Our Architecture, Ourselves: Building a Future in Detroit

Cross-posted with Watapama.Wordpress.com

Sometimes it is hard to look in the mirror. We don't want to see the truth about what we are, what we've become, what happened to our younger, more innocent selves. Events in our lives leave their mark on our physical selves, reminders of our triumphs, our defeats. Some of us try to hide from the inevitable effects by modifying, even replacing portions of our physical appearance to render us more acceptable to society, according to often unattainable standards.

Some of us however, accept who we are. We proudly wear our wrinkles, our looseness, and our gray in order to convey to the world our achievement of having survived. We accept our role as wise elders. While socially acceptable beauty can be temporarily retained, presenting a false self to the world, it is the ones who accept their past and its physical trail upon themselves that intrigue us. They command respect. They have stories to tell, lessons to teach, wisdom that just might prevent the newcomer from repeating grave mistakes of the past.

The role of architecture in our lives is, in part, to provide a similar mirror for ourselves, a reflection in steel and stone of who we are, who we aspire to be and who we were in times past. Just as our physical selves reflect a continuum of change, adaptation and compromise, so to do our buildings.

When I travel through the streets and alleyways of Detroit, I am in the presence of architectural wise elders. I am surrounded by the human equivalent of grandparents, great-grandparents, holding ground, telling stories of their lives, their physical appearance revealing the lessons of life in ways only they can tell.

Many of the buildings that surround us in Detroit tell stories that are painful to hear, truths about our own behavior as a community: untethered racism, the contrived wars on drugs, political graft, failed social programs. We move in and around them, staring at them, somehow knowing the importance of witness. Their scars tell stories that are downright shameful to hear and while we want to look away, we don't.

This is precisely what makes Detroit such a powerful place: We don't allow our architecture to lie about who and what we are, where we have been nor the mistakes we have made. We let our historic architecture tell the truth: we have been through some nasty times, now take a seat and let me tell you a story. Listen well and remember so that you too will not make the same mistakes. In the environment of today, where a majority of Americans live in a false reality concocted by media, technology and stealth marketing to the point where our very breath seems an illusion, Detroit is an oasis of truth, a reprieve from the constant denial of our own humanity. We know we are alive here, feet on the ground, shoulders to the struggle.

Some want to remove Detroit's older buildings, claiming they no longer serve a purpose, that they are used up reminders of a past that no longer exists. A current example is the Park Avenue Hotel, constructed in 1923-24. This particular building, purchased by pizza mogul Mike Ilitch in 2012, is a typical structural wise elder whose use has been continuously adapted to serve our community in honorable ways. It functioned as a hotel until 1957 when it became a residence for seniors run by the Salvation Army. Then it became The Harbor Light Center, serving the homeless and those suffering from substance abuse, an adaptive reuse that assisted a community in need. The years that followed saw the Park Avenue experience the natural laws of commodity: giving itself up to scalpers and the underground economy of raw materials. The building remains structurally sound and acknowledged by governing bodies for its role in our community going back through time.

And yet, this viable building now finds itself in the footprint of a loading dock according to the design plans for the Ilitch family's new stadium. A loading dock. This scenario is a glaring example of an outdated approach to building out Detroit. It reveals leaders whose time has passed, leaders who are now dangerously out of touch with what is possible, necessary and demanded by those who will live, work and raise families in this place. The old paradigm is obsolete. Urban stadiums, cash cows for franchise owners who hold our local governments hostage to obtain a virtual monopoly on capturing our entertainment dollars, have left a lot of us truly disgusted at our own priorities as a community. We want our city back from the plantation-like power structures and sometimes that means creating a legitimate boundary and saying enough is enough. We no longer want to mutilate the city itself to line the pockets of others. The Park Avenue is just one more in a long list of threatened architectural wise elders that form the city itself.

The next generation of Detroit residents are here because this is one place they have found that does not exist in a state of delusion about its past. They can rely upon the environment that surrounds them to convey life realistically, in real-time. They want to raise their children in such a place for just that reason: they want them to grow up grounded, aware of the full spectrum of life experiences that await them, the good the bad... and the internally, as well as externally beautiful. They value authentic in all that they do and they want the walls around them to reflect that. They do not want to participate in some pie-eyed developers concept of bright shiny and new, they want to live in a way they reminds them of life's continuum, that they and their children have a distinct place in time between what came before and what is to come in the years ahead. It is our existing historic architecture that reflects these values, simply waiting to be incorporated into the fabric of inevitable new development.

In Detroit, our historic buildings are the omnipotent teachers of our own truths, the lessons of our failures as well as our triumphs. Some of us, perhaps the more evolved of us, realize they are playing a critical role in defining how we approach the future of Detroit. We must learn to let our past remain present as we create the future, informing the decisions we make about how we want to live and raise our families in this place, our home.

For more information on the status of The Park Avenue Hotel, please call the Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board at 313-224-3487