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Changing the Narrative in Detroit

Detroit is thwarting its diagnosis of doom thanks to a group of longtime residents.
Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

"Make your own voice. Tell your own story. Be a rebel and kick some ass."

These words are the voiceover spoken by fashion designer John Varvatos in a now-viral video celebrating the opening of his store in Detroit. “Coming back to Detroit and opening the store here,” reflects the native son, “is a magical thing for me.”

Laid over black-and-white images of the Motor City’s near-mythic history of automobiles, urban decay, and rock and roll, Varvatos’ voice isn’t the only one offering lyrical tributes. “I love the fact that Detroit’s an underdog,” music legend Alice Cooper declares. “You wait. Detroit always comes back.”

Many find this narrative of demise and re-birth in the city best known as the scene of the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history to be irresistible. But the Varvatos video and the panel discussion it introduced at New America’s annual conference both testify to a new bottom line: Unless you know this city, it doesn’t matter whether you’re ready to write Detroit’s eulogy or lionize its incipient renaissance. It’s time for Detroit to tell its own stories.

“In a growing economy, a lot of times the kind of strife that might be taking place can be hidden,” said Trudeau.

For Laura Trudeau, the Kresge Foundation’s managing director for community development and Detroit programs, her hometown has always “been a strong, tough, proud city that really characterizes itself as a place for survivors.” Trudeau’s Detroit story starts in 1954, the year she was born—still in the city’s heyday but also the first year of population downturn after decades of unprecedented growth spawned by well-paying automotive jobs. That population downturn was a signal of impending decline—a process that laid bare social and economic tensions that had been festering just beneath the surface during Detroit’s boom-times during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

“In a growing economy, a lot of times the kind of strife that might be taking place can be hidden,” said Trudeau. As growth slowed and the population continued to decrease, the discord among communities over social injustice, housing discrimination, and even the "very physical nature of Detroit"—according to Trudeau, Detroit’s single-family design ethic prevented it from “becoming a very open place”—flowered into full-on conflict.

For others, like Detroit Dirt co-founder and owner Pashon Murray, their Detroit stories emerged from the ashes of that conflict. Murray, who started Detroit Dirt (a compost company “working to turn forgotten parcels of land in Detroit into urban farms” that feed and revitalize the community) in 2010 and has been a fellow at MIT’s Media Lab, recalled growing up in Western Michigan and realizing that Detroit was a place where she could harness her passion for sustainability and waste reduction into tangible social progress and cultural change. “I wanted to be a part of the new Detroit,” she said, so she moved there in the early 2000s with the goal—shared, she says, by others ranging from community activists to representatives of the automotive industry—of “reinventing the city.”

The biggest challenge is that while the “spirit of revitalization and power” is proudly visible, the organizations galvanizing that spirit remain largely segregated. “I can very well go to a meeting [to discuss revitalization] and it’s all black people,” she observed, “and I can go to another meeting and we’re [also] talking about how to rebuild the city and everyone in the room is white.” The upshot for Murray: “It’s everybody’s city, and I feel that now is the time for us all to define what Detroit should look like.”

Moderator LZ Granderson, a contributor to CNN and ESPN and also a Detroit native, asked both Trudeau and Murray what saving Detroit should look like. Trudeau emphasized that she and others are highly conscious of wanting to attract new residents while “preserv[ing] the opportunity and the identity of Detroit” in the midst of a longtime outflow of locals The data here are stark. Between the mortgage and tax foreclosure crises Detroit has endured, it lost nearly 250,000 residents between 2000 and 2010—and most distressingly, that number includes about 100,000 children.

This reality on the ground, said Trudeau, has transformed Detroit into a “fundamentally different” place to live. Murray added, “[While] I don’t think I’m the only one with a solution, I think we have to allow the leadership in these communities to sit at the table, to make decisions about how the city is going to be rebuilt.” Whether the divisions in question separate old residents from new, black residents from white, dynamic leadership is needed to bridge them, warned Murray, or “the same things are going to continue to happen.”

When Granderson posed the hardest-hitting question of the afternoon—Does Detroit have to continue to shrink in order to be saved? —Murray and Trudeau both identified the basic problem facing any efforts to change Detroit’s narrative: resources. Trudeau spoke to the need to shore up the local tax base and develop a more robust regional approach to sharing resources, developing a transit system, and cooperating on things like water. Shrinking isn’t the answer, said Trudeau. Environmental sustainability movements, strategies for “productive re-use,” and diversity in the types of housing available are. “Living near where you work,” she said, “is the ultimate sustainability plan.”

"Living near where you work," she said, "is the ultimate sustainability plan."

At the same time, said Murray, Detroit is a “dream come true” for architects and designers looking to re-build. “They see the prosperity in what can happen.” She identified key priorities in pursuing such prosperity: diversifying the market, keeping a strong focus on education, and bringing in organizations that can have real influence on politicians and school systems and work in concert with supporters from the automotive industry and local developers.

Granderson pointed out one such developer, Dan Gilbert (whose company, Bedrock Real Estate Services, is the Varvatos store’s landlord), who is “doing a masterful job of gobbling up buildings” but is also, potentially, in a position to re-make the city. While Trudeau said she worries about “concentration risk” of having a few developers owning so much real estate, she also marveled at the impact Gilbert has had in a short period of time. Murray agreed, specifying Gilbert’s leadership in “retrofitting and re-building and opening up opportunities for other developers to come in and buy as well.”

Despite an enduring and compelling narrative of renewal through design and innovation, Granderson cited a recent survey mentioned in the New York Times which found that one-third of Detroit’s current residents plan to leave within five years. Trudeau acknowledged that the city is still contending with “very real” problems: high crime rates, decaying infrastructure, communities that feel hopelessly isolated from opportunity. “That’s the challenge for all of us—to try to change that reality.”

“My reality is I’m still there and I’m educated and I believe in the city,” said Murray. “We’re building local economies within Detroit. So data can say one thing and statistics can say something else, but when I give tours and when people come to the city and they hang out with me, they see a different Detroit.”

Granderson captured the optimistic mood of the discussion and the feelings of the audience when he advised, “Definitely hang out with this woman”—to laughs and applause.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.