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Bridging Detroit’s divide

The Bridging 8 Mile team. Photo: R. Kamaria

Immortalized in the 2002 Eminem film “8 Mile,” Eight Mile Road remains the dividing line between the city of Detroit, which is mostly black, and the suburb of Warren, which is mostly white.

How can a region reverse race and class segregation when they’ve persisted for so long? The Bridging 8 Mile initiative has a three-year plan to bring together people from both sides of the divide.

The initiative, said member Rasheda Williams, is made up of “everyday people” who are working to transform the way residents relate to one another.

Williams, who grew up on the east side of Detroit, can remember the first time she was made aware of the area’s history of segregation and its lingering effects.

She and her mother were walking in the affluent suburb of Grosse Point, which bordered their neighborhood, when her mother asked, “Do you think it’s okay for us to be walking through here? I don’t want anyone messing with us or telling us we don’t belong here.”
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Is Detroit the new Brooklyn?

Detroit's crumbling Packard plant. Photo: Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Last weekend, the New York Times featured a story in its Style section about the onslaught of hip, young urban pioneers streaming into downtown Detroit. These “creatives,” as they are being called, are taking advantage of low rents and the opportunity to recycle this abandoned, blank slate of an urban landscape into something new and exciting. There are restaurateurs and entrepreneurs of all stripes living alongside environmentalists and urban farmers.  The city, according to the Times, seems like “a giant candy store for young college graduates wanting to be their own bosses.” One woman said that there’s a cool party just about every evening.  The article pointed out that even though recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35.

No doubt this is partly a word-of-mouth, grass-roots “movement.”  But behind the scene, millions of public, private and foundation dollars are greasing the wheels. Last April, Blueprint America profiled an effort called Live Midtown, an incentive program created to lure some of the 30,000 employees of midtown’s major anchor institutions (Wayne State University, Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System) to move from the suburbs back into the city. By the end of June, 178 people were reported to have taken advantage of deep discounts on rent ($2,500 the first year and $1,000 the second) or purchases ($20,000 toward the purchase of their primary residence). We also looked at an effort by the mayor’s office to use federal stimulus money to lure members of Detroit’s police force out of the ’burbs and back into town.

And more incentives are on the way. Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, for instance, is one of the city’s biggest boosters.  He calls his revitalization effort “Detroit 2.0” and seems to be putting his money (more than $100 million by some estimates) where his mouth is. Gilbert recently moved Quicken Loans’ headquarters (and the 2,000 employees who worked there) out of a nearby suburb into downtown Detroit.  And he’s in the process of buying four historic buildings which he plans to fill with tech and web-based companies, some of which will no doubt come from Bizdom U, an “entrepreneurial boot camp” Gilbert started several years ago. Biz U offers graduates financing opportunities of up to $100,000 if they base their start-up in Detroit.

And it’s not just the style writers who are paying attention to Detroit’s new entrepreneurial class. Just three years ago, Forbes placed Detroit on top of its list of America’s Most Miserable Cities. But in a stunning turnaround, this month Forbes put Detroit on the cover as one of the Best Places for Doing Business, calling it “a land of opportunity.”

A future deferred for Detroit school

Detroit's Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy in better days.

Last month, Need to Know introduced viewers to an impressive group of seventh and eighth graders from the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side in our “Future Detroit” segment. The students were competing in a national engineering contest called “Future City,” which tasked entrants to rethink their home city by building three-dimensional models of a new Detroit, set 150 years into the future.

Their school, a stately five-story brick building, was something of an oasis for the kids, most of whom live nearby in rundown, partially abandoned neighborhoods. This morning dozens of students and parents stood outside in shock after a mysterious fire ripped through the building. It will be closed indefinitely and the 700 or so students will finish off the school year crowded into a nearby elementary school.
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