I love Google Maps. I can sit and look at them for hours. As I do, I learn things. Take Detroit, for example. It’s the one place where you have to go south to cross into Canada from the United States. Most people I say that to look at me like I’ve lost my mind, but here it is. I’m not making it up.
Detroit is also one of America’s most sprawling cities. A lot has been written about population loss and although the city continues to bleed residents (Detroit City now has fewer people than it did in 1850), the metro area continues to grow as it expands outward. It now extends almost halfway across the lower peninsula of Michigan. It’s easy to see this from space.
Population in Detroit City peaked in 1950. It’s been all downhill ever since. It’s not just Detroit, either. The same is true of Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even Chicago. Chicago proper has lost over 1,000,000 residents since 1950. That’s staggering . What’s even more staggering is that this was mostly self inflicted. These cities all agreed to let state highway departments carve them up and gut neighborhoods with wide freeways that led out of town. In hindsight, nobody should be surprised that people chose to take them and head for the hills.
When I look at maps of Detroit, I see opportunity. The city sits on shipping lanes and an international border with a friendly neighbor. It’s a strategic location if there ever was one. There’s also a lot of prime real estate just waiting to be redeveloped. Most of it has already been cleared and can be had for pennies on the dollar by people with vision and the courage to act on it.
Detroit is also a nascent bicycle hub. Shinola has a high profile presence in the city. Then there’s Detroit Bikes, my personal favorite. They’ve set up shop in a 50,000 square foot factory on the city’s west side where they cut, weld and assemble frames, forks and bikes from true to their roots American steel. The Slow Roll is arguably the best urban bicycle event anywhere in America. What’s particularly exciting is that Detroit is a grass roots success story and bicycles are creating an energy that has been missing here for too long. I hear it in the voices of the people I talk to here. They’re excited. They know that they have a chance to do bike friendly right in a way that most cities will never have, and they seem to have embraced it. That’s awesome.
I haven’t always been a fan of Motown. I felt that the city wallowed in self pity for far too long after the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. The Detroit I remember from my childhood was always tougher than anything life threw at it. It’s heroes were rock solid guys like Gordie Howe, Al Kaline and Dave Bing. It feels to me for the first time in forever like that Detroit is on the rebound, and bicycles have a lot to do with it. I’m not sure if bicycles will save Detroit or not, but I hope they do. If so, they’ll have done something that nobody else has figured out how to do in the last forty odd years. That would be good for Motown. That would be good for all of us.