When I moved to Detroit in the mid-’90s, my friends and colleagues in Atlanta thought I was crazy. Detroit’s national reputation suggested that smart people knew to stay away. I challenged the prevailing narrative outsiders had about the city. And I still do. At the same time, there are many issues that plague the community. So each day I applaud the positives of life in Detroit and work to resolve the negatives.
The pluses are many. Without question, Detroit has one of the nation’s strongest arts communities. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Wright Museum of African American History, the Michigan Opera Theater and the Detroit Institute of Arts are each world-class entities. They are in the heart of the city and attract diverse local, national and even international audiences. Along with the many galleries, community theaters and choirs, Detroit has an arts enterprise that rivals any other metropolitan area in the country.
World-class colleges and universities also contribute to a vital community, and bring smart, interesting, engaging people to the region. Students from across the globe study in the metro area. The diversity of cultures and perspectives offer an opportunity to learn, engage in thoughtful dialogue and experience a wide array of foods.
Why wouldn’t you want to live in Detroit?
For some, the answer to that question lies in the effects of years of disinvestment in the city, the crime rate, the poor public school system, the absence of major retail in the downtown area, racial tensions, high taxes, exorbitant auto insurances and crumbling infrastructure.
I have seen first-hand how lives are transformed through adult education and skill development.
Taken by themselves, this litany of ills would frighten anyone away from Detroit. However, if you look at that list as opportunities for improvement and growth, you will see many reasons to be a part of the city’s ongoing renaissance. The community’s major strength lies in the resourceful, committed, hopeful and dedicated citizens.
I have seen first-hand how lives are transformed through adult education and skill development. Men and women have been able to move from poverty to life-sustaining employment as the result of the programs offered by the Focus: HOPE agency. Community gardens and neighborhood entrepreneurial ventures have blossomed in the city to bring communities together in a sharing economy.
The Detroit Public Schools Foundation (DPSF) has also offered students opportunities to improve. Students in Detroit’s public schools have learned from the Dance Theater of Harlem and performed at the Opera House. DPSF has made these and other out-of-class experiences possible despite the absence of district funds to provide these extra-curricular activities. There are many other examples of positive programs and projects that make Detroit a great place to live.
Nonetheless, much of the national press has focused on the the significant blight that has taken over too many neighborhoods. It’s true that the magnitude of blight in this city is unprecedented in America. Of the 380,000 total parcels, Motor City Mapping identified 84,641 that needed some type of intervention. Of these, 73,035 were residential, 5,471 commercial, and 6,135 were vacant lots.
There has been a concerted effort by the city administration to demolish buildings that cannot be saved, remodel and sell those that are in “tipping point” neighborhoods and clean vacant lots. A report from 2014 recommended the removal of 40,000 structures in the city. The goal of this large-scale effort is to create a climate of hope and optimism for residents. While there is still much work to be done, the progress on the removal of blight is noticeable. Our challenge is to continue the forward movement, in light of limited available funds.
The removal of blight is an essential first step in the design of a safer city with the opportunity to increase property values.
The removal of blight is an essential first step in the design of a safer city with increased property values. The Blight Removal Task Force is a model public-private collaboration that has shaped much of the work done by Detroit Land Bank and the office of the mayor. The recommendations contained in the Task Force report leverage assets from government, philanthropic and non-profit sectors.
The data collection that has been integral to the blight removal planning process will inform all members of the community. Once it becomes clear which housing stock is best suited to families, schools will be able to better serve children in those neighborhoods. Commercial enterprises will know where to locate. Entertainment will follow. An incremental building process will naturally occur, resulting in strong communities where citizens will want to live, work and play.
The built environment will amplify the cultural and economic environments. Thus continuing to implement the Blight Removal Task Force Plan is a necessary requirement to ensure the rest of the country knows that Detroit is a great place for everyone.
But no matter what programs or projects are implemented, the people make this city great.