Saturday, December 13, 2008

Urban blight or adaptive reuse: which model will come out of Detroit?

On the Op-Ed page of today's Times, Detroit journalist Bill McGraw offers a picture of the past as future in "When the Cars Go Away":
This week, as Washington has tried to decide whether to rescue the automobile industry, Americans have wondered what it looks like when a giant automobile company goes under. The answer can be found in Detroit.
His point--with the old Packard company as Exhibit A--is that the failure of the big automakers would be a social disaster.  No doubt. Inefficient cars produced by inefficient companies will nonetheless still have to go away, though what will follow is very much within human control and need not correspond to the vision that he sketches.

The essay, however, is in some ways most interesting for its impassioned description of the huge formerly state-of-the art plant, which is decaying for a variety of reasons and whose ownership is a matter of legal dispute:  
So the property is virtually abandoned, and much of it has been empty for years. Almost all the windows in the four- and five-story buildings — thousands of them — are broken. The bricks and masonry are crumbling, and two large enclosed bridges that soar over streets are falling apart. Part of one of the large passageways recently collapsed onto Bellevue Avenue, and still sits there, blocking the street.

Some floors have caved in because metal scrappers have cut out the I-beams. Vast rooms are filled with trash, from old shoes to unwanted pleasure boats.

Nature has reasserted itself: Trees grow on the roof and moss has spread inside. Chalky stalactites hang from ceilings, apparently the result of rain coursing through the walls.

Water from broken pipes collects into small lakes, freezes during the Michigan winters, then breaks up in spring and runs out of the plant onto neighboring streets. The plant is home to wild dogs, feral cats, homeless people. Arson is a regular event.

In its day, when Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century, the Packard complex was a center for innovation. In 1905, the architect Albert Kahn designed Building No. 10 with reinforced steel concrete, creating an airy, spacious workspace. Such construction revolutionized the building of factories around the world.
Like McGraw, one wonders what might have been.  Adaptive reuse of factories to revitalize urban areas and provide new jobs should be part of any major economic and technological transition, and a plan from the start, not an afterthought--or, perish the thought--as here, something that no one thought of until it was too late.

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