Reinventing Our Cities, From Changing Gears

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“Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” That’s what Carl Sandberg said about Chicago.

The poet Joseph Brodsky said, “Everything about our cities is king sized — the beauty and the ugliness.”

And President John F. Kennedy said, ” We neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them, we neglect the nation.” He could have been talking about our region, too.

Reinventing Our Cities, an hour-long radio documentary from Changing Gears, looks at all the issues facing our cities, from Pittsburgh to Chicago, Detroit to Gary, Indiana. Big questions remain. Can these cities learn from each other? What are the best ideas that can work for each? Or do they have their own unique problems?

The documentary includes stories from Dan Bobkoff, Changing Gears’ Cleveland reporter, who visited Pittsburgh; Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio, who reported from Detroit; and WBEZ reporter Michael Puente, who went to Gary.

Bobkoff, Hulett and Puente spoke with Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo about their impressions of the cities they visited — and the challenges they face.


Along with the reports, Reinventing Our Cities featured our listeners, who shared their own ideas for fixing the urban centers of our region. Changing Gears Ann Arbor Kate Davidson talked to them, and their stories are here.

When visitors come to Chicago, one of the top tourist attractions on their list is Navy Pier. Right now, thousands of people are pouring in each day for the Winter Wonderfest. But Navy Pier wasn’t always such a shining star, according to Richard Longworth, a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the author of Caught in the Middle.

Opened nearly100 years ago, the pier was used by the U.S. Navy (hence its name). By the 1990s, it had fallen into disrepair, which was when Chicago Mayor Daley stepped in. Now, the pier has shops, restaurants, museums, theaters, and a stunning view of the Chicago skyline.

Chicago is often held up around the region as the example to emulate. And yet, it has a bookend, about 500 miles to the east: Pittsburgh. It faced a devastating collapse in the early 1980s, when the bottom fell out of the steel industry. But thanks to efforts by community, business and education leaders, Pittsburgh has gotten back on its feet.

(Read and listen to even more about Pittsburgh in our series, Reinventing Pittsburgh.)

The task there isn’t finished, though, nor can any of the cities in the Great Lakes region declare complete victory. But Donald K. Carter, who heads the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University, believes the Rust Belt can become the Water Belt, if the region leverages its greatest resource.  

Some answers may come from overseas. Mayors from all over the world came to Chicago recently for a conference on metro cities. There, the mayor of Turin, Italy — often called the Detroit of Italy — spoke of the job losses that his city encountered in its own economic decline.

But Turin has fought back, with an economic development approach that still includes the automobile industry but which depends on far less in order for survival.

In this enormous task of reinventing our cities, ideas are everywhere. But will our cities learn from each others’ failures and successes? And can they accept help from each other? Those are questions we’ll be exploring at Changing Gears.

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