Thoughts on Rebuilding and Revitalizing Detroit

Over a million. 
And the exodus continues, albeit slowing.  Since 1950, approximately 1.2 million people have left Detroit which is equivalent to the population of Dallas, TX.  According to the most recent US census data estimate, the city is home to approximately 672k people and is barely hanging in the top 25.
While the declines are slowing, the reality is, it continues.  And while there is burgeoning population and investment growth downtown, Midtown and elsewhere, this suggests growth might not be enough to offset population losses in the other parts of the city.

I was born and raised in the city when Detroit was a top-five city in terms of population. 

Not anymore. Now, it’s 23rd.

Talk about a precipitous fall.

There are many factors driving this and at the recent Mackinac Policy Conference (MPC), Mayor Mike Duggan matter-of-factly laid out a historical context which included questionable practices implemented by both federal and local governments.  For example, Duggan, in a thoughtful and poignant approach, discussed the city’s freeway system and how certain ones,  I-75 and I-375 for example, impacted long-standing neighborhoods such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.  This led to to the displacement of African-Americans families and homes.  Additionally, “red-lining”, a lending practice based on race, contributed to housing segregation where blacks were essentially directed to live in certain parts of the city.
I would also add there’s been a significant loss of (manufacturing) jobs which hasn’t been offset by job gains in other areas.  When jobs are lost, people leave for opportunities elsewhere. 
To wit, I remember in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the Houston Chronicle newspaper, full of classifieds with job postings, would drop its Sunday paper on Detroit’s streets.  Detroiters moved to Houston en masse.

With that said, I keep wondering why other, older industrial cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, et. al.) haven’t fallen as far and as fast Detroit and what will it take to stop the continued depopulation of the city?

Granted, the city population declines have slowed and, during his MPC comments, the mayor cited DTE which estimates there were more than 3k incremental housing electrical hookups in the last year–meaning, more houses are becoming occupied and hopefully, indicating population growth. 
Additionally, many will point to the increase in the number of housing and rental permits and population growth in Midtown and others will point to the number of businesses moving downtown, new development efforts and the increasingly strong entrepreneurial ecosystem across the city.

Clearly, this is a start.

It’s great news that there is new construction dotted across the landscape–most notably, Midtown and Downtown.  But, the reality is Detroit is 139 square miles and until revitalization efforts infiltrate across the entire city, it will never fully recognize a total renaissance.  Look beyond the glitzy buildings going up or being rehabbed downtown and other parts of the city, for example, and spend time in the neighborhoods.

The fact is, as you drive along certain thoroughfares and through various neighborhoods, you will note the abandonment and neglect.

Yes, there are targeted areas across the city where there’s a collective effort between the public, private and educational sectors to revitalize and increase neighborhood density. 
As the mayor duly noted and visually depicted as part of his MPC presentation, jobs are being developed, created and moved closer to the residents.

But this thought kept gnawing at me.  I grew up in the city when it was 1.5 million and was fortunate to experience life in the Motor City when commercial retail was abundant and DPS had over 200k students.  What will it take attract people, including families, et. al.?

First, let’s accept the fact that Detroit, unless the unlikely event of annexation of suburbs takes place or there’s a major influx of residents, will probably no longer be a part of the million city club.  

At MPC, the mayor announced, “One City. For  all of Us”.  The premise is based on inclusiveness where all people who work together should be able to live together as well.   He laid out several principles focused on making new the city a more livable place where people can work, play and have jobs within distance of where they live to an entranced and captive audience.

As the city continues to evolve and define its future, it’s important to develop realistic expectations goals and a plan based on being a smaller, more-efficient city providing a quality of life worth living and pursuing. I’m not an urban planner, but a business person who’s a visionary and strategic thinker.

 With that said, here are my thoughts:

  • Long-term Vision and Planning:  The Mayor discussed his vision for Detroit.  It needs to continued to be clearly defined and effectively communicated across the city, region and state.  It also must be realistic.  I’m not suggesting it’s not, but it’s essential the plan is fluid, transparent, realistic and executable.
  • Continued Education Improvement:  There’s a major push towards advanced technology and STEM, for example. Many people in the city are not educated in these areas because we’ve been a major manufacturing hub for so long, the belief was you could graduate into a job on the assembly line which is no longer the case.  In other words, there’s a significant gap between today’s job expectations versus what people have been trained to do.  The overall curriculum needs to be reassessed to ensure young people are the central focus and are being educated where future opportunities will exist.  Same with those believing they’ve been left behind.
  • Neighborhood Strategy:  Yes, there are many announcements regarding revitalization, blight-removal efforts and job creation, Flex ‘N Gate, for example.  However, what is the overall strategy supporting job creation and reallocation of people, if necessary?  Without jobs in the neighborhoods, it will be a challenge to extend revitalization efforts. Therefore, a plan focused on neighborhood job creation needs to be developed and implemented which connects job creation across the entire city in sync with a transportation system which links residents with jobs.
  • Public safety:  Turn on any local news station and the first ten minutes are “doom and gloom”; specifically, crime and other similar types of stories.  Sometimes, it reminds me we are the “wild, Wild West”, Detroit-style. Chief James Craig and the DPD team are doing an excellent job under the circumstances–however, I’m sure one might say DPD is resource constrained. 
  • Regional Cooperation:  Clearly, with 1700 business leaders in the audience at MPC last week, many were opened to the Mayor’s ideas and willing to become more engage, I believe.  There continues to be a heightened sense of interest in Detroit’s revitalization efforts, but the interest needs to continue to translate into action.

Metro Detroit is the population center for the state with nearly 50% of the state’s population residing in SE Michigan while Detroit is the largest and most recognizable city.

I believe in our city and its future, however, the city needs to continue to aggressively confront its challenges, redefine and effectively articulate expectations outward while continuing to push for jobs.  Additionally, by adopting a consumer-centric and inclusive approach, Detroit’s future will continue to evolve positively. 

To the Duggan’s credit, he recognizes a strategy needs to continue to evolve and must include business, residents and all of those interested in taking this city down the path of stabilization and ultimately, growth. 
It’s clearly a start, but more needs to be done.
What are your thoughts?