Urban Renewal Diamonds in the Rough

November 14, 2010; Source: Detroit Free Press | Why are the Midtown and southwest Detroit neighborhoods showing evidence of revitalization when most of Detroit is disintegrating? The Detroit Free Press notes that both neighborhoods are increasing in population and numbers of businesses but they are also very different in terms of their economic bases, demographics and even language bases—since southwest Detroit is largely made up of Latino immigrants.

The Free Press consulted two dozen “veterans” of urban revitalization efforts to try to define what was working, and identified three factors behind the neighborhoods’ revivals: assets to build upon, strong neighborhood-level leadership, and money. Our reading of these three factors comes with a very strong nonprofit twist. The assets that undergird Midtown and southwest Detroit tend to be nonprofit (or religious) institutions such as hospitals, universities, and churches, serving as anchors for neighborhood revitalization.

The neighborhood leadership that the Free Press experts cite clearly resides in “nonprofit groups that work with residents to fight blight and to map development strategies.” Too many thirty-thousand-foot academics get all caught up in qualities of leadership as though neighborhood revitalization requires a local Nelson Mandela or Bill Clinton for success, but in these neighborhoods, the leadership that works is institutional or organizational, neighborhood-based, community-led, and reflective of a long-term community commitment. As Kathy Wendler, president of the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Business Association told the Free Press, “I think we’re the boots on the ground.”

The third factor cited by the Free Press for these neighborhoods’ revivals is money, but it’s clear that the money is focused on a community strategy, concentrated on neighborhood action plans. Notwithstanding some of the over-hyped rhetoric accompanying these ventures, the Promise Neighborhoods, the foundation-generated comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs), and other neighborhood-focused programs, keyed to nonprofit organizations or coalitions are the models for what’s working in Detroit’s Midtown and southwest neighborhoods.

Moreover, without nonprofit boots on the ground, government and foundation funding sources would lack a nonprofit infrastructure through which to work, to deploy assets in a way that leverages the energies and commitment of community residents. There’s a nonprofit success story lurking here, even in the midst of Detroit’s horrendous economic problems.—Rick Cohen

  • Jennifer Chandler

    Here, here! Thank you Mr. Cohen for uncovering this story and also for the reminder that nonprofit “boots on the ground” are what make redevelopment and revitalization real. While it may not be “innovative,” giving existing effective nonprofits that know their community the resources to deploy their staff/volunteers and their nonprofits’ programs, is how this kind of revitalization happens. Nonprofits are often the first to recognize what it will take to remove barriers and spark new growth in their communities.

  • rick cohen

    That’s kind of you to say. I think it’s a story that is rarely told in nonprofit “infrastructure” terms. When I worked for LISC may years ago, it struck me that it wasn’t necessarily the “innovativeness” of CDCs in the South Bronx that were turning that area around, but the fact that there were competent nonprofits on the ground that could serve as indigenous organizational funnels for resources to reach the people of the Bronx. It’s also a point I made in my column a couple of years ago in a review of the Urban Institute’s study of communities of concentrated poverty. Those communities that were doing the best jobs of dealing with their concentrated poverty were those not only with nonprofit “boots on the ground”, but nonprofits that were connected to national networks that could funnel them technical and financial resources. The story is pretty obvious to me, but it needs to be told. Thanks again for your comment.

    Rick Cohen