The picture above, “YOU ARE HERE,” was taken in Eastown, Grand Rapids, MI. Interestingly enough, Grand Rapids, MI, a metropolitan region of about a million people, has a central business district very comparable to Detroit, MI, arguably a metropolitan region of nearly 7 million.
I have spent enough time wandering in both cities’ downtown areas to say that Grand Rapids has done good at creating walkable, affordable, and vibrant communities in its neighborhoods whereas Detroit is quite the opposite. The implications of poor urban policy, combined with years of divisive economic and social practices such as FHA-sponsored sprawl, have left Detroit challenged to find a balance between good neighborhoods and a large, attractive CBD. As cheap houses fueled by government loans were built in droves, largely white populations moved into what could be considered suburban neighborhoods even if they were in the city proper. Furthermore, the lack of efficient public transportation in Detroit after 1945 (when the streetcars were removed) lead to neighborhoods that were neither interconnected nor self-sustaining with their own business districts.
How have these practices turned into the rot, decay, and emptiness that Detroit is today? The most obvious example is these suburban-style, yet inner city, neighborhoods, have been unable to compete with cheap, larger homes in the suburbs since the 1950s. Furthermore, since the streetcar suburb of the early 20th century was no longer being created, none of these neighborhoods had the economic support for dense development and the inner-city streetcar neighborhoods fell into decline. One can see that the denser suburbs of Ferndale and Royal Oak have been able to keep their smaller central business districts intact while also maintaining population. This combination has allowed each city transform into a destination for other suburbanities to spend money on food, drink, shopping, and entertainment. Detroit has been unable to capture this business.
Grand Rapids, on the other hand, has done a marvelous job and economic growth in their central business district. The “Medical Mile,” of hospital and research companies provide a backbone for the downtown’s urban businesses, which are wide in variety. I cannot comment on the historical challenges of Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods due to my own lack of knowledge, but in my visits they seemed well populated, maintained, and fairly walkable. Furthermore, Grand Rapids seems to have an efficient bus system covering a good part of the region.
I find that such different cities having a widely obvious distinction between quality of life to be hard to grasp. Detroit is its own beast, hardly comparable to even other Rust-belt cities. Yet, in a lens of competition, these two cities must be compared in order to discern some of the successes and failures.