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Towards a ‘Mix Tape’ Detroit: An Interview with Steven Lewis

Towards a ‘Mix Tape’ Detroit: An Interview with Steven Lewis

Steven Lewis. Ph. Fernando Schapochnik

Architecture and social engagement run in his blood. Brought up in upstate New York, Steven Lewis started working with his father in Harlem. He is now one of the Urban Design Director of the Center Region of Detroit. He uses his sensibility and humor to empathize and strengthen the community network. In this interview, he tells us more about the design strategies behind the latest challenges facing Detroit: countering land vacancy, serving and building the city’s population, and boosting the economy. 

PABLO GERSON Since you came to Detroit, you’ve been working hard to support neighborly initiatives and empower the community. I would like to know more about your background before you arrived to this office.

STEVEN LEWIS I got my degree in 1979 from Syracuse University and worked immediately for my father, who was also an architect. He grew up in Harlem and when he was able to establish his own practice in 1970 with two partners, they focused on neighborhoods within Harlem and other urban areas in decay, mainly because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched its Section 8 Housing Program[1] and the Section 202 Senior Housing Programs concentrated on redeveloping inner cities. After several months, I went to Los Angeles to work with my uncle, who also happened to be an architect, but soon after I was able to get a job—quite over my head as far as experience—at the re-development agency in Los Angeles. Because of my background at my father’s practice, I essentially made a leap over a lot of my peers in my age group.

In the mid-nineties, a close friend and associate—Joe Osae Addo—and I produced a revolutionary design for the federal government that was entered into the GSA Design Excellence Award program.[2] Successfully winning one of the awards led me to get to know the head of that office, Chief Architect Ed Feiner. In the sixties and seventies, federal architecture was so bad that none of the good architects would even pursue it. But when he came in, he re-arranged it and it began to attract the best and brightest architects. So, now you can see a legacy of two decades of wonderful federal civic architecture, from border stations to federal office buildings, and headquarter houses.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

As Maurice Cox looked at the candidates for my current position, he immediately thought about me because of my large project experience with the federal government. I am one of the three urban design directors that have jurisdiction over the entire 139 squares miles of the city. In order to manage that much geography, we felt it was necessary to divide it into three areas: East, West, and Central. There is David Walker in the West, Esther Yang in the East, and myself. Our approaches are all very relationship-driven. When we go out in the neighborhoods, we go out with a great deal of empathy, a great deal of compassion, and none of the baggage that we would carry if we were native Detroiters. If we came from here, we would be burned with all of its history. We have a clean slate to work with as we go out to build trust with the people in the neighborhoods.

Designing With The Community

PG What was the department’s situation when you arrived here in Detroit?

SL Back in the fifties, Charles Blessing was the director of the Planning Department and, as I read in “Redevelopment and Race” by June Manning Thomas, an account of his ten years in office, he was aspirational and visionary in the same way that Maurice Cox is.[3] However, the good works were never able to get teeth to really take hold, I think largely because of federal policy and, ultimately, racism. Therefore, we see what we see: the departure from the city, the decline, and the ironic effects of the 1965 Housing Act under Lyndon B. Johnson.[4] The ability of those who had been sequestered within a boundary of what was allowed to be a Black community also got out, and what they left behind in their wake was a concentration of poverty, hopelessness, and despair, which continues until today. It was ironic that before then, you could be the wealthiest Black brain surgeon, like Dr. Ben Carson, or a drug dealer, and you would live in the same neighborhood; all of the dollars were recirculated within the neighborhood because the businesses were Black-owned.[5]

Then Urban Renewal came along—otherwise known as ‘negro removal’ —where the freeway came in and wiped out what was, in Detroit, the most vital artery of commerce: Hastings Street. It was replaced with an express route, the Chrysler Freeway, constructed in order to get people in and out of the suburbs as efficiently as possible.

The planning department in which Maurice walked into was an almost Kafkaesque situation of people just stamping things like demolition permits; there was no vision at all. There was no collective sense of possibility or resources mainly because bankruptcy was so terrible for this city. But emerging out of it, as a kind of phoenix rising from the ashes, you have Mayor Mike Duggan with a new and different vision. Not to shrink the city but to grow the city by increasing its population. Not by proliferating it throughout 139 square miles, which is not sustainable, but rather to concentrate new population in viable centers of neighborhoods with commercial quarters that can support new mixed-use ground level retails with housing above. He tried to start to turn the curve on parking so that it does not dominate the landscape.

There is an adage—no idea who it is attributed to—it says, “nothing about us is without us, it is for us,” which is a beautiful concept for true engagement.

– Steven Lewis

Along with my professional activity at the planning department, I am co-teaching a design studio which allows us to bring a real project from here into the design studio. My class, “Designing with Community,” is a primer on getting alerted to the skills it takes to actually make meaningful community engagement a cornerstone of the planning work that we do.

Honestly, the other part of my background is because of my DNA. My father’s codes were, by nature, socially-conscious. No one in the profession was paying attention to the conditions or situations in low-income Black neighborhoods. When someone needed something, they would always find my dad or one of his colleagues through the network. We were doing ‘public interest design’—as it is called today. It is funny and ironic that it is becoming a kind of mainstream. The younger white professionals who are involved in public interest design think it has just arrived or that it has just been discovered. There is no memory, there is no history, no legacy, it goes back to the issue within the profession that we are so invisible as people of color. In 1971, Whitney M. Young Jr., who was a key civil rights leader, was asked to address the American Institute of Architects. He really slammed the institute for having all of this talent and skills that preferred to pursue commissions for beautiful buildings instead of using any of it to remedy the ills of the inner cities. At that point, Black architects represented a mere two percent of the profession, of licensed architects. Today, in 2017, Black architects represent two percent of the profession. Nothing there has changed.

Managing The Narratives

PG As you said earlier, Cox, you, and the team were foreign to Detroit. What were the first strategies you thought of when you encountered this huge and complex city?

SL I think the basic strategy is locating the areas that have the most strength and viability. If you can densify and increase population there by increasing surfaces, those nodes can then start to grow together. But key to the entire strategy for Detroit is within exactly that question: what do you do with all the vacant land?

We have a tremendous amount of vacant land that has to be rethought. In our case, we are piloting a number of experiments for the conversion of that land to some land-based business. These strategies for land stewardship are immensely important and therefore we have been able to attract some of the brightest talents globally in landscape architecture. In particular, Elizabeth Mossop was awarded and got a contract for the Fitzgerald neighborhoods.[6] There was a competition, a process that Maurice Cox has made really transparent. The selection no longer happens behind closed doors, they are mostly done in some public form and the press is kind in covering it.

I think that a huge challenge for us is the narrative, the prevailing narratives that are out there. Longtime-residents of African-American neighborhoods like to say “oh, what is happening downtown? That is for them, not for us…” But we can counter that narrative by just walking down the street and seeing the foosball table with a couple of brothers. Wherever you look, there are Black people occupying and using public space as well as White people. It is a constant all hands-on deck to counter those narratives, not to ignore them but to listen really carefully to what people are saying, to gather the legitimacy of their thoughts and complaints, and then try to understand how to address it.

When we go to community meetings and we start speaking to the neighbors, I am speaking to my cousin, my uncle, my grandmother, and they are looking at their son or their nephew. There is, through this cultural congruity, a channel of communication. We have to convince them that we are in fact genuine and very self-determined in looking out for their interest but not without their fundamental input. There is an adage—no idea who it is attributed to—it says, “nothing about us is without us, it is for us,” which is a beautiful concept for true engagement.

PG Governments are usually unreachable, but just recently I read something really interesting regarding the accessibility to government information in the city of Detroit, how does it work?

SL Our office has been really accessible to the public, others perhaps not as much. I think it is less a matter of being able to access it as it is the systems that are still in a place that seem like they were created just to be a roadblock to getting anything done. We are re-writing zoning, re-visiting codes to try to make things a lot easier. This ‘mix tape’ project that Maurice has got an asset to, started as an entitle of Pink Zoning Detroit,[7] which is about delaying the red tape and making it pink so that you can start to bring down some of the bureaucracy. ‘Mix tape’ is the new name for it—that came from the community members.

Consolidating the Inner City

PG Public-private partnerships seem to be the key economic strategies for urban development, how is it in Detroit? And, what are the projects the department is currently involved in?

SL My own experience with public-private partnerships so far has been mostly through philanthropy, working with a group like the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, to amass funds that allow for the hiring of the top-edge design firms to do visioning for the riverfront. In this case, it was awarded to SOM that is working on a long term project.[8] However, we can only really speak about what we can deliver based on known funding sources within an amount of four or five years, maximum. This is also about rebuilding trust. In the public-private partnership, the public has to be able to offer something. Right now, we have land that is probably our biggest asset, and up until recently most of that land was devalued.

Ph. Pablo Gerson

Hopefully this year, there will be a good outcome for the city, where we get funds and we can go out in the process of fixing roads, creating, protecting, reducing, and putting those big fat roads on the ‘road diet’ as we call them. A ‘road diet’ will reduce the through-lanes, slow down the traffic, and make it safer to cross, giving people better access to the riverfront. So, there are tons of strategies being teed up but there hasn’t been opportunity yet for a lot of them. In our department, we have basically been instructed that our priorities are in the neighborhoods. Those often aren’t big fancy projects, they are mainly restoring basic infrastructure, fixing broken sidewalks, getting lighting in alleys, things that will make an immediate improvement on the daily quality of life of residents. Right now, the city is obligated to cut the vacant lawns four times a year to have a six-inch uniform mow on a lawn. What if you could take the money required for that and invest it in a strategy that would beautify the lot with some other kind of wild landscape. Then, you would just have to ‘manicure’ the edges and put a little kind of edge, like fences, in order to create some beauty and sustainability without having to just mow lawns.

There is one project in my district that is coming up called “Eastern Market,” which they are now calling “Neighborhood Innovation Zone.” It is intended to take all of the food production uses, the hardcore like slaughtering and other things, that by law have to be taken by the front door retail. Now, the market is really the heartbeat of the city. The market and the riverfront are the two major organs that pump life into the city with a vast diversity of people who come and flood it every Saturday and Tuesday. There is also a tremendous amount of vacant land, and we are going to create this new zone over there, and then figure out how to backfill that market space with food-related businesses that really intensify the vibrancy of that district, so maybe instead of just two days a week, it should be opened all week. At the same time, there is a demand for housing in that precise neighborhood as well. We are just about to award a $775,000 contract to a consulting team to do that work.

In the Arena District, for example, we just opened up the new Caesar Arena. All four major sport teams are playing within the close geographic boundary of downtown and the 50-block area that they have planned. That happened before we came; we have at least an opportunity now to meet with them on a regular basis, to influence things, to try to balance the standard formula these large companies use as they march from city to city and put their stamp on it like “LA live” in Los Angeles. They wanted to do the same thing here, and we want something that is more uniquely authentic to Detroit.

Also, there is obviously Dan Gilbert and the Quicken Loans dynasty which I think is the single economic engine that initiated all the redevelopment here because he introduced employment into the downtown area.[9]

PG Where is Detroit heading in the next fifteen years?

SL I think that in ten or fifteen years from now, there will be a significant economic heartbeat in the city coming from larger corporate entities that decide to locate here due basically to the cost. As the cost is rising, we will hit a ceiling where we have to be competing with other places but, while it is still offering the amenities of an urban lifestyle, meaning that new businesses, enterprises, and retail are coming, we will continue to be attractive. People think “Detroit, no, no way,” but if they look at it closely, it could offer some incredible potential for some big companies like Amazon, who can bring thousands and thousands of workers. That would be transformative. There is also a very supportive art community that works together and generates other types of collective spaces. I think that there has always been a grassroots maker’s culture here. The downtown is the heart of the city, but the neighborhoods are the soul of the city.

[1] Section 8 is a common name for the Housing Choice Voucher Program. It allowed tenants to use rental housing assistance to pay private landlords for low-income households.

[2] U.S. General Services Administration, GSA is an independent government agency that was established to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies.

[3] Charles Blessing served as Director of City Planning in Detroit from 1953 to 1977. He initiated the large-scale housing project known as Lafayette Park.

[4] The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 was a major revision to federal housing policy in the United States; it instituted several major expansions in federal housing programs. This act extended the urban renewal programs set in motion by the 1949 act, which provided various forms of federal assistance to cities for removing dilapidated housing and redeveloping parts of downtowns.

[5] Ben Carson is an American neurosurgeon, author, and politician who is currently the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

[6] See more about the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project on p. XXX.

[7] Pink Zoning Detroit seeks to transform Detroit’s complex land use regulations into a positive force for neighborhood revitalization.

[8] See more about the Detroit East Riverfront Framework Plan on p. XXX

[9] Dan Gilbert is the chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, a mortgage lending company located in the financial district of downtown Detroit.

Learn more about Detroit here or in NESS #1!

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