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Detroit residents work to engage the community with signs of hope, resurgence

October 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Detroit residents are hoping to breath new life into their communities, despite the city's filing for bankruptcy earlier this year. Neighborhoods are working to attract developers to rehab blighted buildings, create new jobs and assist would-be buyers and renters. Jeffrey Brown reports on the optimism driving their efforts.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In July, Detroit became the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy. That process continues to unfold, and much of the news since has been grim.

But, as Jeffrey Brown found recently, there’s another side to the story of this troubled city.

SUSAN MOSEY, Midtown Detroit: Developers, lenders understand now that there’s a lot of folks that are moving back here and want to move back.

KIRK MAYES, Brightmoor Alliance: Seeing this place transform, even though we have so much further to go.

MATT CULLEN, Rock Ventures: I think we’re sort of exercising new muscles as a community. And I think that’s healthy.

JEFFREY BROWN: The community, the place these people are speak of, Detroit, a city that’s been the poster child for all that can go wrong in urban America, industrial decline, mismanagement, corruption. The list goes on.

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But there are also signs of life here., new energy, new ideas, new money, new possibility of what Detroit might — emphasize might — become.

So what would we have seen here, say, 10 years ago?

SUSAN MOSEY:  Well, you would have seen a whole block that was vacant. You would have seen, for instance, at this corner, a one-story concrete building that had a — sort of a novelty store. You would have seen a vacancy here that was last used as a porno theater. You would have seen…

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a porno theater?

SUSAN MOSEY:  Yes. You would have seen…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: That was as good as — that was the business around here?

SUSAN MOSEY:  Yes, that was the business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sue Mosey doesn’t like the title, but she’s often called the mayor of Midtown, an area just north of downtown Detroit that’s long been down — you can still see it — but is now attracting young artists and professionals and sprouting the kind of shops and businesses, a Whole Foods and a coffeehouse, that will attract even more.

SUSAN MOSEY:  That’s a good descriptor for Detroit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mosey’s nonprofit neighborhood organization, Midtown Detroit, helps businesses get loans, brings in developers to rehab old buildings and assists would-be renters and buyers with down payments.

Remember, this is a city that’s lost two-thirds of its population since its peak in 1950. But these days in this area, there’s actually a wait list for new units.

SUSAN MOSEY:  This is originally a 1924 historic building that was vacant for at least a decade or so. We’re going to be spending about $30 million to renovate it for 129 units of new housing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this goes to your biggest obstacle or barrier still, right, is housing.

SUSAN MOSEY:  Right. We can’t produce it fast enough. There’s a lot more people who want to live here right now than we have current housing available.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some 12 miles away in this geographically huge city, in the Brightmoor neighborhood, the Detroit we have all become more familiar with, block after block of abandoned, burned-out, boarded-up houses. But, here, too there are signs of life.

Do you literally go door-to-door to try to get people involved? What do you do?

KIRK MAYES: A lot of times, yes, we do have to just knock on somebody’s door.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kirk Mayes heads the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 nonprofit groups trying to revitalize one of the city’s most blighted areas. The mantra here, restore the Moor.

KIRK MAYES: The neighborhood is a poverty-stricken community. You have emergency food challenges, where hunger is an issue, low education outcomes for our children. But we do believe that any of these challenges, all of these challenges can be overcome by the right time, attention and focus of the people who are here. So, our biggest struggle is getting people involved, getting people to believe and to grab on that hope that things can change.

JEFFREY BROWN: A key first step, tearing down and cleaning up the abandoned mess. We watched as one group, Motor City Blight Busters, removed the last of five homes on a single Brightmoor block.

One growing alternative, community gardens, the food and simple quality of life, even if they’re still tiny islands in a sea of desolation.

 So we’re standing in a nice garden. But behind you is a boarded-up house. Across the way is a burned-out building. What good is a garden?

KIRK MAYES: A garden does more than you would think in inspiring people that their hope is not seeded in the wrong place. When people see people putting that kind of work in and it resulting into something that’s beautiful that everybody can share, it does start to make those little differences in people’s lives, that you will see, you know, yes, these are shuttered, boarded-up homes, but everybody’s grass is cut.

JEFFREY BROWN: Uh-huh.

 KIRK MAYES: Everybody’s trying to do their best to maintain the progress that we made. And that’s engagement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hugely important to any resurgence, of course, and now a major focus of the Alliance, creating new jobs and commerce.

MAN: What issues are you having right now to ramp up the capacity?

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this year, TechTown, a business incubator located downtown, opened an office in Brightmoor to offer counseling for mom and pop businesses like Sweet Potato Sensations.

Thirty-one-year-old Espy Thomas was there for help on how to expand her family’s bakery, making all things sweet potato.

ESPY THOMAS, Sweet Potato Sensations: We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. And we’re making beautiful things happen. We are going to pump these sweet potatoes out like crazy and we’re going to just make this money. We’re going to add love to the neighborhood. We’re going to be — we’re just going to be positive, no matter what.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then there’s downtown, where the scale is larger, the pace of change quicker.

MATT CULLEN: We bought the First National Building. We bought the Chase Building, the 1001, the Dime Building, all the buildings with lights on them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Matt Cullen, a former auto executive, is president of Rock Ventures, which manages the real estate and investments of Quicken Loans, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders.

Three years ago, Quicken’s billionaire owner, Dan Gilbert, moved his headquarters from the suburbs into the heart of the city, even giving workers subsidies to live downtown. The company also went on a buying spree, spending more than a billion dollars for 40 properties purchased at rock-bottom prices, bringing new energy, yes, but also raising concerns about turning Detroit into a new kind of company town.

Is it conceivable that you’re doing so much here, you could almost end up as the sort of monopoly in downtown Detroit?

MATT CULLEN: Well, we could, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. We were buying buildings that had been — sat empty for 20, 25 years. And now there’s buildings that are up for auction as recently as the last couple of weeks where there’s any number of bidders from outside of the area and outside even the country have come in and have invested.

Our — our mantra to people has been, come on in, the water’s fine. This is an opportunity. We like to say, we can do good and do well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of that doing good is improving the downtown physical space, rehabbing buildings, yes, but also hiring private street cleaners, adding a beach, ping-pong tables, and basketball court where people can gather, even dressing up still-empty storefront windows.

Other high-tech companies have taken notice. Twitter opened a small office, and Google will soon follow. And Rock Ventures has invested $17 million to help a number of smaller startups.

MATT CULLEN: We need that raw material of these smart people that want to be here. And without them, we can’t be successful. And we have found that people really are just passionate and motivated about coming to Detroit and getting engaged.

JEFFREY BROWN: Grand goals, indeed, but so many problems, so many questions that remain, including whether parts of Detroit, downtown and the more impoverished neighborhoods, will grow together or further apart.

And, we asked, how long will it take to create this new Detroit?

MATT CULLEN: I think it’s going to take 10 years, at least.

SUSAN MOSEY:  I would say a good 10 years.

KIRK MAYES: About 10 years. People will be writing a completely different story about Detroit.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, hope, energy, potential, but years of work to come.