Detroit: City of Jewels

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November/December 2010; Source: Mother Jones | Most of the press seems to have declared the City of Detroit as dead as the Edsel, but nonprofits are working on schemes to revitalize this battered and bruised community. Midnight Golf offers high school seniors college prep support, skills-building in resume-writing and public-speaking, and training in golf provided by PGA players. Founded in 2001 by a single mom, Midnight Golf has helped 350 kids get into college. Urban nonprofit farms such as Earthworks and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network are developing agricultural re-uses for vacant lots, an asset which Detroit has in abundance. A nonprofit bike shop, Hub of Detroit, sells and refurbishes old bicycles and uses the profits to teach kids to build and fix their own bikes. A nonprofit called Friends of Spaulding Court purchased a 20-unit Gothic townhouse complex in the North Corktown neighborhood and is unit-by-unit renovating the classic limestone structure, using loans gathered through the “crowd-funding sites Kickstarter and Loveland.” These are but a few of dozens of nonprofit initiatives, fragile and frequently undercapitalized, but demonstrating a level of grassroots ingenuity and entrepreneurialism that is a refreshing alternative to the highly self-promotional “social innovations” that have corraled the attention of federal government agencies and national foundations.

Will they transform the incredibly distressed Motor City? Cumulatively, they are providing alternatives to strategies that try to reclaim economic bases that will never be revived. Their new and bold thinking, even at their small scales, might not only make headway in Detroit, but suggest strategies for other similarly distressed cities that cannot go back again to the glory of their economic heydays in vastly different economic eras.—Rick Cohen