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Detroit Bankrupt? Six Ways the Motor City Is Thriving

National media accounts of Detroit's bankruptcy miss the growing industries, strong communities, and policy changes laying the foundation's for the city's recovery.
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Detroit Lives art by RussTeaches.

Local community art around the Eastern Market on Detroit's east side. Photo by Russteaches / Flickr.

The national coverage of Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing reminds me of 1967, when rebellion erupted in the city after police raided an illegal after-hours bar. It was one of the worst of the riots that roiled the country during the 1960s in Watts, Newark, Chicago, and other places.

Detroit remains a major American city.

I was away at Boy Scout camp when it happened, and radio reports I heard there made me believe the entire city from Eight Mile Road to the Detroit River was burned to a cinder. When I returned, I expected to see horrible devastation everywhere—burnt ruins, smoke in the air, and armed military personnel on every corner.

What I found was exactly what I had left behind. The modest, well-kept houses still stood in neat rows. Lawns were still trimmed and green. This was several miles from the epicenter of violence, where 41 people were killed and lots of buildings burned. But it was a far cry from the total devastation I had gleaned from the media.

Since Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July, I've been getting flashbacks of that experience. I hear about garbage piled up in the streets and blackout conditions with streetlights out, while the national news shows images of abandoned, dilapidated buildings and vacant lots. Few of these images have people in them. Much of this coverage sounds and looks like the networks just pulled out their canned footage and commentary on Detroit and slapped a bankruptcy headline on it. Based on what I've seen, one would think that nobody lives in Detroit but a handful of marginal folks and some gangsters busy killing each other.

In November, Detroiters will vote for its city council members by district for the first time in nearly a century.

But Detroit remains a major American city. According to the 2010 census, there are still 700,000 people living in Detroit, making Motown the most populous city in Michigan and in the top 20 nationally. We still eat, work, and shop like people everywhere. We get married, have babies, and die. We love, hate, laugh, cry, and hope like people everywhere. Most of us are not thugs and want great neighborhoods as much as anyone else.

The bottom line is that the coverage of the bankruptcy reinforces a tired old story. But the internal narrative of Detroit has already changed direction. There are plenty of positive major economic stories coming out of Detroit, starting with the federally bailed-out General Motors and Chrysler auto companies emerging from bankruptcy with improved sales and record profits, and continuing with the likes of the booming Midtown as a flagship community of the new Detroit.

The people of Detroit are certainly not bankrupt for resources or ideas. Here are six ways that they're helping to create a stronger Motor City.

1. The powerhouse riverfront

There is a reason that Detroit is where it is. Its French name, le détroit du Lac Érie (the Lake Erie strait), describes its geographic position on a river between lakes Huron and Erie. It's such a convenient spot on the Great Lakes that it's almost unimaginable that the area would be abandoned as a transport center.

One of the reasons the auto industry grew up in Detroit is that the needed technical expertise and facilities were already here serving the commercial ships on the Great Lakes. Basically, gigantic liner engines were downsized to become car engines.

Detroit remains the busiest border crossing between Canada and the United States, and Michigan is intent on building a bridge, called the New International Trade Crossing, to accommodate the traffic.

2. At the forefront of urban agriculture

Keep Growing Detroit's garden resource program supports more than 1,400 gardens, many of them organized as community projects. That's in addition to a few dozen market gardens and numerous uncounted home gardens in yards and adjacent lots. Meanwhile, groups like the Detroit Food Policy Council, the Eastern Market Corporation, and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network have been developing produce markets to bring more fresh nutritious food to the public.

Recently, their work has received some official support. In 2012 Detroit Public Schools initiated a program to teach agriculture at 45 schools with the expectation that jobs growing, selling, processing, and preparing food will be strong options for future Detroiters. In February of 2013, the city council passed an Urban Agriculture Ordinance that gave the nod to the phenomenon and set some rules as to how it's going to be done.

In addition to feeding people better, community gardening has proved to be a powerful community organizing tool. Organizers in the Brightmoor and Penrose areas have leaned heavily on gardening as a pathway to get people involved in their neighborhoods. As communities become used to raising their own food, it's natural for people to look around to see what other problems they can solve. Urban gardeners know that decay becomes the compost that nurtures the future.

3. Making the city council accountable to the neighborhoods

In the past, Detroiters tended to vote for well-known names, such as Motown singer Martha Reeves, former television personality Charles Pugh, and Monica Conyers (the wife of long-time U.S. Representative John Conyers). Because city council elections were held on a citywide basis, candidates had no accountability to specific neighborhoods.

Blight Busters have leveraged nearly 700,000 volunteer hours cleaning up, fixing up, establishing businesses, and more.

That way of doing things is over. In November, Detroiters will vote for its city council members in seven districts (or wards) for the first time in nearly a century. This makes it possible for candidates to win based on their work at the neighborhood level; it will also be much cheaper to campaign in a district rather than across the entire city.

After a politically dysfunctional era in Detroit with an ensconced, ineffective, bickering, and even criminal council (Conyers was convicted of taking bribes), voters want better results. Citizens chose the new system because they expect more direct accountability for what's going on in their neighborhoods. And if they aren't happy with the performance of their councilperson, it will now be easier to unseat them in the next election.

4. The Boggs factor

The James and Grace Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership is a nonprofit organization that has been creating community leaders since being organized in 1995. Its do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have ethos has empowered Detroiters living at ground zero for deindustrialization to truly reimagine their possibilities. The Boggs Center is a place where people meet to engage in problem-solving discussion and imaginative ideas—not to receive marching orders from a leader.

Although 98-year-old philosopher-activist Grace Lee Boggs has a kind ear and an engaging personality, her true skill is helping others see that their power lies within themselves. After a lifetime working in leftist politics, Boggs and friends have redefined revolution as personal transformation to meet the needs of where you live—be that safety, hunger, education, or artistic expression.

For instance, Julia Putnam was the first volunteer for Detroit Summer, a Boggs-related program begun in 1993. She is now a lead administrator at the Boggs Educational Center, a charter school that opened its doors on September 3. Another example is Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and a Boggs Center board member. The Coalition had a hand in the lawsuit that brought U.S. Justice Department oversight of Detroit Police in a consent decree that started in 2003 and is still in effect. Scott is still active with the coalition and with efforts to mediate neighborhood disputes before they become violent through a program called Peace Zones for Life.

5. Grassroots urban renewal

One of the ongoing debates in Detroit has been about whether to focus on development downtown or in the neighborhoods farther from the city's center. Most of the major efforts to revitalize the city—the Renaissance Center, Hart Plaza, Campus Martius, Comerica Park—have been downtown. At the same time parks, recreation centers, neighborhood city halls, police stations, and other services in neighborhoods have steadily closed down.

But many Detroiters aren't waiting for the city government anymore. Among the efforts to create change from below are the Motor City Blight Busters, which started 23 years ago when insurance agent John George got fed up with the drug dealers operating out of a nearby abandoned house. One day he started boarding up the place. A few neighbors came out to help and a community group was born.

Since then, the Blight Busters have leveraged nearly 700,000 volunteer hours cleaning up, fixing up, establishing businesses, recycling building materials, and more. A recent ambitious project is to clear two full blocks to establish Farm City Detroit, an urban farm and community hub.

There are plenty of other efforts. One of them is the Lower East Side Action Plan, a community-based process focused on cleaning up and stabilizing neighborhoods, getting businesses to locate in clusters, fostering food-related development, and encouraging green infrastructure. Another, the world-famous Heidelberg Project, works to transform individuals and neighborhoods through art.

6. Regional cooperation

The wealthiest county in Michigan is Oakland County, right across Eight Mile Road from Detroit. Brooks Patterson, Oakland's county executive, has historically been a staunch defender of separation from Detroit. After the bankruptcy, he publicly discussed his concern that his area might receive a lowered bond rating due to Detroit's difficulties. If business is bad in Detroit, it's not helping things in nearby Oakland County.

However, even Patterson is beginning to soften his views as the reality of living with a burned-out hulk next door to your mansion sinks in. Plenty of others have already concluded that separation is not the answer, and hands are reaching across Eight Mile Road, long known as the divider between the city and suburbs.

The bankruptcy makes this kind of cooperation all the more important, so it's good to see these efforts multiplying. In the past decade regional cooperation has come together on funding the Detroit Zoological Park and the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as on upgrading and running Cobo Center, a convention facility. The notion of turning the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department over to a regional authority is beginning to have an air of inevitability, as well as a regional transit system.

Closing thoughts

Detroit is a story in progress with many possible endings—which one comes to pass depends on the way the six trends discussed above play out.

It will be years, even decades, before the conclusion is known. Detroit burned down in 1805 and was rebuilt. Following the recession of 1893, it began taking off as the center of a worldwide auto industry. Detroit will rise again; it's a question of when.

If we do the right things, then it will be in the near decades. I contend that the pieces are already in place to make Detroit a modern, socially, and economically diverse urban village sooner rather than later.


Larry GabrielLarry Gabriel wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Larry is a Detroit-based writer and musician. He is the former editor of Detroit's Metro Times and UAW Solidarity magazine, and was an editor and writer at the Detroit Free Press.

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