Detroit: A Perfect Example of Main Street Culture


All across the country, downtown districts are proving that the Main Street Four-point Approach® is a successful development tool. We see beautiful photographs of rehabbed historic buildings, hear of creative events that bring lots of people and learn of small businesses moving in and moving up. The process seems pretty straightforward. Apply and practice the Main Street Approach® and get results.

We all know community development is not always a walk in the park. Revitalization is difficult, and at times it can seem downright impossible! Main street professionals and volunteers face new challenges every day. So what is the real story behind the Main Street culture? It comes down to hard work and perseverance. It’s about taking ownership of our communities and our assets. It’s seeing a district’s potential and doing whatever it takes to make it better. If we don’t, then who will?

This do-it-yourself concept is exactly why we have chosen to host the 2014 National Main Streets Conference in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is perhaps one of the most shining examples of the Main Street concept – grass-roots community development.  Residents and business owners throughout Detroit are looking at their city in a whole new light. Instead of choosing to see the problems, Detroiters see the opportunities. And not only do they see them, they believe they can be part of the change. To that end, they roll up their sleeves and make it happen. It’s truly remarkable what is going on in the city of Detroit these days. The National Main Streets Conference is the perfect venue to learn how this mind set can be applied in communities across the nation. Though the city is not technically a Main Street district, Detroit is weaving Main Street’s eight principles into the very fabric of the city.

Let’s think about our downtowns as vehicles for a moment. After all, this is the Motor City we’re talking about. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep a car functioning. You wouldn’t check the oil every 3,000 miles and then completely ignore your brakes and tires would you? Just like our vehicles, Detroit has a lot of moving and working parts. To improve the city, a comprehensive approach is essential.

There are some big developments happening in Detroit—a lot of it by real estate developer and founder of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert is an avid supporter of Detroit’s future. Gilbert's “Rock Ventures” group has purchased several buildings in downtown Detroit over the past few years, including the historic Madison Theatre Building and several commercial buildings on Woodward Avenue and Broadway Street, totaling 630,000 square feet of commercial space in the downtown. In addition to Dan Gilbert, there is a strong and vibrant network of businesses and organizations in the private sector that are making hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in the city and creating effective partnerships.

To accompany the larger development projects, smaller movements in Detroit support them by tackling issues such as youth education, economic restructuring, public improvements and more. For example, urban gardening has grown to be an enormous community development tool in downtown Detroit.

All over the city, community gardens and urban farms are popping up, eliminating blight and creating a sense of community ownership. Downtown Detroit tech company, Compuware, created Lafayette Gardens, a community garden that was developed on the demolition grounds of the late Lafayette Building. Another is the Georgia Street Community Collective, a nonprofit organization located on Detroit's Eastside that reduces blight, addresses food security issues and builds community through urban farming. Many of these gardens serve dual purposes as a place for people not only to enjoy greenery but also to provide healthy organic foods to the community. Things like vacant land have become existing assets in Detroit, and folks are capitalizing on those assets in a big way.

Successful revitalization begins with the very basics and progresses incrementally, demonstrating that new and exciting things are happening in the commercial district. This is especially true in Detroit as you will see during the National Main Streets Conference.

We all know that rehabbing an entire corridor of a downtown district is a big commitment that takes time. What can be done in the meantime to make downtown a better place? In Detroit, Jazz on Jefferson is a project that exemplifies the idea of incremental revitalization.

In just eight weeks, the Jefferson East Business Association organized the amazing transformation of a desolate retail district at Jefferson Avenue and Chalmers Street into a strip of charming pop-up shops in five storefronts. For six weekends, the pop-up shops were open to showcase the newly redeveloped multiuse buildings as well as the unique wares displayed inside. The project was made possible by more than 50 architects and 10 entrepreneurs—another great demonstration of partnerships. These temporary solutions are creative ways that Detroit is taking steps to change and improve perceptions of the city while creating unparalleled experiences for residents and visitors alike.

In Main Street, it’s important that local leaders have both the ability as well as the desire to mobilize local resources and talent. This is especially true in Detroit. Local buy-in and leadership can produce long-term success by fostering and demonstrating community involvement and commitment to the revitalization effort. The Detroit Mower Gang is just one great example of having the idea and the drive to implement it. This group of Detroiters describes themselves as “a bunch of do-gooders that refuse to let parkland go to waste.” Every weekend, the group (open to anyone who is interested) gets together and mows a local park or vacant lot. The events are organized exclusively through Facebook. “We refuse to allow bureaucracy and tightened city budgets get in the way of children playing outside,” says the Mower Gang organizers. Thanks to a few dedicated individuals who have the ability to organize a fun event around lawn mowing, abandoned playgrounds and lots all over the city are looking as good as new.

To produce real change and long-term results, the focus must be on quality over quantity. The Main Street concept promotes quality and adaption to change and Detroit is positioned to be the “City of the Future” that others will strive to duplicate. This is because there are some real quality projects and initiatives happening in Detroit, right now!

Campus Martius Park is one of those quality projects. The 2.5-acre public square and entertainment venue has become the community gathering place for the entire city. A seasonal ice rink, several stages, beautiful fountains and monuments and plenty of green space right in the heart of the downtown makes Campus Martius the most active pedestrian attraction in Detroit year-round.

These carefully planned community development efforts are helping to shift public perceptions from the negative to the positive with great success. Real change means engaging in better business practices and alternate ways of thinking. Organizations such as D:Hive and Hell Yeah Detroit are just a few of the many organizations working to transform how  the people of Detroit think so they can successfully engage with their city.

D:Hive is a physical storefront and welcome center in Detroit’s central business district. The organization provides both residents and visitors with resources to make living, working or engaging with the city of Detroit a first-rate experience. It is this level of engagement that is putting Detroit on the right track for an amazing comeback.

If you’ve never been to Detroit or it’s been quite a few years, now is the time to visit. Now is the time when you actually can see a city in action. Now is the time when you can see and meet the Detroiters who refuse to see their city fail. Despite how the news has portrayed Detroit, the city is vibrant, active and most of all optimistic. In Detroit, the dedication and passion of the people is unlike anywhere else. Watch these stories. They will inspire you and the work you do in your own community. The true Main Street spirit is alive and kicking in Detroit. Come and see for yourself!