Detroit troubles

Now that Detroit has “emerged” from bankruptcy with a deal with creditors, what next? For nonprofits and foundations, the challenges have not abated. In reality, while Detroit may have reached an agreement with creditors and pensioners to deal with the bankruptcy court, the city is still deeply troubled, with social and economic problems that remain immense impediments to a municipal revival that benefits all the citizens of Detroit, particularly its legion of poverty-stricken families who may not see themselves as beneficiaries of such highly touted elements of Detroit’s renaissance as Dan Gilbert’s acquisition of much of Downtown or the private investment focusing on the Midtown area.

 

Getting something done for the neighborhoods

Poor Detroiters. They have been the recipients, or perhaps the victims, of decades of plans of great promise but stunning underperfomance. These initiatives were always pitched as the answers that Detroit desperately needed, always pitched as grassroots and inclusive, and so often wrought with action that fell far short of what Detroit needed to pivot toward progress. Examples include the Clinton-era Empowerment Zone, specially designated for Detroit in 1994 (Detroit’s EZ application was ironically called “Jumpstart for the Motor City”), the Obama administration’s selection of Detroit as one of the seven pilot cities in the Strong Cities Strong Communities (SC2) program, and other government initiatives plus a variety of nonprofit and philanthropic efforts—including the targeting of the Lower Woodward Corridor as one of the four sites of the Ford Foundation’s Neighborhood and Family Initiative, and the Warren Connor Development Coalition as the focus for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative. Then, there are more recent (and, in some instances, ongoing) efforts like Habitat for Humanity’s “ReBuild Detroit” initiative, the Woodward Corridor Initiative associated with the Living Cities “Integration Initiative” (an “eds and meds” strategy), and the Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods/Good Schools program. Notwithstanding the fine leaders from these programs who bring a surfeit of expertise to Detroit today—especially Tonya Allen, who led Casey’s RCI program and now oversees Skillman, Vincent Tilford, who leads Habitat in Detroit and previously headed the Detroit program of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and Maggie DeSantis, the longtime head of the Warren/Connor Development Corporation—these Detroit initiatives have not been the answer to the city’s deep structural needs.

Now, the bankruptcy-emerged Detroit has the Detroit Future City plan on its plate. It would be easy at this point to find shortcomings and pitfalls in the DFC framework and contemplate new versions of a plan for Detroit’s revitalization. No offense to the propensity of so many to generate new plans and, worse, new studies discussing the lessons learned from various community initiatives, but this is the time to take action, to put money behind the various parts of the plan that benefit Detroit’s legacy residents, and rebalance the focus from Downtown (and the eds-and-meds Midtown) to the neighborhoods. In his statement after the bankruptcy ruling, Kresge CEO Rip Rapson suggested several points of milestones for building Detroit that he says are already “readily apparent,” including, “Neighborhood organizations…accessing private funding to pursue their aspirations and meet the enduring challenges their communities face” and “A strong platform for community decision-making [that] is strengthening the city’s existing assets and transforming its liabilities, particularly abandoned and blighted properties.”

We think that the dynamics of Detroit in recent times don’t quite offer convincing evidence for Rapson’s observations, especially since he is describing the rebuilding not of the city’s neighborhoods, but their social and organizational infrastructure (“neighborhood organizations” and “community decision-making”), but his intention is correct—it’s time to act, to invest and reinvest in neighborhoods, and to rebuild an infrastructure that can take back control of the destiny of their communities.

 

Rebuilding democracy

An implicit subtext of Rapson’s statement is that Detroit has been suffering a democracy deficit for some time. Partially it was self-imposed, with the election of Kwame Kilpatrick, the “hip hop mayor” who turned into a personal and familial story of public sector corruption, earning himself a residence in a jail cell. But it is also due in part to the bankruptcy, which led to the imposition of state control of finances and an emergency financial manager, and to the long-term disinvestment in Detroit’s community-based nonprofits. Some of Detroit’s nonprofits that were once vibrant and vigorous institutions of grassroots democracy are shells of what they used to be. The philanthropic community that has coalesced so strongly behind cultural institutions and business investment through the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Midtown Detroit Inc., Techtown, the Detroit Creative Corridor, and other initiatives needs to up its game in reinvesting in community and democracy.

Making this issue critically important is a disturbing statement from the bankruptcy court’s expert, one Marti Kopacz. The court hired Kopacz as its own expert to pr