Double Down: Detroit then Denver in 10 Days

by Kurt

Two cities could hardly be more different – a historic town filled with decaying architectural wonders (overtly at an all-time low) and another booming and spreading (though eerily suburban outside of the downtown area). But what Detroit lacks in density it makes up for in potential – and Denver feels almost fake or temporary, surrounded by a sprawl of cabin-styled, wood-framed mini-resorts that serve as suburbs.

Still, this was a business trip, so first things first: Michigan – many thanks to an amazing group of graduate students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for their critical feedback on WebUrbanist.com. Samantha Ashby, Gin Chieng, Melissa Cox, and Suyog Deshpande spent their last term (for Evaluation of Systems and Services in the School of Information) looking into usability on the site. From a combination of interviews, research and technical analysis to both critique and suggest changes in layout and navigation. It was a true pleasure to attend their final presentation and meet with them afterward for further direct discussion.

And second things second: Colorado – thanks again to Lijit and The Foundry Group for inviting my participation on the publisher panel at B Media in Boulder. Grace, Perry, Todd and others gave me a great warm welcome – the conference itself was an impressive success, bringing a slew of successful and talented publishing and advertising professionals together under one roof. From the morning office tour, through the afternoon session and into the (delicious) dinner at The Kitchen, it was an excellent experience. Wonderful to talk to folks including (but not limited to) Jay of AngryBovine and Todd of CheezBurger.

Now back to the urban(e) – pulling into a spot across the street from the hotel, two of The Clubs (steering-wheel locks) were visible in the cars both in front and behind our rental. Perhaps not the best of signs. An hour after checking in, we were prevented from leaving or even lingering in the lobby – no explanation, but police band radio revealed (well before it broke on Twitter) that there was a bomb scare in Channel 4 across the street. Someone had left a suitcase in the lobby unattended. Overreaction? Not considering an actual bomb was accidentally brought into the federal building but a few weeks before (thankfully it never detonated). The bomb squad arrived and detonated the suitcase, just in case, but it appears to have been a false alarm. Still, welcome to Detroit.

But splashy sagas aside, it is an incredible city – vibrant farmers market, concentrated notes of dense activity, gorgeous old buildings ranging from stately mansions to stone civil war veteran affairs buildings. Much was for sale, including block-sized churches and whole police stations. Cass Technical High School sits beside itself – a new city block taken over with a same-sized building as its predecessor, built new because it was cheaper and easier than renovating the old. Vintage jazz clubs turned into cozy diners and super-sized homes converted to restaurants show the potential of new growth, as did the opening of Detroit’s only hostel (which we attended while there). Much material in this city – WebUrbanist could cover the abandonments, art, design and more, year round, and never run out of new material.

Then came Denver – a shorter stop along the way to Boulder, but a fascinating mini-trip nonetheless. I was beginning to worry on the drive in that there was no there there – a series of all-at-once suburban constructions circling nothing, like resort towns without the resort. The downtown had LoDo, a lovely (if slightly trendy) little area of old architecture, as well as a new postmodernist museum (though every city seems to have one these days). Not bad, but certainly without the small-town charm of lovely little Boulder, pressed up against the base of a dizzying mountain range extending as far as the eye can see on either side.

It is too easy, in a way, to pit Detroit against Denver as polar opposites – old manufacturing versus new technology, run-down versus still-expanding, etc… Reality is always more nuanced. I read recently that Detroit was the only major city in the last few months to not experience a decline in housing prices. I hope not to jinx it by suggesting it has far more upside potential now than downside – the slate is cleared and there is room for growth. Will it come via farms or other forms of redensification? Hard to say, but the city is ready to try anything new, and has begun to do so. Denver is all about new, but one has to wonder whether it can weather upheavals like Detroit has down the line – it just does not feel ‘built to last’ in quite the same way. Then again, many of Detroit’s most solid and sturdy buildings have been abandoned, so perhaps nothing really does.