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BRO Leaves Town #4: Buffalo Ain’t Detroit

When the national press needs to invoke the less desirable charms of the Rust Belt they will invariably include the name of the Rust Belt capital, Detroit Michigan. When needing additional emphasis (which is almost always) they will also throw in one or all of the other supposed big time Rust Belt disasters Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo.  I have little experience with these other 2 cities but I can speak about Buffalo and with a bit less authority about Detroit.  Let me say this very emphatically.  Buffalo ain’t no Detroit and I don’t mean that in a bad way – for Buffalo that is.
I have family in Detroit so I am there often. The place is quite fascinating and not for the right reasons.  I get sad and angry when I am there.  Sad for what has been lost and continues to be lost and sad because I am not confident there is a will or a way to save what is left of that city.  As many know, Detroit is a city decimated by population loss, poverty, crime, corruption, industrial decline, mismanagement, abandonment, and decay.  It is a very shallow remnant of a once great metropolis.  Though still a very large city of about 900,000 people it has followed the course of many American cities as it shrank drastically from its height of about 1.8 million in 1950. Just since 1980 Detroit has lost the equivalent of the entire population of Buffalo.  Its remaining population is virtually all African American and poor and is dominated by a massively sprawling suburban population totaling 5.7 million people (including nearby Canada). 

So, you might be saying to yourself, Detroit actually does sound like Buffalo, just biggie sized.  Certainly Buffalo suffers many of the ills known in Detroit, as do all the Rust Belt burgs.  Even big flashy Chicago has these issues.  However, I don’t believe that there is any other American city that suffers the issues of urban decline to the extreme extent that Detroit does, including Buffalo.  Anyone who believes that Buffalo is a pint-sized version of Detroit has never actually experienced both cities first hand.  By doing this story I risk the wrath of proud Detroit residents who understandably want to protect the name of their city.  To them I apologize in advance and hope that I am not taking unfair swipes.  I really take no pleasure in bashing another place to pump up another.  But, there is no other way to do this story without doing a little smack down on Detroit as a way of showing the positives in Buffalo and to draw the line to the Detroit-Buffalo comparison.  I am not saying all is good and cozy in Buffalo, just that Buffalo has tremendous assets and momentum that make it starkly different than Detroit in a way that is not recognized nationally and that even Buffalo residents may not realize.
First, Detroit the good.  Detroit experienced its massive growth at the same time the United States made its amazing ascendancy to the top spot of world powers. From the dawn of the auto industry in the 20’s to mid century American dominance, Detroit was possibly the most influential city in America.  It was an industrial mega-city with vast wealth.  It was high tech and dirty industry all rolled into one. It was blue collar but was also sophisticated culturally. As its industrial leaders changed the way things are made, its main product (cars) transformed the way cities across the nation were made and remade. Its architects led the American modernist movement with almost all of the important names of the area either practicing in or starting their careers in the Detroit area.  Saarinen, Yamasaki, Eames just to name a few of the mid century master designers who influence our culture even to this day.  In music, of course, Detroit gave us the Motown sound, which revolutionized popular music and fashion. Many say that downtown Detroit has the best collection of 1920’s skyscrapers in America.  This is not a farfetched statement even when compared to NYC.  The downtown area is full of amazing and extravagant towers and many smaller buildings that create one of America’s most fascinating urban environments.  The downtown streets are laid out in a beautiful radial pattern that provide endlessly fascinating and complex views and vistas of elaborate building collages.  It speaks of enormous civic pride and accomplishment.

Now the bad.  Even as Detroit prospered the seeds of its demise were being planted.  The car, of course, was the main driver of Detroit’s wealth and as such the city made sure the car was well accommodated as the city grew.  This means that all of the city’s main streets are massively wide.  Woodward Avenue for example, once the Delaware Avenue of Detroit, is 8 lanes wide!   It is approximately 2 times wider than any street in the city of Buffalo.  This scale of street is common in Detroit.  With their cars, people spread out far and wide covering 145 square miles just within the city limits.  They built no subways as other very large older cities did. Instead starting in the 50’s, and continuing in ensuing decades, the city built an extensive crisscrossing grid of highways that left island neighborhoods surrounded by highway moats.  Eventually people moved even further out into the surrounding countryside with the 6-county region now covering almost 4000 square miles. As they did, Detroit embraced suburban life with a passion showing the rest of the country the way to its future.  The American workingman made it big in Detroit.  His unions gave him the best lifestyle the planet had ever seen.  But eventually overreaching by those unions coupled with poor corporate management soon doomed American industry and Detroit’s gravy train started to show signs of an end. Race riots in the 60’s were the final nail in the coffin as Detroit emptied out at an unprecedented pace.
Today Detroit is a decimated city that is shocking to see.  The extent of abandonment and decay would be surprising even to those in other Rust Belt cities. Abandoned 30 story buildings are not unusual.  Imagine the Statler abandoned… for 30 years, hollow windows, graffiti covering its walls and trees sprouting on its roof.  Now imagine the same for the Liberty Building and the Rand building and many more.  Imagine Allentown and Elmwood Village mostly gone.  Imagine blight throughout North Buffalo and South Buffalo. There are few signs of real life in Detroit.  Completely abandoned buildings in downtown Detroit are common and may even outnumber the buildings still in use.  The kind of abandonment and decay known in downtown Buffalo is quaint by comparison.  Moving out from downtown Detroit you find massive tracts of emptiness sporadically filled with buildings here are there, many underutilized or in severe decay.  Burned shell buildings are common.  Though there are pleasant areas and neighborhoods near downtown, they tend to
be isolated suburban style islands such as the Mies van der Rohe designed Lafayette Park.  I have not explored all of Detroit, but every neighborhood I have been in has blight and abandonment very nearby or mixed in.  There are no active and dense neighborhoods equivalent to Allentown, or Elmwood Village.  There are no streets of commercial activity like Hertel or Elmwood or Allen.  The critical mass of population in a large city like Detroit should make this a vibrant and exciting place but it cannot because the people and wealth have been dispersed to such a great degree.
Detroit has tried all the silver bullet and urban toy style developments to no avail.  Buffalo has done so as well but perhaps not to such brutal failure.  Where Buffalo’s train to nowhere actually does travel between downtown, 3 major hospitals, 2 colleges and a major university among other things, Detroit erected a true ‘train-to-no-place’.  Back in the 1980’s they erected a slick elevated and automated tram that circles downtown – it just goes around and around downtown… in one direction.  It has almost no riders-at least in my experience, as I have never ridden it with anyone else.  Before that, the city built a little cute trolley system that was discontinued after running less than 20 years.  It also went nowhere.  Its infrastructure was recently removed.  Of course what is a renaissance without a shiny new tower?  The biggest and most well know comeback project in Detroit is of course the Renaissance Center.  A cluster of 5 huge towers built behind giant ventilation bunkers.  When it opened it helped to empty many surrounding downtown buildings of tenants.   A few years ago General Motors took over the center, removed the bunkers and attempted to rebrand the dowdy symbol of the city’s rebirth.  Oh well – GM is still around for now. That’s good right?  What is a city without a Casino?  Detroit built 4 of them downtown.  Instead of putting them all in one place to create urban synergy they placed them all in separate isolated places with dedicated parking.  The only one successful from an urban design vantage point is the Greektown Casino, which is nicely integrated within a rare active 3-block stretch of downtown.  I believe that this casino declared bankruptcy.  Oh well.  Did you say shovel ready?  Wasn’t that the big important requirement for renewal in Buffalo a few years back?  Detroit tore down its massive and vacant Hudson’s Department store because the already highly shovel ready city thought it needed more of that valuable resource.  The store was probably 4 or 5 times bigger than the AM&A’s store in Buffalo.  The site is still shovel ready, apparently acting as an important development tool.  In the meantime Buffalo is settling for an exciting mixed-use conversion to the AM&A’s building – those darned preservationists!  Detroit also recently converted its historic Statler hotel into a shovel ready site.
This has been a long-winded diatribe and I still don’t think I have adequately described the difference between these cities.  They both have the common ailments of aging industrial American cities. But Buffalo is very different. Buffalo was originally built as a place for urban living and to this day has a relatively small but growing and dedicated core of people who are willing to make the sacrifices needed to save that urban legacy.  We can see this in the many street festivals, which seem to multiply each year.  We can see it in the block clubs and neighborhood groups that work to save and improve valuable historic neighborhoods.  We can see it in spectacular events such as Garden Walk, an event that has introduced so many to Buffalo as an urban treasure.  Buffalo, even with all its problems, has large areas that prosper and attract people who are dedicated to making the city successful.  Even though so much has been lost, the city retains much of its historic and urban heritage.  As frustrating as Buffalo can be I have great optimism in its future and see momentum building for improvement.

To conclude, not all is bad in Detroit.  The huge Book Cadillac Hotel was recently renovated into a massive new upscale hotel.  The wonderful classical edifice is probably 3 times the size of the Statler in Buffalo.  It sat vacant for over 20 years.  Vacant buildings across the street were recently being torn down.  I am assuming that this was so that people in the hotel were not looking out their windows at a building with no glass in its windows. Ironically they built a high-rise parking garage next to the hotel with fake windows, which make it look like a vacant building (OK, so that was faint praise).  There is a real reason to see Detroit.  Its downtown, even in its wrecked condition, is a beautiful urban place to explore.  Also if you go there you absolutely need to have a taste of the Detroit signature food, The Coney Island.  This is a grilled hot dog with a delicious coating of bean, meat, chili sprinkled with onions.  These dogs are amazing.  You can find Coney Island joints all over metro Detroit but I highly recommend Lafayette Coney Island downtown.  It is in a great old through-block urban storefront run by old Greek guys that remember your whole order without writing it down.  If you are stuck at home you might also take a look at this recent Detroit Google tour that James Howard Kunstler posted on his Kunstlercast but that means no Coney for you.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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