“Why Detroit?”

by Angelita Espino, Detroit LISC Sustainable Communities Director

This great city is in a situation that requires it to look around and assess its strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and threats. These are marvelous times in Detroit. Times that require a reinvention; keeping what has made us strong, discarding old thought patterns and ways of doing business that no longer work.

Therein lay the opportunities.

Weaknesses exist in the old ways—those that brought the city its past glory as a place of industrial and business innovation, but likewise left it stuck in unproductive habits for too long. Threats are magnified by the fear that ill-doers spread through word of mouth and media. Addressing those threats is the collective responsibility of residents, businesses, and institutions.

Change is constant, and if you don’t change, you wither and die away. It’s true of us as individuals, and it’s true of our city, institutions, and organizations. Detroit is in the process of not just changing, but making great changes demanded by the circumstances.

Detroit’s strength is its people. Residents of long ago rebuilt the city after it was virtually destroyed by fire in 1805. Strength came from Blacks and Whites who made Detroit the last stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom in Canada. Strength came from the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that made Detroit their destination, looking for good jobs in exchange for their labor in their new country.

These immigrants yearned for a life that included a single family home for their families, spurring the growth of homes, not tenements. It’s part of why Detroit became a homeowner town. Abandonment and subsequent demolition of many single family homes has since contributed to the city’s vast empty spaces where homes once stood.

After WWI put a stop to cheap immigrant labor, thousands of southern Blacks made the migration north to work in factories, followed by the migration of southern Blacks to work in the manufacturing plants during WWII. They helped the factories in Detroit become the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Detroit’s strength is its people. Detroit and its financial base provided quality housing, an excellent educational system, recreation, and support for the arts. Many Detroiters have shared their gifts in the arts, sciences, politics, business, and literature. However, the outflow of monies, jobs, and homes outside of Detroit commenced its decline.

Change was taking place. It fostered independence, increased wealth for industries and individuals, but did not address the balance and interdependence of people, nature, and institutions. Wealth at the expense of others can engender greed, and the recent housing and foreclosure crisis exacerbated conditions in Detroit—and they continue to grip the city.

Detroit must once again change and reinvent itself.

People remain Detroit’s strength; the older immigrants that settled in the city moved out and were followed by the Jews, Blacks, and new immigrants that moved into what was known as “Black Bottom.” Detroit’s strength is in the new immigrants arriving in Southwest and Northeast Detroit, revitalizing old homes, commercial corridors, and bringing new foods, music, and customs.

Detroit’s strength is in the new cadre of young artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs who are nourished by the solid values, sense of equality, work ethic, and community. Its strength is in the communities that have led neighbors to invest in human capital by creating time banks, picking up where the city has faltered by clearing fallen trees out of the street, and helping maintain neighborhoods by boarding up empty homes to stop unscrupulous junk scrappers. Its strength is in neighbors and organizations banding together to make sure that new developments include benefits like jobs for unemployed residents, and a balance between commerce and the health considerations of the neighborhoods.

Detroit’s strength is in the resilience and hard work of Detroiters who have a “never say die” attitude, and who are a no-frills, family-loving, strong group of people.

The process of reinventing ourselves has begun. Detroiters look to each other for help, knowing the businesses, philanthropists, institutions, and industry will contribute. Why? Because we all need each other to reach our full potential, and our greatness. Our cycle has come full circle not just as individuals but as a collective, a city—dependence, independence, and now interdependence.

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Posted on July 6, 2011, in Community and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Lourdes Aceves

    Nice article. It’s really important when crafting policy or trying to influence attitudes to understand the local history and character of a place and why it developed in just that way. After all, ‘you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.’ Your article does a good job of charting Detroit’s history. I also like your reference to a SWOT analysis in the first paragraph (i.e., strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities). I think all cities should approach economic development using this business model.

  2. Enjoyed the article. From hundreds of miles away I feel a resurgence of energy and collective action. Go Detroit!

    • Loren, thank you for your comment. Detroit is unique, gritty, and genuine. It’s what let’s me and those of us at Detroit LISC know it’s going to transform itself out of this crisis. Indeed–Detroit is moving and going to its next phase. This is not without struggle, but you can’t stay doing the same thing expecting different results.

  3. History is indeed important, and Detroit’s is one of greatness followed by an unraveling. Thomas Sugrue’s book, Origins of the Urban Crisis, published in 1996 has a wonderful history.

  1. Pingback: Is something magical about to happen in Detroit? « Doing it Write in Detroit

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