Why you should care
America is in the process of reimagining its cities as places to live and work. As far as urban experiments go, Detroit may be the biggest petri dish of all.
After years, even decades, of stagnation and neglect, Detroit’s down-and-out neighborhoods have started to fight back. And they’re kick-starting a citywide grassroots movement to bring order and hope back to their communities.
No, we’re not talking about the suddenly hip downtown commercial districts that have attracted so much recent attention, not to mention billions of dollars in real estate investment, driving talk of Detroit’s renaissance after last year’s municipal bankruptcy.
… like a grand experiment — testing how far community activism, nonprofit involvement and political engagement can go in a city that’s fallen so far from its glory days.
We mean places like grassy Boston Edison, known for its Victorian-era architecture; proud but struggling Brightmoor, parts of which now resemble a ghost town; and Mexicantown, settled by Mexican-Americans in the 1940s. Those and dozens of other residential districts ringing downtown and midtown are home to most of Detroit’s residents, predominantly the working class, poor and minorities. Try Googling “Detroit neighborhoods” and you’ll find the associated phrases include “to avoid,” “worst” and “abandoned.”
It’s these neighborhoods where the vast majority of the city’s 80,000-plus blighted structures and abandoned lots are located. Where violent crime and poverty are highest. And where residents have had no choice but to look after themselves, because the city government is broke and effectively AWOL.
These neighborhoods are not bouncing back. It’s far from sure that they’ll all make it. But many neighborhoods are finding their voices, trying to get a piece of the downtown action, trying to get people organized for sheer survival. Their situation is not as hopeless as it looked even recently. For observers and insiders alike, it can feel like a grand experiment — testing how far community activism, nonprofit involvement and political engagement can go in a city that’s fallen so far from its glory days.
“It really got bad during the mortgage crisis. That’s when the blight really got ahead of us,” says Quincy Jones, the executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, a community-based organized that is run by residents. “At one point it seemed like the city left all of this work to small, community-based organizations.”
They’ve responded, taking on tasks like boarding up abandoned buildings, maintaining public parks, working in grade-school classrooms and doing their own trash removal. More recently, local organizers have teamed with nonprofit groups and the private sector to promote commercial investment. They’ve also finally started to get help from City Hall.
If you create this dichotomy of this new midtown, downtown Detroit, but residents in the neighborhoods are not sharing in the prosperity, we’re going to have massive issues.
“Detroit had become a city of workarounds. Some of that was crazy, some of it was kind of beautiful and kind of entrepreneurial,” says Chris Uhl, a vice president at the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, which gives grants to improve the lives of children in six of the city’s neighborhoods.
Jones, Uhl and others like them now aim to spread benefits to these neighborhoods as the city emerges from the wreckage of auto bailouts, municipal bankruptcy and population flight.
“I do think that there is a huge danger that we re-create the old dividing lines in Detroit in a new way,” warns Uhl. “If you create this dichotomy of this new midtown, downtown Detroit, but residents in the neighborhoods are not sharing in the prosperity, we’re going to have massive issues.”
A change in the electoral system has brought new focus to the neighborhoods. Members of the Detroit City Council now represent districts, rather than serve as at-large members as they did in the past. That was a change pushed by residents themselves in a successful 2009 ballot measure.
“When it was at-large, a lot of communities got left out,” explains Jones. “The more engaged residents got the attention,” while neighborhoods like Osborn “just got neglected.”
“Now we have allies” in city government, says Jones.
“Political officials are much more in contact with the neighborhoods than they ever have been,” says Dr. Lyke Thompson, the director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, located in midtown Detroit. Thompson helps run a series of collaborative policing meetings in several neighborhoods, which bring together city and state police, corrections officials, citizens groups and other neighborhood representatives to work together to reduce crime.
“We’re seeing staff of the council coming to these meetings,” Thompson says. “And we’re seeing staff from the mayor’s office.”
The success of grassroots projects has given residents a new sense of empowerment and “shown that a community-based organization can be effective,” according to Jones.
[If] a community organization can get five homes renovated, that’s just as big as a stadium.
The new city government has started to take back responsibility for things like boarding up homes and installing working street lights. But it’s just the beginning.
“There’s not enough money in Detroit right now to have a police force of the size that’s needed to control crime in the city,” says Thompson. “In order to produce public order, you have to engage. And the citizens are doing that. They are helping to produce the order in the community.”
The next step will be trying to attract more interest from for-profit ventures. So far, the business focus has been almost exclusively on flashy, high-impact projects like the new Red Wings hockey arena plan in midtown that was unveiled last month.
Redirecting even a small piece of that to the neighborhoods could have a huge impact.
If “a community organization can get five homes renovated,” says Jones, for the people in that neighborhood, “that’s just as big as a stadium.”
Community-focused economic development organizations like the nonprofit lender IFF and Detroit-based consulting firm U3 Advisors have been ramping up. The downtown Detroit business accelerator TechTown also has developed a program to support entrepreneurship in some of Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods.
Given the scale of the need, these are baby steps, but they’re in the right direction.
Cover Image: Paul Bica