Once upon a time, Detroit was about as close to a workingman’s paradise as ever there was in America. Understanding, of course, that there is a rather large gap between a workingman’s paradise and the popular imagining of that other place where everything comes up rainbows and all frowning is banned.
The racism was intense and brutal, the working conditions in the factories were far from ideal, particularly for those workers whose skin color was noticeably darker than their coworkers’, and the homes they returned to after hours of exhausting labor were, in many instances, far less than ideal. But compared to where they came from, Detroit was the chance many thought they would never have in life. And Detroit did, in fact, become known as the city with the highest rate of homeownership of any other city – for African Americans as well as in general. In 1950, Detroit was also the fifth largest city in the country with the highest per capita income.
This combination of home ownership and high rates of employment, plus the growth of small neighborhood businesses, led to relatively stable neighborhoods, even if those neighborhoods were starkly segregated based on class and race. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but at least it offered a foundation on which to build community.
But then came the nearly 20-year-long perfect storm which began in the early 1950s, a storm fueled by urban removal, white flight, the decline of the auto industry, and the cause/aftermath of the 1967 riot/rebellion. It is the ongoing devastation set in motion by that storm that set Detroit on a course that eventually wound up in emergency management and then bankruptcy. It is also what lit the match that set fire to the stability of many Detroit neighborhoods. Detroit had been known as a city of neighborhoods, but by the time the city filed for bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, an entirely different reality had taken hold and far too many of those neighborhoods were either devastated wastelands or barely hanging on by a thread. Laura Gottesdiener, author of “A Dream Foreclosed”, wrote a blog post entitled “Two Detroits, Separate and Unequal” in the Huffington Post on Nov. 17, 2014, which stated the following:
“But the future of the rest of the sprawling city — once the symbol of American industrialization and working-class power — remains at best insecure, physically and financially. In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt declared Detroit, then the nation’s fourth largest city, the “great arsenal of democracy” for churning out bombers for the Allied powers, as in peacetime it rolled out cars for the consumer economy. Then the auto giants began closing their urban factories and reopening their plants in white suburbs. In the same era, the industry, national unions, and the FBI all cracked down on the labor organizations founded by radical black workers.
“The foreclosure crisis of this century, fueled by racially discriminatory predatory lending, forced hundreds of thousands of residents out of the city. The governor’s office placed the public school system and then the entire local government under emergency management, suspending the democratic process in the “arsenal of democracy.” And now, after seven decades of these slow-moving storms, including acts that are almost impossible to see as anything but retribution against the city’s predominantly African American population, Detroit is often viewed from afar as a cautionary tale, a post-industrial dystopia of vacant buildings and dormant factories.”
One year after the bankruptcy, the verdict is somewhat mixed as to how well the neighborhoods are benefiting once you step outside of downtown and Midtown. John George, one of the men who founded Motor City Blight Busters 27 years ago as part of a collective effort involving three fathers determined to clean up their own neighborhood, is one of those who is unabashedly optimistic about his city’s prospects in the shadow of the bankruptcy.
“The bankruptcy, as difficult as it was, that was something that had to be perfected,” he said. “We’ve got new streetlights. We haven’t had lights in this community in years. We’ve got new buses. We haven’t had any buses in years.
“Right now I’m at the corner of Grand River and 6 Mile. To my left there’s a brand new Meyer’s gas station and Meyer’s. They spent $33 million. Next to that there’s two brand new strip malls coming up. Across the street there’s another brand new strip mall. They’re getting ready to restore the old library into a community center. Behind that they’re bringing the AP thing back. So, you know, I’m in the epicenter of redevelopment in northwest Detroit. And it’s not just because of the bankruptcy, and not just because we’ve got a progressive mayor, and not just because we now have councilmembers elected by district, and not just because of what the blight busters and other groups have done to keep these neighborhoods on life support, literally, until we could get some kind of coordinated effort out of city hall. All of those are the reasons why this city is coming back. And I believe that Detroit is on the front porch of the greatest urban comeback story in this nation’s history. But we gotta learn to work together, and we gotta put our petty differences aside. We gotta stop pointing fingers and blaming people and say what am I gonna do today to make my city better.”
James Ribbron, one of the co-founders of Process Leaders/Impact Detroit, agrees that there has been some positive change happening in some of the neighborhoods, but he is reluctant to shout hallelujah just yet. For one thing, none of that positive change has arrived at his east side neighborhood. In fact, things have gotten noticeably worse with little sign of improvement on the horizon.
“I look at my neighborhood, and I stay on Hereford Street. It’s on the east side on the border of Harper Woods and Grosse Pointe, and I moved over there 15 years ago, and it was a pretty thriving neighborhood. Just this past holiday weekend when we rode down the street, we were looking at more abandoned houses and it concerns me.
“That’s due in part to the lack of population growth, but it’s still a concern. We chose that neighborhood because of the density and the proximity to businesses and things like that. And the fact that there are more abandoned houses today and they seem to be coming faster than the neighborhood can redevelop concerns me. … The bankruptcy has opened the door for some things to happen, but I’m not sure that I see it happening in the neighborhoods like I see it happening downtown or Midtown, or even in a neighborhood like Brightmoor, or the Avenue of Fashion. So obviously there are some things happening in the neighborhood, I’m not sure that I see it in my neighborhood. So yeah it’s happening, but maybe not fast enough for me.”
But Ribbron does have faith in the Detroiters who remain committed to ensuring that Detroit’s revival benefits all Detroiters, not just the newcomers or those with comfortable incomes.
“Here’s the other side of things, though. I’m heavily involved with Detroit Future City. I’m on the board. Luther (Luther Keith, CEO of ARISE! Detroit) and I meet with a group that has been meeting every week for the last three years to talk about how we can change things for the city. So from that standpoint, there are a group of us that are working diligently to ensure that our city does come back.”
Mildred Hunt Robbins, who co-founded the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative in 2004 with her husband, Tommie E. Robbins Jr., remains unconvinced that the bankruptcy has benefited the neighborhoods, and is perplexed by those who claim to see a silver lining.
“My feeling is that, yes, the neighborhood is improving, but not necessarily for those who have been longtime residents,” she said. “There are a lot of barriers to people who have been suffering economically for a long time, and it sounds good, but then you’re not able to access it because of conditions that are a part of the economic downturn that devastated so many people.
“In our particular community, we have a lot of new residents because DMC, (Detroit Medical Center), Wayne State and Henry Ford Health System were giving monetary incentives for people who would either buy homes in this community or rent in this community. So that was a great benefit for people who lived elsewhere, and had an opportunity to get monetary support in relocating closer to where they worked, but as far as the people who actually live here and have been living here long-term, I don’t see how that was a benefit to them.
“We don’t want a situation as has happened in so many communities where hospitals and universities expand and they just simply push folks out. We lost Paradise Valley, and before that we lost Black Bottom, and we don’t want it to end up where we’ll look up 20 years from now and the only people who actually live here will be college professors, and students and hospital personnel, and then the rest of us will be pushed out. And as taxes go up, it’s going to be difficult for a lot of folks to stay in this neighborhood.
“We’re talking about democracy; my definition of democracy is it means fair play, and so there has to be a reciprocal condition where there are benefits that flow both ways to the private corporate sector and to the taxpayers.”
Luther Keith, founder of ARISE! Detroit, an organization founded to empower neighborhoods and best known for its annual Neighborhoods Day celebration, understands the cynicism and distrust expressed by Robbins and others, and he is cautious not to dismiss those observations out of hand because he knows they have merit. Still, what he has seen since the bankruptcy has caused him to lean more towards optimism.
“Detroit is not there yet, but I think we’re going in the right direction.”
“I do think that the bankruptcy, for all of its controversy, it’s opened the door for real change in the city, and we’re seeing that. I think some of the investments we’ve seen, some of the initiatives we’ve seen couldn’t and wouldn’t have been done if the city had been crushed by that debt, because that debt would have taken priority.
“At the end of the day – and I know this for a fact because I’m at meetings every week with Detroit Future City, with Impact Detroit, with all sorts of organizations, and you’re seeing where the foundations are putting much more money into neighborhoods. They’re specifically targeting more money at the grassroots level to give neighborhood people the resources to transform neighborhoods, and that was not happening five years ago. Now I think there’s a real concerted effort to push the funding down into neighborhoods.
“It’s not an accident that it’s happening in sync with this bankruptcy piece and that the narrative about Detroit has changed.”
“There’s some real excitement that Detroit is in the throes of some real change. …there’s a feeling that we’re at a great turning point in the history of Detroit.”
This piece is part of the series “Detroit Bankruptcy: One Year Later,” presented by the partners of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative. The DJC journalists continue to explore the impacts of the city’s bankruptcy, including effects on people, neighborhoods and southeast Michigan, and the case’s long-term implications. Their collective work, which is archived at NextChapterDetroit.com, continues to inform regional conversations.