Is Detroit Still A Community?: The Detroit Agenda

June 10, 2014

Detroit’s city motto goes, ”We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes.” Fitting for a place that’s seen its share of economic and cultural upheaval.

But as the city struggles to rise from the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy some Detroiters say they fear losing something beyond political or financial control.

They say the tough circumstances that once brought residents together now serve to divide the city.

As part of WDET’s Detroit Agenda series Quinn Klinefelter examines concerns that the city could be losing its sense of community…

“I’m standing in front of something that city officials and many residents say they’ll be glad when it’s gone,” Klinefelter said. “It’s the abandoned buildings of the Brewster Douglass project. It was the home to the Supremes decades ago…and many people grew up in this low-income housing. But the dream became a nightmare in 2008 when the project was abandoned…and since has become a symbol of blight for the city. It’s also the kind of thing many people say they won’t mind losing from the city of Detroit. But that’s not the same for all areas. There’s a loss of a sense of community that some say they feel in the city. And it’s more than just the bricks and the mortar that are involved…”

“Before the riot and before all this…stuff…started happening, people were pulling together. But now families are falling apart and you can’t tell who is who.”

Detroiter Lloyd Bingham glowers as he gazes along busy Woodward Avenue.

He says people in Detroit are increasingly self-absorbed – though he also acknowledges it is a nationwide trend as well.

But Bingham says during the 53 years he’s lived in the cityDetroiters have often seemed like a different breed of citizen.

“If someone was short of rent, you know? They would have a rent party for them. They would pull together as a family. Even if it’s just a bunch of friends pulling for each other. That’s what’s not here anymore.”

At a downtown Detroit bus stop DeAnthony Woods says he’s noticing a difference in attitudes as well.

At age 24 Woods is smack in the midst of the demographics haunted by some of the city’s worst aspects: Young African Americans facing extremely high unemployment rates and – despite recent law enforcement initiatives – still dealing with rampant criminal activity.

Woods says those factors, combined with a bankrupt city reconfiguring its financial structure, has dramatically changed his east side neighborhood from the way it was when he grew up.

“People cared about the way the neighborhood looked,” Woods said. “People used to help pick up stuff and people used to help cut each other’s grasses and stuff like that. Garbage cans…the people use to come and pick up your stuff for free. Instead of now we put bulk out, you gotta pay for bulk. It’s just too much.”

Both Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and heavy-hitting investors like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert have often talked about the importance of including outer-ring neighborhoods in any post-bankruptcy, city-wide renaissance.

But the chair of the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee – Kimberly Simmons – says there is a definite feeling of abandonment in her northwest neighborhood – one that has nothing to do with blighted buildings.

She says many people there rarely travel to the central city and see little of the investment in Detroit’s midtown or downtown areas reaching their neighborhood.

Simmons says the residents feel left behind, along with stories and artifacts she says define Detroit’s history.

“There were a lot of the Motown stars, including the owner Berry Gordy, who lived here. And you still have people that live here in the neighborhood that can point to homes where everyone lived. Listening to concerts just impromptu in someone’s back yard. I mean there’s a lot of just stories that are outside of the core that Detroit has. But they’re being ignored for quote-unquote development -- the comeback story. Well it’s just parts of Detroit that are seeing the comeback. And that leaves the culture and the heritage that is still out here just kind of dangling,” Simmons said.

Grace Lee Boggs

But some long-time Detroit activists view the situation differently.

“I don’t think we’re a comeback city. I think everybody that thinks that there’s a coming back is really thinking of going back…which we’re not gonna do. We’re gonna go forward to something new.”

Grace Lee Boggs came to Detroit in 1953, where she gained fame as an author and agent for social change in the civil rights movement.

Now 98-years-old, Boggs agrees Detroit’s neighborhoods are not the same as the ones she used to know.

But she says they are not disintegrating.

Instead she says they are evolving – to an era where life in the city will not rely on factory jobs and the auto industry, and where communities well serve a vital role.

Boggs said, “We’re moving to a post-industrial city. We’re not exactly sure what that’s gonna be like. It’s gonna be a city where people are much more community-minded because production is more community-based…because safety is much more based on community allegiance. And it’s gonna be where we are consciously transforming the hood into a neighborhood.”

Detroit officials admit that even after the city emerges from bankruptcy there simply will not be enough resources available to service all communities.

So in the end, the tale of whether Detroit eventually becomes a city of haves and have-nots or a truly united community must wait until it finally rises from the financial ashes and views the economic reality that stretches out before it…

WDET’s news team took to the streets to talk to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change. Learn more about The Detroit Agenda here.