Detroit Design 139 flagship location

Don’t call it a comeback.

It’s not a rebirth.

Detroit has been at work picking itself up off the mat since long before now when it’s become fashionable to say so again.

Detroit, it turns out, has been here all along.

’Rebirth’ insinuates that we haven’t been here working through our issues for the past 50, 60, 70 years—and there’s a lot of people, organizations, universities, institutions, companies who have been here working very hard,” Melissa Dittmer, Chief Design Officer at Detroit-based commercial real estate firm Bedrock, said. “We’ve been trying to find a term which is both respectful of the past and the people who’ve been here and then also celebrates moving forward and I’m not sure if we have yet.”

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Dittmer prefers “regeneration,” but the term she says fits Detroit best at the present moment is “growth.”

You may be surprised to hear that.

The last time outsiders paid much attention to anything taking place in Detroit was July of 2013, when the city filed for bankruptcy. The $18-$20 billion debt racked up remains the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

That’s nothing compared to the bankruptcy filing of General Motors, a brand synonymous with the Motor City, which filed in 2009 citing debts totaling over $170 billion. That story lead television newscasts and the front pages of newspapers across the country for months.

Then there was 2008 when wunderkind mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned to serve jail time as part of a “sex and text” scandal which cost the city millions.

That was child’s play for him.

In March of 2013, Kilpatrick, at one point the youngest African American mayor to ever preside over a major American city, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for a variety of grafts, corruptions and illegalities while in office.

More bad news. More national headlines.

Murder rates, crashed housing prices, urban blight.

Everyone quit on Detroit.

Everyone except the people who couldn’t. The people who lived there.

Their efforts are now being realized. And recognized.

Since 2018, Barron’s, Forbes, National Public Radio, Fortune and The New York Times, just to name a few, have all written about Detroit’s turnaround.

As unlikely as it seems, Detroit is happening.

How?

“The inside story of the Detroit revitalization is the everyday people who have been working without praise or recognition just to make their corner of the city better,” Olga Stella, executive director of Design Core Detroit, a company championing design-driven businesses and their role in strengthening Detroit’s economy, said.

Projects begun in the early 2000s, overshadowed by all the bad news coming out of Detroit, took root.

“There started to be a move in the mid-2000s (to focus on) public spaces,” Stella said. “A lot of what we credit in Detroit right now with improved quality of life are these amazing public spaces, the Detroit Riverfront being reclaimed, that work started way back around 2002, 2003; Campus Martius Park, which is our town square—I was involved in the planning for that in 2000.”

Locally based information technology giant Compuware moved its headquarters downtown in 2003. The Super Bowl came to Detroit in 2006. Faint as it may have been, Detroit still had a pulse, even through the hard times.

Detroit Skyline, Detroit, Michigan, USA (photo via SolomonCrowe / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

“Things were never dead here, things were never empty here,” Stella said. “There have always been people here, it’s just the condition of things were a lot worse than today, and it’s definitely not perfect today.”

Detroit turned itself around by looking inward.

“You had a decade of philanthropy fostering community-led development in the city reaching a point where that 10 years of grants, incentives and other things was starting to really bear fruit,” Dittmer said.

Dittmer also credits Mayor Mike Duggan, in office since 2014, and his restructuring of city government, for allowing the city to continue down a path toward progress.

“It’s really been a set of building blocks, but little by little, these things layer on each other, and kind of help the next thing happen,” Stella added.

That “next thing” helping to transform Detroit could be Detroit Design 139, a biennial design exhibition returning in September for its second edition with a focusing on housing, economy, neighborhoods, public space and city systems.

In 2015, Detroit was awarded the first UNESCO City of Design in the United States, joining a worldwide network of cities committed to utilizing design as a driver for sustainable urban development, social inclusion and cultural vibrancy.

A partnership of design advocates from across the city—Bedrock, the City of Detroit and Design Core Detroit—came together in 2017 to demand a higher design standard for all future projects within the city’s 139 square miles, the inaugural Detroit Design 139 exhibition centered around ten guiding design principles.

“Design is everywhere—design is fundamentally part of what makes everything else work,” Stella said. “Whether it’s a consumer product that you’re trying to sell, a great place that you want to live in (or) a transit system that you’re trying to run, designers are part of the team that makes those things work better.”

If there has been a criticism of Detroit’s recent growth, it’s that the growth has been overly represented in the city’s downtown and Midtown areas to the exclusion of its neighborhoods. This year’s Detroit Design 139 takes aim at that issue.

“I love (this year’s exhibition) theme that is about inclusive future because I think that is the center of the conversation in Detroit,” Stella said. “As all this investment pours in, there’s still great inequities in the city in terms of quality of life; how do we keep looking at solutions that really allow everyone to participate in society, and in the society that we’re building here in Detroit?”

Visitors to Detroit Design 139 inspect the projects

According to Dittmer, three-quarters of the more than 60 projects selected for exhibition in this year’s Detroit Design 139 are focused on greater Detroit neighborhoods. Furthering the effort are three satellite locations of the exhibition in neighborhoods featuring exclusive content and programming tailored to unique aspects of each locale.

Detroit Design 139’s flagship location can again be found at the historic 1001 Woodward building in the downtown Central Business District.

“That theme of inclusion, I think, is really important, because people don’t always see design as being for them, that you have to maybe have a certain kind of education or a certain pedigree,” Stella said. “But what we’re seeing in terms of the innovation happening in the city, it is for (everyone), it is happening in the grassroots and it’s happening all over, not just downtown, and the exhibition will really help people, connect those dots for themselves.”

Detroit Design 139 showcases projects that represent a future Detroit while honoring the city’s design legacy and pushing the city toward becoming a leader in world-class design excellence. Importantly, the submissions chosen for the exhibition are not mere fantasy. This isn’t about theory or an exercise.

The projects were selected by an international panel of design experts for public display in front of investors with capital who can fund these visions into reality and the community members who will live with them every day.

Some of these designs will happen. That’s the point. Detroit Design 139 represents a marketplace of ideas open to all for discussion about what the city should look like in its next five, 10, 50 years.

The future is now a hopeful proposition for Detroit. With an emphasis on design, great concerts, sporting events, food and art, Detroit is becoming a tourist destination.

Who outside the 139 square miles thought that was possible 10 years ago?

“I think Detroit’s charm is in its hidden places,” Stella said. “People should come here and see it for themselves, it’s always better when you see it for yourself.”

Stella suggests looking into the Play House, a formerly vacant building in the Banglatown neighborhood now used by local performance ensemble.

Detroit Design 139 runs through September 30.