, some with national register status, should be considered candidates for rehab, such as the Alhambra apartments, old Fort Wayne Hotel, and the twin towers of the former hotels Eddystone and Harbor Lights, among others. There is space for all of these important structures, and more, even with the new arena and its need for parking.

Culture and history

By turns, the Cass Corridor represents Detroit’s center of art, literature, counterculture, music, sin, festival, activism, and a certain raw, bohemian spirit that continues to churn out new ideas and allegiances even to this day. From artist Mike Kelley, to poet John Sinclair, to the revolutionary fervor of the Fifth Estate, to the Rock ‘n Roll of Creem Magazine and the White Stripes, all found a welcome home here.

A few years ago, the Marche du Nain Rouge started as a way for Detroiters to come together through the city’s culture and 300-year history, and use creative expression to celebrate a cathartic beginning to spring. Detroit’s version of Mardi Gras also serves to connect between neighborhoods and create commerce, using the parade route to build a growing sense of pride and place. Celebrating the Cass Corridor’s creative spirit should continue. There are so many more ways to honor this neighborhood’s cultural heritage. Maybe someone could reestablish sculptor Carrado Parducci's studio, or erect a monument to Marvin Gaye at the site of the old Motown office building?

Build on existing assets

Everyone should know about Cass Corridor’s twist on a street festival, Dally in the Alley. Going on almost 40 years, the Dally takes advantage of the neighborhood’s unique and intact alley system to create a one-day, one-of-a-kind party that highlights both people and the neighborhood. Music, art, food, and craft come together on red brick and concrete, hug up against walls, between doors and under arches of wood, stone and electric wire. What is normally perceived as secondary, or a place for garbage, for one day, alleys are transformed into the heart of community.

Though it was started a half mile north of the lower Cass Corridor, near Wayne State, the Dally provides a blueprint for thinking about the bones of a similar situation further south. Yes, many of the buildings are gone, but the blocks of the lower Corridor contain the same service alley system. New structures could be built with the alleys intact. As the lower Corridor redevelops, why not expand the notion of the Dally in the Alley in a holistic way to connect the neighborhoods using a sustainable model like the Green Alley, which is adjacent to the Green Garage? This greater Alley District, could be active 365 days a year, with shops and paths that provide a whole new (and old) way of life in dear old Detroit.

Effective neighborhood leadership 

For the last 100 years, Detroit elected its City Council at large, citywide. But this year, for the first time in a century, Detroit will be represented by seven district councilmembers. There are many questions about how this will work, and what power(s) the district councilmembers will have. But the basic concept is that elected officials who are from a specific geography will be more effectively held accountable to the issues and concerns of their constituents. What’s more, it costs far less to run a campaign in a district. The hope is that, over time, a "farm league" of real neighborhood leadership emerges to move the city as whole forward.

In one of the tougher district races, Raquel Castañeda-López, Detroit’s first Latina councilmember, emerged victorious in District 6, which encompasses the lower Cass Corridor, as well as most of downtown, Corktown, and Southwest Detroit. While Castañeda-López may be unproven in this capacity, she is smart, determined and has great promise to grow into the position by effectively representing the best interests of the neighborhoods she represents. Her voice offers new perspectives and fresh understanding, and the fact that she could not have been elected under the old system is testament to progress. 

Yes, it’s cold in the D. But winter can only last so long. 

Francis Grunow is a citizen of the world and the Cass Corridor, as well as a partner at New Solutions Group, a public policy consulting firm going on three years in the Green Garage.

In the upcoming Part II of this three-part series on Detroit neighborhood, our author digs into Detroit’s true self, which he will reveal in seven easy steps. 
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