Jane Jacobs’ unbirthday walk

Each May, pedestrians around the world gather to walk in honor of Jane Jacobs, the legendary urbanist and writer whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities waged significant influence on twentieth-century urban planning. The commingling of Jane Jacobs’ belovedness, the city’s rapid development, and the Detroit Design Festival furnished the opportunity for a second Jane Jacobs-inspired walk this year. Put on by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the tour met last Saturday afternoon at the Model D headquarters at Second and Prentis. Twenty-five or so people were out on the sidewalk, enjoying summer weather that was by no means the crisp day forecasted by the handout we received.

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Without much introduction, we set off to check out the “pedestrian overpass crossing America’s first freeway,” which would be a long walk, since it is actually in California. From Forest, we looked out over the Lodge at the cars and the Canfield and Selden bridges. Jane Jacobs spent much of her career fighting the imposition of highways, making this site an interesting choice. We looped over the Canfield bridge back into Midtown, our guide Ellie breezing through the stops, pausing long enough for everyone to quietly absorb and reflect before moving on.

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The walk was beautifully done — its strong concept reinforced by elegantly executed signage at each stop. A red frame drew attention to a chosen scene, accompanied by a quote from Jane Jacobs’ foreword in the re-released Death and Life of Great American Cities adhered to the sidewalk. A black-and-white photo above the quote showed the area as it used to be. Standing over the Lodge, we read: “Some people prefer to do their workday errands on foot, or feel they would prefer to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car… In shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people.”

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Whether foot or car people, the tour had initially left behind about two-thirds of them, who we found standing in the Green Alley. The tour redivided, and our guide Ellie, who had designed the tour, went with the other group. Even with the new guides, it was truly a Jane Jacobs-inspired event — a little messy; a chatty, neighborly, organic, do-it-yourself affair that very successfully brought together all manner of smart, curious people. There was minimal standing around straining to hear the guide’s authoritative perspective as happens on so many other tours. Participants were left to consider and surmise for themselves, to see what their own “eyes on the street” could tell them.

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This democratic approach had its downsides. At some point we picked up a very vocal and relentlessly pro-development yahoo, a pal of the founders of the Green Garage. We stood on Second looking through the red frame at the Green Garage across the street while this loudmouth dickwad ranting colorfully about the “abominable shithole” of the laundromat behind us. It’s not the most gorgeous dumpy single-story building in town, but the “strip mall” parking lot in front he was so vehemently decrying is useful to people unloading heavy linens. Safe to assume he is not coming “down to Detroit,” as he put it, to do his laundry. This guy even wrangled the role of guide at one point, suggesting that we detour to check out the El Moore renovations, also courtesy of the Green Garagers. The tour, which was supposed to be two miles and last an hour, had been steadily losing participants, and quite a few more vanished as we followed his lead.

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On Cass just north of Alexandrine, we stared intently at the shiny exterior of La Feria and Thrift on the Avenue as our guide, excitedly filling us in on last year’s commercial development news, told us that “before then, nobody walked south of Willis.” A woman and her young daughter scurried past us, southbound and muttering apologies, ducking to keep out of the way of our cameras. Incredulous, I asked, “How did people get to the Old Miami?” “I mean, like, regular people didn’t walk past there,” he clarified. So who is it that goes to the Old Miami, irregular people?

Ultimately, the circuitous route we followed gave the impression that the whole city may be made of Cass-and-Canfields, or should be. While it’s undoubtedly nice to have places to go and things to see other than abandoned buildings, this walk offered as much trite development cheerleading as one might expect. “I saw who was putting it on — I wouldn’t go,” a friend told me afterward, referring to its starting point at Model D. At least half of the ten stops related directly to the Green Garage, Model D, or Midtown, Inc. Did the out-of-town visitors get to experience Midtown beyond this narrow scope? And what of the Cass Corridor? As the walk’s handout read, “For as much activity as there is happening today, the neighborhood is perhaps even more interesting for the history that exists there.” The walk’s celebration of history was a quiet party attended by few.

It’s unfortunate that Tom Boy Market’s closure and future reuse as high-end retail came a week too late. It would have been an fine additional example of gentrification in progress. As Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” especially luxury loft-dwellers and rooftop-cabin hostel-goers who visit Detroit in search of more high-end retail shopping opportunities. I was unable to stay for the post-walk chat at Great Lakes, but I hope the expensive pourovers fueled a more nuanced conversation.

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