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By Steve Tobocman|I State representative (D-Detroit)
Someone's trashis a city'
By Kelly Quinn I|Lecturer, College of Architecture and Urban PI
little more than a
decade ago, I began
working in Detroit
as an Americorps
member for the first
class of the Michi-
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 organiza-
tions 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 Busi-
ness 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 vio-
lence 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 Empower-
ment Zone were cause for hope, especially for a Clinton Democrat and
Masters in Public Policy student like myself, I had to confront my stereo-
typical 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 coach-
ing 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 Democ-
racy 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, Mexi-
cantown 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 remain-
ing 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 com-
mercial 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 afford-
able housing providers, such as Bagley Housing and Southwest Non-
profit 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 hous-
es some of the state's most sophisticated neighborhood commercial
revitalization efforts, including the Southwest Detroit Business Asso-
ciation, 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 resi-
dents 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 residen-
tial neighborhoods and who invest their time and energy on any num-
ber of myriad efforts to grow and protect the neighborhood.
There are still a number of challenges. Schools, police and fire ser-
vices, 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 woos. 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.
With Kwame Kilpatrick beginning his second term as mayor and the
countdown to Super Bowl XL approaching zero,
the Motor City looks to fix up its image.
year political rhetoric
or while watching local
news broadcasts at 10 or 11?
s a recent and tem-
porary transplant to
Michigan, how have I
Perhaps online through the hypnotic hints of the city's
industrial past on the Web's "Fabulous Ruins" or vicariously
via pixels of places courtesy of Mapquest and Google Earth?
Maybe through the nostalgic lyrics of Motown, where I have
been promised music swayin', records playin' and dancin' in
I landed in Ann Arbor, an urban historian up the road and
on the periphery as Detroit attempts to reinvent itself in prepa-
ration for Super Bowl XL in 2006. As the local governments
scramble to build bold blue bridges and to cloak abandoned
buildings to conceal neglect, I am left to wonder what to make
of this town to the east, a shrinking, post-industrial city that
looms large on opposing teams' Jumbotrons and in rappers'
Fortunately, I have been offered some glimpses of Detroit
that didn't make it into the pre-game video in Sacramento or
into "8 Mile."
On a sunny September afternoon, at one of the orientation
events for new faculty and students in Taubman College of
Architecture and Urban Planning, Eric Dueweke, a third-gen-
eration Detroit native, campus lecturer and the college's com-
munity partnership manager, acted as our docent, shepherding
us eager Michigan arrivals in and out of tall buildings, past the
University's new urban outpost. We circled stadiums, casinos,
high-tech incubators and infill luxury loft apartments. Dueweke
trundled us through Mexicantown, Eastern Market, Indian
Village's annual neighborhood yard sale, and incidentally (and
curiously) through the leather-clad crowds gathered outside
a corner church for what seemed to be a very well-attended
funeral of an evidently highly esteemed black motorcyclist.
Crisscrossing the city, we, who hailed from five continents,
students and faculty from urban planning, urban design and
architecture boarded a pair of hired coaches and traversed the
city - east and west, up and down, hither and yon.
Dueweke introduced us to some familiar tourist destinations
including Belle Isle, the Renaissance Center and so on. But
more importantly, he also insisted that we visit neighborhoods
where members of local Community Development Corpora-
tions have been staking their claims with new housing units,
commercial strips, and freshly laid infrastructure.
Through it all, Dueweke helped us see beyond what others
might dismiss as "lost spaces" and "redundant retail." Amid
these urban voids, the city simultaneously whispered what was
and what might be for the people of Detroit. Some vacant lots
reminded us of Detroit's glorious; others recalled protests and
struggles; still others remained hushed.
Just off Gratiot, on Heidelberg Street, some lots refused to
whisper. There, beginning at Ellery Street near an installa-
tion entitled "Doors of Opportunity," some residents and voids
clamored for attention.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, when many of the nation's cities
choked, local artist Tyree Guyton, inspired by his grandfather's
stories, enlisted the help of neighborhood children in a proj-
ect to remake the neighborhood. Using castaway remnants of
consumer culture, Guyton transformed junk into art. Paint-
ing polka dots and epigrams on every available flat surface,
Guyton arranged discarded household appliances, plastic dolls,
forsaken sneakers, rusting automobile parts, worn plush toys
and box spring mattresses to make whimsical sculptural pieces.
He also made a statement.
Now, almost 20 years later, Tyree Guyton - a native son
- is both notable and not
the municipal government
tus in an effort, he explain
hood from neglect.
Visits to Heidelberg St
consider whether we can
all at once here?
Can these urban assemt
ply lawn art?
Might they also be a "p
What we might learn if
at the neighborhood scale
for social change and urbi
Recently, on the evening
men in France burning aut
ity of the state to respond
make of young men in Mo
display on Heidelberg Str
There's a profound para
at the Heidelberg Project.
For nearly two decades
hoods near the Project - s
With the announcemen
part of her advertising fir
delberg Project at Mt. El
new endeavors including t
clad entirely in pennies an
for young men, Guyton, ti
poised to reinvent the Pro
Still, I am left also to w
who also live on the blo
with artificial flowers an
their front porches as ou
hood in tour buses, mini
firmly pressed or rolled i
gum, sometimes in synco
How can the resilience
berg Street also meet thes
Can we look to the Heidel
city, acommunity of people
celebrates whimsy and re:
What would that city lool
tage point of a tour bus? /
on her front porch?
Downtown Detroit has added many new attractions in the last few
years, including casinos, sports stadiums and apartment complexes.
6B - The Michigan Daily - Thursday, November 17, 2005
Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Pi
The Michigan Daily -
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