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Greetings from Motor City: The birth place of sprawl

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
October 30, 2001


Detroit is known for giving the world two things, the automobile industry and Motown. So imagine my surprise and disappointment upon discovering that Detroit, not southern California, is where the sprawl monster was born. Arriving by night, the blanket of lights through the window seemed familiar, like San Diego only multiplied. It was then I began to make the connection - the house of Ford is where our commuter culture first nursed.

A lot of things die from the inside out. Hope, diseased trees, and governments are but a few. Like a cultural archeologist, crumbling cities intrigue me. Perhaps this is due to the relative youth of most things Californian. Be it sound city planning, or a firm commitment to esthetics, blight isn't suffered long in a place where space is at a premium, and new is always better. Renovation is so much better than disintegration.

Urban demise never ceases to amaze me. I can't understand how, in a country so obsessed with property rights, entire city blocks can be abandoned and left for dead. Way past it's prime, Detroit is a place now banking on sport stadiums and casinos to resurrect a dying downtown. Littered with hundreds of burnt out buildings, testaments to past industry and faded glory, the heart of Motor City is the best example of what to expect from the ugly by-products of suburban sprawl.

This is not to say the Detroit area does not have its charms, it does. I just haven't found them yet. That is except for the anti war graffiti gracing the windows of the very neglected Currency Exchange Building. There is a people mover, not unlike the one in Vegas, an outdoor market, not unlike the one in New Orleans, and a plethora of shrimp shacks complete with bullet proof take out windows. There is also three hundred years of history representing the best and worst of human endeavors.

Not to be out done in the "There goes the neighborhood" blues, there are pockets of startling blight throughout the city, still unimaginable by California standards. When the suburbs start to wither on the vine, you know something is wrong with the paradigm in which they were planted. Moving into the surrounding townships like a malignant cancer, nothing is safe from the heavy hand of sprawl. Schools, churches, and strip malls, some burnt, most battered, all empty of their intended use, whisper warnings to those made deaf by the promise of perpetual progress.

From the window of my hotel room I can see the urban forest that is Windsor, Canada. A study in contrast, the Detroit river separates the two cities as much as the cultures responsible for their founding. South of the border the American city struggles with growing pains, fluctuating between feast and famine more times than they would care to admit. Windsor, the last stop on the Underground Railroad, still calmly beckons, seemingly unfazed by the economic spasms of their American neighbors. To borrow a phase from England Dan and John Ford Colley, Windsor and Detroit are "So close and yet so far."

Being a native of San Diego County I am afforded the luxury of perspective. Traveling around the region I can't help but wonder if this is the future of coastal North County. Redevelopment is only a panacea if uncontrolled growth is not curtailed. Downtown Oceanside, a victim of suburban sprawl, is now gambling its future, and millions of dollars, on a resort hotel. Tourism always a fickle industry, is made even more so at a time when travel has fallen from favor, and tourists unlikely to venture far from home.

Our elected officials would be well served to study and learn from the hard won lessons provided by the Motor City's turbulent past. Where the City of Oceanside allowed its historic downtown to fall into disrepute and economic uncertainty, Encinitas has shown tremendous foresight by stepping up with proactive projects aimed at negating the need for the type of win or lose schemes soon to alter the unassuming coastal community that was Oceanside.

Detroit is so used to the hardships associated with poor urban planning; they have decided to base their identity on it. The official motto of Detroit is – " From the ashes, we rise again." Which probably explains why residents try to burn down the city every year at Halloween. Hopefully this is a fate the San Diego region can avoid. The pessimist inside tells me we are doomed to share the same fate. The optimist tells me we are smarter than that. Only time will tell.

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