What can Detroit learn from Istanbul?

“When you hear Detroit,” John Norquist told me cryptically yesterday morning, “think Istanbul.” I had just been shown an essay John wrote for the latest issue of the magazine Monocle, a sort of euro-hip version of The Economist. In the article, which is sadly unavailable for free online, he gives a brief of the precipitous decline of Detroit, urban America’s quintessential cautionary tale about sprawl and harmful urban policy.

It’s a story we’re familiar with: modernist planning with a focus on alleviating congestion precipitates the creation of neighborhood-destroying freeways and urban disinvestment. John plays to his European audience by highlighting the supreme irony that Detroit, the victorious post-war metropolis and “Arsenal of Democracy,” should now seem far more devastated than the war-torn cities of Berlin, Dresden, or even Hiroshima. Recovery, he finally concludes, will only happen when Detroit begins to tear up its most destructive automobile infrastructure and reclaim the streets for people rather than cars.

But what about the Istanbul connection? Geographically the cities are similar, straddling major political divides: Europe and Asia, the United States and Canada. Racial tension has also been a feature of both cities’ histories. White flight left a huge psychological divide between Detroit and its suburbs unprecedented even in the fragmented world of American urban space. Istanbul has historically been a point of contention between Christians and Muslims, Greeks and Turks. More recently a clash of cultures has emerged between traditionalists and those embracing a more modern European worldview.

But it was only after reading Istanbulite James Halliday’s essay, featured a few pages after John’s in Monocle, that I finally saw what Istanbul has to offer Detroit. Halliday writes about the street life around his apartment in Istanbul, talking about how children play in the streets, old men pass the day with small talk and backgammon, and one always feels comfortable in the public realm. He offers up his neighborhood as a case study for cities unused to such types of interactions, and one can see why Detroit in particular might have something to learn. Halliday’s street is one designed for people (and not just wealthy people), it exists on the human scale and offers security in the form of social interaction rather than high walls and chain link fences. Is the quaint Turkish street corner too lofty of an ideal? Perhaps, but the core principle is sound: Detroit should come to embody the livelihood of its people and its neighborhoods rather than cars and the glass palaces of the companies that make them.


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