This month marks 30 years since I started covering Detroit’s revitalization efforts for the Free Press. These years have been marked by recession and tragedy in the city as well as many surprising victories.
Among much else, Detroit’s trip through municipal bankruptcy in 2013-14 played a key role in the city’s revitalization. Mayor Mike Duggan has energized municipal services, and businessman Dan Gilbert has stunned long-time downtowners with the speed and scale of his efforts to remake downtown.
But today I’d like to look back on these 30 years and talk about less-noticed trends. These are the things that seldom made headlines on their own but that, to me, seem essential to Detroit’s rebirth.
Growing food inside cities has a long history, going back at least to Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree’s “potato patches” during the recession of the 1890's. Urban agriculture began to flourish anew in Detroit in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Spin-off of municipal services
Increasingly broke and dysfunctional, the City of Detroit began to spin off municipal services around the year 2000 into a series of public authorities, conservancies and non-profit corporations.
When I arrived in Detroit 30 years ago, giant corporations like General Motors and Ford had ruled Detroit’s economy for so long that it was hard to imagine anything else. But a series of shocks forced Detroiters to think anew about their economy.
It’s hard to imagine Detroit’s nascent recovery without the dollars and leadership provided by philanthropic foundations.
From the more than $300 million pumped into the “Grand Bargain” during Detroit’s bankruptcy to underwriting the birth of the Qline and many other projects, philanthropy has played a leading role in Detroit’s revitalization.
The Detroit neighborhoods that tend to flourish the best are those with strong community development organizations. These are non-profit groups that may have started decades ago as volunteer block clubs. In recent years, the best ones added paid professional staff with a variety of skill sets – business development, grant-writing, urban design.