Revisiting Portland, Thinking of Detroit Regionalism

A few years ago I wrote about how the communities in and around the city of Portland, Oregon work together as a region for common purpose. Since then, I've been thinking more and more about whether a place like Greater Detroit could ever do the same. And as our world continues to shrink, I'm wondering more and more how we can possibly afford not to.

I was in Portland again recently. I took the MAX light rail service downtown from the airport, where I had a free transfer to a local bus in the shadow of the Oregon Convention Center. The trip cost $2.05 and took 45 minutes. During my trip, I was able to catch up on phone messages, read show reviews in the local alternative weekly and still not figure out a NY Times crossword.

Portland looks better than ever. There are more shops open. More buildings of all shapes and sizes are in various states of rehabilitation, including the recently completed Portland Armory project, a new performing arts space in an iconic 1890s former armory. Despite the economic slowdown (felt even in Portland), there's been lots of good new construction on an intimate, urban scale. Two and three story buildings (re)sprout on lots where residential uses find themselves above small commercial spaces, selling everything from organic carrots to coffee, to comic books to childcare. Strip malls need not apply.

One of the more mundane things I enjoyed while in Portland was catching a few movies at one of several first run theaters downtown. The film that struck me more than brooding Gotham's Dark Knight -- yes, Heath Ledger's awesome -- was the documentary, Man on Wire, a film about a Frenchman who decides to tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. The story of Phillipe Petit's "coup", as he and his accomplices plan the extraordinary feat, is a real joy to watch.

So what does Man on Wire have to do with Detroit or regionalism? Well, two things. For one, it reminded me of how the rest of the world views us. In the film, there are a couple of scenes depicting Phillipe and his crew shuttling between France and the United States before the walk. The outline of an airplane moves over a world map with a trailing line representing the journey. Remember the technique used in the Indiana Jones movies to trace Indy's route of adventure? It was sort of like that.

The map used in Man on Wire is like most world maps, pared down to relate the most fundamental information. As North America comes into view, big cities appear ... Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and a little further west ... Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. Little else matters. Countries. Great Cities. Land. Water. A global perspective.

Of course this is a simple analogy, but in that moment it was as clear as anything I've seen recently. I was reminded that no matter how we view ourselves in this region, if you live within fifty miles of Campus Martius, to the rest of the world you are a Detroiter before you are anything else. Point to any part of southeastern Michigan on a map and it's Detroit for someone from Paris, or Port-au-Prince or Phnom Penh or even Portland. It's that pure and simple.

Funny how this idea plays out in strange ways. Don't ask, but I like to keep tabs on where companies locate and how they identify with the different places they have a presence. For example, open up a Vanity Fair and go to the masthead, usually after about twenty pages of ads. The contact info for the LA Director is in LA. The San Francisco Director is in San Francisco. Milan, Dallas, Paris and Hong Kong all have contacts where you'd expect -- with the exception of London, which for some strange reason is the same as Paris! Yet the contact information for the Detroit Manager's office is in Troy.

Conde Nast (VF's parent) isn't the only one. Many other companies make this practice. New York marketing firm, Jack Morton Worldwide's Detroit office is also in Troy, as is health insurance giant Humana's Detroit office. Now I don't mean to pick on Troy per se, nor am I blind to the fact that companies often will set up shop near where major clients are located. Remember the hand wringing when Ford's ad firm, J Walter Thompson moved out of Detroit and relocated to Dearborn? While I certainly would have preferred they stay, I suppose I can understand the rationale. But take a look at their website and you'll see that J Walter Thompson's Dearborn office is still Detroit..

The point of all this is to say that Detroit is currency. Detroit, for better or worse, has a hold on the world that no other name for hundreds of miles in any direction ever could. As a region we should be very proud. Every day we should work to promote Detroit. Improve it. Because in a global marketplace, Detroit, in as broad a way as can be defined, has to be as strong and as coherent as possible if we hope to survive and prosper.

Some of us like to make hay about the difference between one side of 8 Mile and the other, or which side of Alter Road you live on. Others parse the difference between roads unfortunately more traveled, and much further a field, like Hall Road or I-275. The one common element is that city and suburb, while geographically proximate stay unnaturally divided. Especially in this sad season of Detroit politics, it is so easy to ogle at the political meltdown but keep a manufactured distance from the maelstrom.

But there's hope. Some in the region recognize that what happens in Detroit has a significant impact on how the entire metropolitan area, from Windsor to Wyandotte and West Bloomfield to New Baltimore, is understood around the world. And that's a start. Others in the region help Detroit by coming down to a game or for a show, having a meal or a night on the town. That's a big step. Still others open businesses downtown, support charitable organizations, serve on boards or volunteer in major capacities for causes that help Detroit in amazing ways. That's truly commendable. It's still not enough. Collectively, we need to demand our leadership take the next bold step to work together to regionalize Detroit.

Detroit is a city of 720,000 in Wayne County. But Detroit is also the better part of five million people in at least five

counties and well over one hundred separate U.S. and Canadian communities. Detroit is our state of mind, our gold standard ... a single economic unit. And whether we like it or not, Detroit is our common denominator and common destiny.

If we agree that Detroit's destiny and the region's destiny are one and the same, we must certainly also agree that we all have common issues with common solutions. In Portland, the dialogue began in earnest in the years following World War II, when Portland and its surrounding communities started a dialogue around coordination of common regional issues – transportation, land use and open space planning, water supply, human services, regional parks, cultural and sports facilities, correctional facilities, and libraries were some of the things considered. It culminated in 1979 as Metro Government, the country's only directly elected regional government.

Dan Cooper, a Metro Attorney with over twenty years experience, spoke to me about how Portland's brand of regionalism was implemented. He reminded me that Portland's road was a long one. "Portland's local bodies retained local autonomy, but had to learn that there are economies of scale and some issues are best decided on a larger scale. It's definitely been an evolution." The dialogue has matured over time, he continues, "Now people will pick up the paper and say, 'That's a regional issue.' And we have a mechanism in place to address it."

We're beginning to get it. The recent success of a tri-county funding mechanism for the Detroit Zoo is a good sign -- hopefully, Cobo Hall will be next. I would argue that our region would be greatly strengthened if we could regionalize at least these several key areas: transportation, land use, open space, and water planning.

I would also argue that we don't have the luxury of 30 years to work this out. The world is passing us by. We need more action now.

By the way, the other thing that made me think of home in the film was Phillipe's sheer force of will to surmount the seemingly impossible and transcend the greatest of obstacles. When Phillipe saw the Towers, he drew a line between them. He made the simplest of gestures, and then took a bold step.

We should do the same here. Tightrope walking optional.

Francis Grunow is a law student at Wayne State University who lives in Midtown and sometimes moonlights as a writer. He would walk a tightrope if given the chance.

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All photos courtesy Francis Grunow

Photos, from the top:

Portland's streetcars are free downtown and blend in with other traffic.

Portland skyline with iconic White Satin “Made in Portland” sign.

Oregon Convention Center is managed regionally and is serviced by regional
MAX light rail to the airport.

Adaptive reuse of Portland Armory Building.

Residential reuse of warehouse in Portland's fashionable Pearl District.

Portland's Willys Overland Building adaptive reuse (galleries - interesting to compare to Detroit)

The City of Portland is famous for its park system. Some have been regionalized.

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