Detroit and Windsor are both suffering from many of the same problems in their downtown areas. The decline in the automotive industry has affected Windsor significantly, if not so directly as it has Detroit. Both cities have started to lose their centers as residents sprawl out into extensive suburbs, not only because of crime but also because of the shift away from traditional downtown retail districts in favor of malls in outlying areas. Retail is no longer a part of downtown the way it used to be, and buildings which once made up the vibrant shopping districts have been deserted. Many of these remain vacant and are falling into disrepair. The site detroityes.com has documented many of these buildings in detail, finding beauty in their emptiness, though this beauty goes unnoticed by most. Windsor has somewhat successfully established itself as a nightlife destination, replacing the retail industry with entertainment. Detroit is attempting to follow suit in some ways, but it has focused on large projects which do not bring visitors into the city regularly enough. While Windsor still leaves much room for improvement, it is doing better than Detroit because it has worked on a smaller scale, bringing in new businesses rather than new stadiums. Although Detroit’s large scale preservation and restoration efforts have brought some positive attention to the city, rehabilitation of and new uses for the city’s lesser known vacant buildings could contribute more to revitalizing Detroit’s downtown.
Detroit has put too much emphasis on new building projects, like Ford Field and Comerica Park, and on drawing major events like Super Bowl XL and, potentially, the 2020 Olympics. Such events might bring in some money right when they happen, but the fact that they do not occur regularly makes this less beneficial to the city’s fragile economy. The new stadiums have helped draw attention to the city, and attendance is great, but the old stadiums have a connection to the history of the city that the new structures do not have. The original structures could have been restored. Now, they may possibly be demolished to make room for housing, even though there are plenty of other vacant buildings that could be razed instead. The discussion board on detroityes.com addresses many such locations which are not being used for anything, and it seems that the Detroiters who use the site are full of ideas for what to do with the land, though most probably do not make their suggestions directly to the city. Old stadiums have been converted directly into housing in other places – why not do that with Tiger Stadium? The field itself could be made into a park, or new buildings could be constructed in the interior space. It could house museums, too.
Detroit also needs to stop relying on the auto companies the way it does. Annual events like the North American International Auto Show and the classic cruises are still popular, but even this does not boost sales of American cars. The city needs to accept the fact that new industries must be brought in alongside the car companies for the economy to recover. The need for economic diversification is clear. Could the old retail buildings perhaps be restored and converted for new uses? According to the city’s planning website, the government is already attempting to bring more small businesses and branches of national chains into downtown, and hopefully money will start flowing back into the city with them. The trick will be to convince potential customers that these downtown businesses have something more to offer than what can be found in the suburbs. This is where the vacant old buildings come into play. Most of them were once very beautiful, and much of that beauty can be brought back with a little refurbishment. Americans like the idea of “historical” buildings because the country is so young; the built environment in the US is not dominated by ancient structures the way much of Europe is. Historicity is a novelty in America, and it can be put to work to help revitalize local economies. One place where the city seems to be working to restore itself on the neighborhood level is on the Far East side. The planning site claims that the area will be made over residentially and commercially. Exactly what will be changed remains to be seen, but perhaps if this neighborhood is successfully revived it can serve as a model for other parts of the city. If downtown Detroit could restore more of its old architecture for use by new businesses and housing developments, it could infuse them with a feeling of cultural significance that would make them more attractive, so downtown could once again seem relevant to people from the suburbs.