Free Press writer is ‘Reimagining Detroit’

By Sarah Rachfal

In 1987, John Gallagher joined the Detroit Free Press to cover urban development and currently writes for the publication as a business reporter. 

Gallagher grew up in New Jersey and suburban Chicago, and today, at the age of 60, Gallagher has written Great Architecture of Michigan and was the co-author of AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture.

Gallagher’s most recent book entitled Reimaging Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City was written with the thought and hope in Gallagher’s mind that readers will move away from the old debate about what caused Detroit’s decline, and focus more energy and effort on what needs to be done to move ahead.

“I wanted to deal at greater length than allowed in a daily newspaper with the critical issues of Detroit’s future. Also, I wanted to generate a public debate on issues such as urban agriculture, remaking our streets, a new entrepreneurial economy for Detroit, and other issues that had generated very little discussion so far,” said Gallagher of his motive for writing Reimaging Detroit.

Although Gallagher is not a native Detroiter, he has always been fascinated with cities since he was a college student in Chicago. 

“I’ve always been interested in basic questions about why cities look the way they do: Why do suburban office buildings all look the same, and why are some urban parks filled with people while others are nearly deserted?  In Detroit, I’m trying to understand what’s holding Detroit back when other cities that suffered a similar loss of jobs and industry and population have made much better recoveries,” said Gallagher.  

It is important to Gallagher to rebuild Detroit to make the lives of the 800,000 people still living in the city better than they are now.  In Reimaging Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City, Gallagher writes about the shrinking cities phenomenon and believes that towns need to stop thinking of it as a crisis because growth and shrinkage of cities are natural phenomena. 

“When you’re in a shrinkage mode, concentrate on delivering a quality of life for the citizens who still live there rather than worrying about attracting others,” said Gallagher.

Some of Gallagher’s ideas to improve Detroit are to repurpose the vacant land in some useful way and develop a more entrepreneurial economy less dependant on the auto industry and foster new governance models, like the conservancy model that now runs the RiverWalk, Campus Martius Park, and Eastern Market so the community can accomplish what needs to be done despite the financial crisis facing the city government.

“The dependence on autos explains why we allowed so many expressways to slash through city neighborhoods. The loss of auto factories in the city created huge gaps in our landscape that now stand as empty urban prairie – more vacant space than almost any other big city. The scale of the vacancy is what makes Detroit unique,” said Gallagher.

“Detroit is repairable but it will take the entire Michigan community to repair Detroit by supporting local businesses, electing the appropriate officials and holding them accountable,” said LaTonya Barber, Sign Language Interpretation student at Madonna University.

“The biggest flaw the city has is that there are no available jobs for the people inhabiting the city. If the city could create jobs to repair the appearance of the city it would bring more people to the city which results in more business. That would help the economy which in turn helps the city heal,” said Chemistry major Cassie Joiner, who like Gallagher and Barber believes Detroit, is repairable.  

Reimaging Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City can be found in major book stores and in both print and electronic editions.  Gallagher is currently writing a follow-up book about what works for cities and what does not. 

Gallagher will be discussing Reimaging Detroit March 15 at 1 p.m. in the Madonna University library.  This free event is open to the public and Madonna students and faculty. 

As for Detroit, “There is a season to everything. At some point, yes, the image will change,” said Gallagher.