Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Detroit: 'Failed city' or urban upswing?

A lush urban garden in downtown Detroit.
DETROIT—Since I've been thinking of things in dualities (see "Two North Carolinas"), this trip to Detroit fits neatly into that pattern. As I was heading out of the office about 8 p.m. Monday, I ran into a high-ranking academic and civic leader returning from a reception on campus. (No, I'm not naming him because he had no idea I'd be writing about what he said.)

"What are you up to so late?" he asked. "I had things to finish 'cause I'm going out of town." "Where you going?" "Don't laugh cause I think it will be really interesting. I'm going to Detroit." "Wow, what a failed city."


That's one way to look at it, for sure. But there's another Detroit, the one where 50,000 residents took part in creating the Detroit Future City plan. The one where young entrepreneurs are creating a network of nonprofit and business startups and art projects. The one where a local foundation has brought 60 talented young innovators to town to work solving problems. Of the first class of 30, Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson told us, 28 are staying in Detroit.

Rapson was the kick-off speaker at the Meeting of the Minds conference. While part of his talk was about the way Kresge and other foundations have stepped in to get Detroit on the path to survival, he was also clear that financially the city is a mess. And the problems can't be solved simply by smarter city budgeting. There are insurmountable structural problems, having to do with the tax base and some specific-to-Michigan-state-constitution realities.

(Warning, myth-busting paragraph ahead.) In case you're thinking, right about now, well it's those lavish pensions, think again. Rapson said the average pension for city police and firefighters is $31,000 and the average pension for other city employees is $19,000. Drastic cuts to those were not an option, he said.

The hotel for the conference is just around the corner from the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. And a federal bankruptcy trial is going on this week, to determine the future of Detroit's finances.

Is Detroit a failed city? Or is it a city on the rebound? It'll take years, decades really, to learn the answer. My bet is on the rebound.  (More posts to come from Detroit, as I get time.)

Few sunbathers on a cool, cloudy September day at Detroit's Campus Martius park.