A student gives back to the city

Beth Dykstra
Cement silos in the riverfront revitalization area. Formerly an industrial area, the new plan will transform the land into a residential zone. (Peter Schottenfels/Daily)

In between running the Michigan Student Assembly’s airBus program, driving University buses and taking classes, LSA senior Neil Greenberg gives tours of Detroit to friends and others interested in learning about the city’s history.

Since being present at the opening night of Detroit’s People Mover in 1987, the city has played a large role in Greenberg’s life. Growing up in Bloomfield Township, one of Detroit’s suburbs, he often visited the city with his family.

“It was never the kind of thing in my house where Detroit was this kind of taboo. That’s not to say that anyone around me was idealistic about it. We always acknowledged the realities, we just never let that stand in the way, never in the worst years,” Greenberg said.

After years of exploring his interest in Detroit, Greenberg currently serves as assistant director of Summer in the City, a community service program he founded in 2002 with a friend to help high school students fulfill service requirements by working in the city.

“What we do primarily is work with high school kids to help them get their number of hours required in order to graduate high school. We hook up with other organizations in the city, like Habitat for Humanity and Focus: HOPE, and we funnel volunteers to them,” he explained.

Greenberg estimates about 10,000 hours have been put in by about 400 to 500 volunteers throughout the life of the program.

“A lot of kids in the suburbs, they have a good attitude, but they don’t really even know what community service is. They don’t know where to begin,” he said.

“Our goal is to make community service accessible for people who need to get credit.”

Though Greenberg enjoys community service, he explained that his true passion is transportation, and believes it has a direct impact on the process of revitalization in Detroit, and will soon be taking a job as a scheduler for SMART bus systems.

“Beyond even the transportation — and I admit, that’s my thing — our lack of transportation is emblematic of a bigger problem and that is that Detroit just doesn’t have its priorities straight,” he said.

“For all the attention we pay to the fact that visitors don’t walk away with a bad taste, we leave our residents in the dust.”

Healso explained his belief that to attract residents back into the city, Detroit must first create a desirable environment in which to raise a family.

“We aren’t going to do that one casino at a time, but we are going to do that one school at a time, one block at a time, one emptied trash can at a time.”

“A lot of people are pissed off, but for as many people who are pissed off, there are 10 people who don’t care. It’s those people that we need to tell why they should care.”

Project bridges gap between city, ‘U’

One of the most well-known community service groups on campus is the Detroit Project, usually know for its annual spring service day in Detroit.

“That’s one of the things that had with it certain negative connotations because it’s this one huge day where you take a ton of people and you do all this work, and then you take off,” said DP Executive Director Evan Major.

Although this is often the most popular event organized by DP, it is merely one of many volunteering opportunities in Detroit offered throughout the year.

“The overall group, there’s about 40 people on our central playing team who hold a variety of positions, but we work in partnership with about 20 other organizations in the city of Detroit,” Major said.

“Our end goal is to build a community between the University and Detroit.”

One area DP focuses on is working in Detroit schools, concentrating their work in eight different elementary and middle schools. Every day of the week, DP runs two to three programs after school such as test preparation, tutoring, poetry and writing workshops and homework help. Additionally, the group organizes a student council in several schools that are not able to offer them to students.

Three programs make up DP, including a Youth Program team, Brightmoor team, and Southwest Detroit team. Within the Brightmoor community, DP is working to help develop a greenway project, which will connect two parks, spanning 1.5 miles in the neighborhood.

“Traditionally greenways have sparked a lot of community renewal, housing value increase — all kinds of things spring forward from them,” Major said.

He explained that the project aims to connect two existing parks that are underutilized and poorly maintained, and will weave between existing houses and neighborhoods.

“The urban greenway will be a 1.5 mile stretch of interconnected open space that will facilitate a number of goals. It’s somewhere for people to go and relax and enjoy the environment, a pathway for walking and biking, as well as working on incorporating an oral history of the neighborhood,” Major said.

DP will also be working to develop pocket parks along the greenway — abandoned lots turned into small parks.

But Major added DP aims is not only to involve University students in community service, but also to create an understanding of the city, and break down stereotypes of Detroit.

“Aside from getting people actively involved in service learning and helping learn about social injustices … it’s about getting people enthusiastic and motivated about the city, about the arts and culture — it’s so much more.”

 

Alum works on renewal projects

After graduating from the University this May with a degree in urban planning, alum Michael Dempsey is putting his degree to use while working as a project manager at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

“I’ve been asked the question many times, ‘Why do you want to work in Detroit? Why don’t you want to go to a more vibrant, a more functional city?’ The thing is, although it would have been perhaps entertaining or nice to go to one of those other cities, what made Detroit stand out was the fact that it is, number one, such a challenge,” he said.

Dempsey described DEGC is a “quasi-public entity” which has nonprofit status, but receives funding from both the city and private corporations and focuses on the implementation of renovation plans for the city.

“For DEGC right now, one of our big projects is the East Riverfront redevelopment. In some ways, it’s the biggest project going on in Detroit,” he explained.

In the mid-1990s when Detroit’s three casinos were constructed, it was originally planned that the casinos would move to the riverfront area. Eventually, the plans were discarded and the city was left with the property.

“What the city wound up with was that they had acquired a lot of land in the area. It provided potential to rebuild this area from the ground up,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey said the main focus of the riverfront renovations is to turn the formerly industrial land into a residential area, with 90 percent of the new renovations planned to be residential.

“People are seeing that the key to revitalizing cities is not grandiose office parks, it’s not developments, it’s not developing new housing projects. It’s creating and recreating quality housing project that will attract new residents to an area.”

The residential area will be targeted at two demographic groups — singles and married couples in their 20s and 30s without children, and empty-nesters ready to move back into the city after suburban life.

Expected to be included in the area are multi-family housing units, such as apartment, lofts, condominiums and townhouses but Dempsey said there are no plans for single-family detached houses.

Currently, DEGC is working to reconstruct existing land such as the Uniroyal site, which covers 25 to 30 percent of the riverfront property. Besides cleaning contaminated areas, DEGC arranged to move two of three cement silos to a different industrial property west of the riverfront, Dempsey said.

“We’re still very much in the initial stages of bringing in private developers,” he said.

Although it will be an estimated 20 years before the completion of the redevelopment plan, he added that most of the development will happen within the first 10 years.

In addition to DECG’s efforts, General Motors and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy are also working to rebuild areas of the riverfront stretching from the Renaissance Center to the Belle Isle bridge.

“GM is very much involved, they’re very much dedicated to seeing the area around the RenCen be transformed,” Dempsey said.

Although he was offered the possibility of working in Chicago, Dempsey said he is happy with his choice to stay in Detroit.

“A lot of things had already been done there. That city, in many ways, doesn’t need the help. But Detroit has huge challenges to overcome and, at the same time, has a huge amount of potential.”

 

New city park opens tomorrow

After two years of work, the Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit has finally reached completion.

“It was originally designed in 1805, and was superceded by traffic planning,” said Michael Dempsey, project manager at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

After resuming the plan two years ago, the city will host the ceremony tomorrow at 5 p.m, in the park, on Woodward Avenue by the new Compuware building.

The park will be home to Detroit’s Christmas tree throughout the holiday season, and features a fountain, ice skating rink, the year-round caf

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