Guest Blog: What We Forget When We Talk About Detroit


Most of the conversations I have about Detroit focus on what’s changing: new businesses are arriving, young people are choosing to work and live downtown, and improvements are being made to the public transportation system and to public spaces. Rarely, though, do these conversations stop to appreciate the things that have stayed the same or mourn what we have lost.

I’m talking about Detroit’s architecture. The beautiful Art Deco buildings from the 1920s that once earned Detroit the nickname, “Paris of the Midwest.” The Victorian mansions that studded the length of Brush Park. The churches, theaters, and neighborhoods that were once the envy of every other city in America. Most of these buildings, apart from those that have already been demolished, are still here, but because they are worse for the wear, we don’t appreciate them the way we should. Sometimes we’re so eager for the new that we forget to save and celebrate the beautiful things that are already in our backyard.

There are individuals who are already investing in the power and value of these buildings, and the work they’re doing is important. Dan Gilbert (founder and chairman of Quicken Loans) — who has already bought and rehabilitated nearly 60 buildings near and in downtown Detroit — is one. You’d be hard pressed to find a place downtown where you couldn’t see a building that he’s already brought back to life.

Others are working to restore Detroit’s buildings on a smaller scale. A recent article from The New York Times mentions Gary Alexander and Siegel Clore, who own 70 homes and are trying to create a version of what Gilbert has started — a “Black Bizdom,” as they put it. The article also mentions Rufus Bartell, who has bought up nearly 40,000 square feet of storefronts with plans to bring new retail options to the city, and Robert Cooley, one of the investors behind Slows Bar BQ and Ponyride. Some of my friends have also bought a house in New Center and I’ve seen the work they’ve put into it, everything from re-roofing to pulling asbestos out of the walls. They’re renting out the home and using it as a headquarters for their startup, Castle, an app that helps landlords collect rent from their tenants.

Others focus on deconstruction, taking apart buildings that have fallen into disrepair and are too far gone to be preserved, and reusing all of the parts to build new structures so that we lose as little as possible.

Like most people, I’m not ready to take on the responsibility of owning and restoring a home in Detroit, but I also don’t want to stand by and do nothing as our ties to the past get severed in our eagerness for progress. I want to do what I can to advocate for the buildings that define Detroit. That’s why I’ve partnered with Preservation Detroit, Detroit’s oldest and largest architectural preservation organization advocating for the preservation of the buildings and neighborhoods that define the city, to create Design for Detroit.

The campaign aims to support Preservation Detroit’s efforts in preserving the city’s architecture through the work of local artists. Those who make donations to the campaign receive limited edition T-shirts, totes, and stickers designed by Alexandra Kaufman, Melissa Nurre, AnMaree Williams, or Justin Hein — young designers and artists who live and work in Detroit. Our goal is to raise $5,000 by Sept. 4. I hope you’ll consider contributing.

For more information about Design for Detroit, click here.

Clare O’Brien is a 2014 Venture for America fellow, living and working in downtown Detroit. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English literature.