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Michigan's Newest Suburb? A Response to Karen Dumas

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Karen Dumas began her excellent opinion piece in Friday's Detroit News with these words:

It's a difficult but necessary discussion that many have in private, but too few are willing to do in public. Detroit is changing on every level. And, for the most part, it is a good thing. On the other hand, it's a difficult pill to swallow for those who have stuck with the city through thick and thin, because the change seems exclusive of their involvement or accommodation.

Dumas goes on to make the point that the "new Detroit" -- white, educated, and affluent -- is enthusiastically pursuing change in Detroit, often without going through the government bureaucracy that has hampered such efforts before, and often without consulting or considering the needs and vision of those who have lived in Detroit for years.

As Dumas points out, this is not entirely unwelcome. Many of us who have lived here for any length of time have grown weary of patrolling the neighborhoods only to have our 911 calls unanswered, of mowing numerous vacant lots that City Hall won't sell but won't care for, of attempting to build and create only to have our visions stifled by bureaucracy.

At the same time, there are many evidences that Detroit's resident constituency is changing. The most obvious evidence is that in a city that is 82 percent African-American (U.S. Census), a trip to Downtown or Midtown is going to reveal a much larger percentage of Caucasians enjoying the Riverfront, eating in our fine restaurants, and living in the condos. I don't have a particular problem with white people enjoying Detroit (full disclosure: I am white, and I enjoy Detroit), and I don't think this is the worst part of what Dumas is describing. But it is the most obvious transformation.

Less obvious, but much more important, is that the balance of power has shifted dramatically in the last eight years. In fact, far more than statistics indicate, relative outsiders like Mayor Dave Bing, expected mayoral candidate Mike Duggan, big business leaders, and Governor Snyder are influencing Detroit's vision for the future. Many of Detroit's big name pastors don't live here themselves, and I understand that even Mildred Gaddis, resolute defender of Detroit's sovereignty, is not a Detroit resident.

Most of those driving the discussions about economic progress, urban gardening, land use issues, and governmental policy are relative newcomers who do not necessarily understand or appreciate the challenges that the "old Detroit" -- much poorer and in many cases less educated -- has faced.

What is the solution?

We could reject the new Detroit.

Out of fear, Detroiters could reject the newcomers and declare our own vision for the city. In fact, many people are taking this route. Certain leaders, especially in City Council, have essentially rejected the vision of new Detroit in favor of their concept of old Detroit.

The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, it rejects reality. We desperately need new blood. Our city right now is shrinking fast and losing its tax base, services, and vision. These newcomers provide much of that. We also need accountability and oversight. Our more educated newcomers are not used to being treated like trash by someone elected to serve them, and they won't stand for it. We have gotten used to it.

Second, this approach often ends up not serving "old Detroit," but rather indulging in the corruption of "old Detroit government." Many of the loudest voices in favor of this approach are heavily invested in "serving" a poor, declining Detroit. They stand to lose their platforms and their constituency if Detroit becomes prosperous again. Many department heads stand to lose position and affluence if basic efficiency standards are enforced. Those of us who have lived here for decades aren't as concerned with who answers the phone at the water department; we're just sick of getting full voicemail boxes.

Or we could reject the old Detroit.

With the consent agreement, business partnerships, and the real possibility of a new, white mayor, the newcomers could very easily use their money and influence to run roughshod over those of us who have lived here for decades. This solution has some attractiveness as well, especially since the loudest "old Detroit" voices seem to be intent on impeding real progress.

But the problem with this is that people, all people, have intrinsic dignity, and deserve to have a voice in their future and in the future of the city they've given their lives to.

The newcomers have options. Many residents don't. For example, a follower on Twitter moved to an apartment in downtown Detroit a year ago, excited to be close to her job, excited to be in Detroit, excited to be a part of the renaissance. A year later, frustrated with city government and a housing situation, she moved back to the suburbs. This is not to denigrate her; she seems to be a wonderful person who is simply making the choices she needs to make. But she had options that many residents do not.

Another example of this is the 2007 mayoral election. A last-minute influx of money from downtown business leaders -- most of whom live outside the city -- enabled Mayor Kilpatrick to slam challenger Freman Hendrix with the accusation that Hendrix was a tool of white suburbanites. Kilpatrick used the white suburban money to come from behind in the polls to narrowly beat Hendrix -- and when Kilpatrick's administration imploded under charges of corruption and perjury, it was the same business leaders (with the exception of Mayor Bing) who propped him up until it was impossible for him to stay.

It is not best for the city for people without a long-term commitment to Detroit to craft the long-term plans for the city and heavily influencing our elections.

Or, we could work together for a Detroit that works

The third option, preferable to endless stalemates and raucous downtown protests, is for us, the living, to join hands with all Detroiters to craft a compelling, overall vision for a Detroit that works. It is for those of us who have lived here for decades to recognize that "new Detroit" has wisdom, resources, and passion that we need. It is for the newcomers to recognize that "old Detroit" has its own knowledge, goals, and grit that Detroit can't make it without.

There's going to have to be some give and take. There's no reason a Whole Foods and a Meijer's can't coexist with a Metro Foodland, as long as our governmental leadership is willing to offer a level playing field to all three. There should be no reason that Mayor Bing, city council, and business can't arrive at common sense solutions to issues like what to do with Belle Isle. There is really no compelling reason that we should have the third safest downtown in the nation with more per capita homicides than anyone else in the rest of the city.

A great example of this third option is what's happened in my neighborhood of Brightmoor. In the last five years, several people have moved in from outside of our neighborhood. They all have a vision for Brightmoor, but they've worked through a neighborhood group to give all neighbors a voice. Little has been done without consensus, but once there's consensus, the neighborhood all works together. By the end of the year, 50 blocks will have been cleaned, over 40 gardens established, 200+ teenagers employed, vacant lots mowed, a nature walk cleared, parks established, a neighborhood watch operating, etc. Amazing things... and you'll find almost no residents who feel that they have been left behind. (For more information on Brightmoor, check out this website).

I'm glad Karen Dumas wrote this article and started this conversation. It's one we need to have, and I think we can have it with "candor, intelligence, and goodwill."

Viva Detroit!