A little more than a decade ago, I began working in Detroit as an Americorps member for the first class of the Michigan Neighborhood Americorps Program. The program marked an innovative approach of “service learning” by matching University graduate students from the Schools of Social Work, Urban Planning, Public Health, Public Policy and Business with nonprofit, grassroots community organizations in Detroit, as well as with local Detroit residents who would serve alongside the University graduate students. Those 900 hours of direct services throughout 1995 at the Southwest Detroit Business Association changed my life’s destiny like no other professional experience before or since.
Southwest Detroit seemed like a foreign place. At the time, gang violence was raging in the neighborhood and was covered in the local papers and television stations. Vacant storefronts and graffiti lined West Vernor, the neighborhood’s main commercial street. While the recent election of Mayor Dennis Archer and designation of the area as a federal Empowerment Zone were cause for hope, especially for a Clinton Democrat and Masters in Public Policy student like myself, I had to confront my stereotypical views of Detroit and what comprised a Detroit neighborhood.
It wasn’t long before I realized how ill-informed those stereotypes were. Ten years later, after two long door-to-door campaigns, more than six years of residency in Detroit and Highland Park, eight years of coaching hockey at a neighborhood park and thousands of other experiences providing legal services and policy advocacy in Detroit’s neighborhoods, the proof is in the pudding. I have never been threatened with a gun. I have never had gunshots whizzing by my head. My car has never been stolen. But most importantly, the people and the neighborhoods want the same things that people and neighborhoods in Ann Arbor or Farmington Hills, where I was raised, want: good schools, good roads, good parks, no pollution, etc. Detroit just faces unique challenges.
The histories of Detroit and Michigan are the most American of all city and state histories. Our phenomenal rise as the Arsenal of Democracy and the Motor City in the 20th century meant good-paying jobs, a diverse workforce and solid neighborhoods lined with single-family homes. The nation’s transition into an Information Age economy in the late-20th and early-21st centuries has had a devastating impact on Detroit and cities across Michigan, including Flint, Saginaw, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, Highland Park, etc.
Detroit has lost nearly half its population since 1950. Buildings were abandoned. And the tax base to fund city services left for the suburbs, leaving state revenue sharing, casinos and income taxes as the largest revenue sources for the city, instead of property taxes. Imagine that the City of Detroit expects to receive $216 million in real property taxes in the current fiscal year, while the Township of West Bloomfield expects to top $140 million (or two-thirds that much). Can you imagine addressing all the miles of unpaved streets, garbage pickup, police and fire services in Detroit’s 140 square miles with little more funding than what it takes to run West Bloomfield?
Today, Southwest Detroit – the area comprised of Corktown, Mexicantown and the neighborhoods around West Vernor, Fort Street and Michigan Avenue – is a thriving community. It is the only growing neighborhood of any scale in Detroit, with a population that rose by 7.5 percent from 1990-2000, while the city’s population declined by 6.9 percent. Southwest Detroit has one of the most diverse populations in Michigan, with 50 percent of its residents of Hispanic origin, 25 percent of the residents are black, 5 percent are Arab-American and the remaining residents are white. Mostly, it is a lower-income community, but it is the home to hundreds of new retail businesses and thousands of units of new and rehabilitated housing. Graffiti has been removed from its commercial main street.
Southwest Detroit is a model for the city and the state of Michigan to embrace, nurture and replicate. Why has it succeeded? How has it been able to grow its population, add new housing and retail, remove graffiti from its commercial district, and thrive? Are there strategies employed in Southwest Detroit that can be used in other parts of Detroit or other communities across the state? These are the questions that city and state political leaders need to be asking.
Immigration has been fundamental to Southwest Detroit’s success and to the growth of virtually every other major U.S. city in the past 15 years. For Southwest Detroit, that immigration tends to be mostly Latino, but its neighbor East Dearborn has served as the epicenter of Middle Eastern immigration to the United States. Also, Southwest Detroit has pockets of new Romanian, Polish and Yemenese immigrants. Immigrants bring a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Block-by-block they are moving into some of Southwest Detroit’s most devastated neighborhoods and fixing up homes and cleaning up blight. Visiting Southwest Detroit gives one the feeling of an answer to decades of disinvestment from Detroit, rather than some elaborate scam to defraud the American taxpayer of welfare and health care benefits.
The work of nonprofit, community-based organizations has been critical to addressing the unique problems of Southwest Detroit. The neighborhood is home to some of the state’s most successful affordable housing providers, such as Bagley Housing and Southwest Nonprofit Housing, who have built hundreds of new single-family homes and subsidized senior housing, as well as rehabilitate hundreds of units of affordable and supportive rental units. The community also houses some of the state’s most sophisticated neighborhood commercial revitalization efforts, including the Southwest Detroit Business Association, Mexicantown Community Development Corporation and the Greater Corktown Development Corporation. Finally, the community has grown and developed its own network of social service and health agencies to meet the unique needs of immigrants and others. CHASS Clinic provides medical care to thousands of Spanish-speaking residents and Southwest Solutions, Latino Family Services, Alternatives for Girls and Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation provide exemplary mental health, counseling, emergency food, education and other social services.
Finally, there is a community spirit. Perhaps, it is the community’s pride at being the state’s largest Hispanic neighborhood. Perhaps, it is the unique mix of Irish, Polish, Maltese, Hungarian, Mexican, black and Appalachian residents. Whatever the cause, there are residents and former residents who are passionate and proud of this neighborhood and who contribute to its schools and charities, advocate for its residential neighborhoods and who invest their time and energy on any number of myriad efforts to grow and protect the neighborhood.
There are still a number of challenges. Schools, police and fire services, balancing the community’s needs against those of industrial and transportation uses are among the top ones. But with so much written about Detroit’s financial condition and the potential of a state receiver, I think it’s important to look at what really works. And it is not just new buildings downtown or the Super Bowl or an All-Star Game. The real solution and the real measure for Detroit will be in its neighborhoods. And this state has none finer than in Southwest Detroit.