Francis Grunow: Digging Detroit



So, you want to help Detroit?

No doubt about it, fixing this city is a pretty daunting task. But don't despair, Detroit is full of great people and organizations working everyday to make the city a better place. Here are a few causes to check out. They're all optimistic. They're all about the city. And most importantly, they all need your help:

Support Mass Transit in Detroit

What other civilized region on earth does not have a workable mass transit system? What are we missing here? The resources? The know-how? The will power? As has been proven around the globe, one of a city's most powerful tools is mass transit. Mass transit allows urban density to flourish by giving people multiple transportation options. It helps regions and municipalities understand interconnectedness and encourages the development of common planning principles.

Sound like communism? More like common sense.

The DARTA (Detroit Area Rapid Transit Authority) bill, currently being considered by our state legislature, would establish a regional transit authority that would, in turn, develop the structure and financing plan for a mass transit system in the Detroit area.

In his infinite wisdom, our dearly departed governor John Engler got mass transit and charter schools inextricably linked in his head late last year. The legislature didn't vote for granting more charter schools, so as a final act of lame duck defiance, Monsieur Engler vetoed the DARTA legislation. Go Johnny! Way to cripple your state's largest city!

While Governor Granholm has vowed to pass this legislation, certain suburban communities are plotting to incorporate "opt out" language before the next round of voting.

Tthere there are those who would say, "It'll never happen here. We're the Motor City!" Well, trains have motors too, and there's a long precedent of alternatives to cars in Detroit. At this time one hundred years ago, Detroiters were underway with the construction of a streetcar system that would become one of the most extensive in the country. We've been planning a subway system since at least the 1910's. What do we have to show for any of this? A Disneyland monorail that goes in circles and a mile long trolley that serves about 10 people a year. Wow, we've come a long way, baby.

Transportation Riders United and M.O.S.E.S. (Metropolitan Organizing Strategies Enabling Strength) have been spearheading this effort over the last several years. Join them today and maybe someday you can take the subway to a baseball game.

Save a Building (Build Urban)

I'm a real sucker for old buildings and Detroit has lots, with one of the most neglected architectural legacies in the United States. The Boston-Edison neighborhood has one of the country's largest historic districts, and downtown Detroit contains one of America's largest assemblages of pre-war skyscrapers. While cities throughout the United States find new and creative uses for otherwise obsolete structures, Detroit's fantastic commercial and industrial building stock continues to deteriorate.

We all know that Detroit does an absolutely appalling job of preserving its past. Absentee property owners, political infighting and a general apathy have all conspired against scores of Detroit buildings all across our once fair 140 square miles. As the physical fabric of the city is worn away, the few success stories that have emerged are overshadowed by a greater atmosphere of defeatism and paralysis.

One glimmer of hope is the city's recent announcement that Higgins Development, out of Chicago, and Marriott International will renovate the once-grand but long-dormant Book-Cadillac Hotel, on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Boulevard, just in time for the Super Bowl.

But this wasn't the original plan. As late as last winter, several articles foretold the building's certain doom. Out of this apocalyptic mood, the Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel was formed to serve as a watchdog and lead public education and media campaigns.

Since then, the group has met with city officials, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain, well, information, launched a website, and hosted several events to raise awareness. As of this writing, all signs point to re-development, with the construction to begin as early as April if the State of Michigan extends, as is expected, its "Renaissance Zone" over the site, which would give the project millions more in incentive funding.

While the financing for the Book-Cadillac nears what is hoped to be a fruitful end, the Friends are already looking for some new friends, possibly in the endangered Statler and Madison-Lenox hotels.

If learning more about Detroit's architectural history interests you, then jump on board one of Preservation Wayne's guided tours, starting this spring. And if advocating good urban design for Detroit is what you're after, then Cityscape Detroit might be your cup of tea.

Not Sure? Make it up!

Last fall, a group of tenacious (and possibly crazy) Detroiters launched Detroit Synergy , a non-profit volunteer organization to engage native and new Detroit-area residents who love this city and want to help contribute to a thriving metropolis.

Based on a highly successful model called Metropolis St Louis (, Detroit Synergy(DSG) is a project-based, member-driven organization that seeks to bring together the ideas and talents of its diverse membership who then work with in-place efforts to run projectsof all shapes and sizes.

The idea is that if you have a vision to enhance the city of Detroit, DSG can help you realize it. From a film screening to a restoration project, the possibilities are endless. As long as it promotes city life and the city of Detroit, the sky is the limit.

The process is simple:any individual who joins the group can submit a project proposal and recruit other members to form a project team. The project team receives advice, assistance, and support from the group as a whole. In this way, DSG maintains a grass-roots spirit that allows anyone to pursue his or her idea for a greater city with the support of a larger network.

Detroit Synergy projects fall into three categories that reflect the group's larger mission:

Discovery-Projects to showcase Detroit places and experiences, familiar and new. Development-Projects to improve the physical environment. Dialogue-Projects to foster the exchange of ideas.

Upcoming projects include Arts in the City (March 22), Pub Crawl (April 11), Pedestrian Connection (TBA), Project CLEAN (TBA), and Discourse Detroit (TBA).

General meetings are held every second Thursday of the month from 6:30-8:30 PM, and Happy Hours fall every third Thursday, from 6:30-9:30 PM. Venues change each month, so check the website for locations and directions.

So, there are a few suggestions. Have fun and embrace your city! If, as one wise native recently remarked, Detroit's predicament is the result of too many small-minded people making too many small-minded decisions, then let us wake up every morning with an open mind and ask ourselves, "How can I make Detroit a better place?"

- Filmmaker Francis Grunow is very involved in the city, and still finds time to writer for

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