By Mickey Howley
It is a curious thing about modern cities that they divide themselves into neighborhoods that function almost like small towns. In the medieval city, the layout of the town was divided up by trades. All the shoemakers lived in one area, all the butchers in another, the leather tanners lived not so far from the butchers, but still separate.
There are distinct economic advantages for that style of layout. Putting all the trades together—by accident or plan— aided competition and cooperation at the same time. Trades folks could both keep an eye on one another and also help each other. And that also led to specializations and innovations.
Plus proximity increased competition and that was good for the customer, it was easy to price shop. This compactness of the layout worked well in those tight walled towns as practically everything was walking distance close.
The modern industrial city has changed all that with size. Even before automobiles, cities were getting way to big to effectively walk all over. Cities grew by adding trams, streetcars, rail lines, and ferries. All that came about to move people around on a daily basis.
Then came the invention of the automobile. Henry Ford and his Model T made the machine affordable and the USA and world would never look back. We love our cars. And cars have changed our cities.
But most cities — especially those built before the automobile or in the beginning of the automotive age before post World War II suburban sprawl—still have distinct neighborhoods. These neighborhoods function like small towns, where unlike the mediaeval system, each neighborhood works where you don’t have to travel outside it.
Paradoxically the city that has suffered the worst in the current imagination is the city where the mass production of automobiles started, Detroit. It is a city full of iron and ironies. I’m writing this column from Detroit while at the National Main Street conference at the Renais-sance Center, built by Ford and now owned by General Motors. This is the town that literally built the machines that built modern America. The town that had the best industrial jobs.
Who is to blame? No one and everyone. And maybe pointing blame is not the real point. But fixing a town like this is. Because Detroit is too great a town to cast away. And even in what is seemingly a low point, the bankruptcy of a major American town, Detroit is back on the upswing in neighborhoods throughout the city. Those neighborhoods, acting like small towns, are bringing their main shopping streets and their historical residential homes back. Some sections here are really great places to live. Just like some small towns are great places (Water Valley) and some are not. I won’t mention any by name.
National Main Street is here in Detroit this year. To see and learn. See how bad it can be and learn how folks are turning a tough situation back into a good one. And like most things it starts with individual effort and commitment and collective action. Detroit is going to make it back strong.