THE BLOG

Wanted: Revolutionaries Ready to Lead the Country's Second Great Rust Belt Recovery

11/17/2011 02:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

I want to take the opportunity, in my inaugural Detroit post, to write about the rust belt.

Now I've been told by no less of an authority than former Governor Jennifer Granholm (see here at 32:00) -- that Michiganders reject the term "Rust Belt." Apparently the broad sweep from Detroit to Albany shall now be referred to as the "Green Belt." And while many may laugh, I want to give my impression as a current resident of a recovered Rust Belt region, that the future of Detroit can be as bright as those who choose to live, work, and play there want it to be.

First off, a disclaimer -- despite spending 10 years of my life in Ann Arbor and Detroit, I am originally, and currently, a Boston native. And though you wouldn't know it from looking around, we were the hub of the original U.S. Rust Belt. Beginning In the 1700s, Nantucket, a small island just off the coast now famous for hosting presidential retreats was the new world's hub for energy -- which at the time meant whale oil. For more than a century, Nantucket lit the nation. And a short century later, about 100 miles to the Northwest, factories and mills, powered by rivers like the mighty Charles, became the first U.S. manufacturing centers, churning out the country's first nails, watches, and clothing.

But as the country grew, and industry transformed, these once great manufacturing towns lost their preeminent positions. The whaling industry bottomed out in the mid-1800s, bringing a sustained depression to towns like Nantucket and New Bedford. And as other textile hubs grew during and after the Civil War, the manufacturing empires around Boston suffered the same fate.

Here in the East, we are now more than a century removed from these high manufacturing times, and the rough period that followed. Our cities have transitioned out of their role of manufacturing hubs. They have upgraded their housing stock -- initially created for low-income industrial workers -- cleaned up their lands and waters -- initially treated as dumps for industrial "waste" -- and diversified their economies to keep up with the times. As a result, our recovered Rust Belt has turned into a beacon of semi-prosperity in an otherwise economically devastated Republic.

If Boston is now officially "recovered," Detroit still seems to be stumbling through the first few paces of its 12-step recovery. Unemployment is the highest in the nation. Crime is rampant. And despite a recent resurgence, the industries that once made Detroit great are still struggling.

But there are bright spots. Detroit's small nucleus is strong and getting stronger. The Ilitch empire -- Fox Theatre, Comerica Park, Ford Field -- continue to bring folks downtown to watch a set of Detroit sports franchises on the rise. A reborn Campus Martius now hosts Summer concerts and looks up to a Quicken Loans building housing a mammoth loan company and owner Dan Gilbert's new venture capital group that has now added Magic Johnson to their team. Follow the link above to see why Magic plans to compliment his venture activity with real estate acquisition in the city.

And the suburbs are still beautiful. Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Point, Ann Arbor, despite being a long, gas-guzzling drive from downtown, all still look as they did when the country's innovators and businessmen occupied built them in the early 1900s.

What scares folks the most is the urban ring in between -- made famous by the movie 8 Mile -- where properties are empty or dilapidated, services are scarce, crime is rampant, and people are desperate. To me, this is the most exciting area of all.

In his most recent book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, Peter Calthorpe lays out a new vision for a sustainable urban planning that promotes a walkable, liveable, nature-centered, economically and racially diverse version of urban living. And what better place to introduce this vision than in a rundown area just waiting to be re-invented.

Towards that end, over the past few years, a project has been developing to run a train down Woodward Street, past the crumbling former mansions of auto execs. Funded by the federal government, the City of Detroit, and a collection of local investors including the Kresge Foundation, the rail will be part of an effort to, as the Kresge Foundation puts it, Reshape the City.

For those of you brave enough to take the risk, and looking to snatch up a homestead on the outskirts of the city, how about a six-bedroom, six-bath, 6000-foot home for under $300,000? Too rich for your budget? How about a five-bedroom, five-bath for $130,000? Or, for those young, single professionals just looking for a place to lay their heads between long work days building new industries in Detroit, how about a four-bed, five-bath for under $20,000? Or for those looking to start small and larger businesses, how about commercial and industrial land at bargain basement prices? All available today.

In a "recovered" Detroit, I see the section of Woodward along the historic Boston Edison area full of the thriving businesses of Brookline and suburban Boston I pass daily instead of abandoned storefronts and liquor stores. Instead of alcoholics and homeless, I see young families and professionals co-existing with a host of Wayne State students in a diverse mixing pot of ideas and cultures. Instead of abandoned industrial complexes, I see clean energy pioneers like Next Energy and new green incubators like The Green Garage supporting the future sustainability titans of Detroit. Instead of a polluted waterfront, neglected parks and fenced in homes, I see prime real estate, open lots, and green spaces. Instead of a dangerous city, I see a thriving, tight-knit community of downtown coffee shops, restaurants, and parks -- like Belle Isle or Hockey Town café -- where I have fond memories of days spent working on my laptop as my wife toiled 9-5 downtown.

Now my East Coast friends, as well as most of my Midwest contacts, tell me that I'm crazy. They point out that Detroit has tried this and failed. They remind me that Detroit is not Boston. They note that Michigan's unemployment is one of the highest in the country. Politics are tough. Jobs are scarce. Money is tight. Homes are empty. Property is polluted and blighted. And they are right about the present. And if the future is left up to them, they will be right about that too.

But my hope is that myself, and thousands like me around the country, can "be the change we want to see in the world." We can turn open industrial brownfields into a hub of both the energy goods and services industry. We can create an energy efficiency and weatherization empire that employs tens of thousands and tightens up every home in the area. We can, working from a nearly clean slate, build a new urban vision for mixed-use, mixed-culture, mixed-income, low-carbon living. We can upgrade a transportation system already laid out in an efficient grid matrix and turn it into the wonder of the world. And when Detroit is once again great, I expect my now 2 year old daughter to marvel at her parents' vision and insight.

So, as my first contribution to this vision, I have volunteered to blog about Detroit. And as my first assignment, I will dedicate my Detroit blogging to the folks who see what I see -- a new Detroit. A recovered rust belt town with the ability to build things. A once great city that sits on a majesitc river in the middle of the second largest fresh water reserves in the world. An urban core just four hours removed from what one morning show recently called the most beautiful place in America.

So, if you are doing revolutionary work, or know someone who is, and want some love, hit me up.

And I'll see you all in the D.