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Tough talk for city



Things have been pretty testy around Detroit the past couple of years with the political fallout from the Kilpatrick text-messaging scandal, federal investigations into bribery, Detroit Public Schools upheaval, economic recession and all. If it's up to the folks at Community Development Advocates of Detroit and its 60-plus member organizations, there needs to be a bit more testiness as Detroiters work out a new direction for the city.

"That's a very tough subject," says Maggie DeSantis, president of the Warren/Conner Development Association, a CDAD member. "It will be tempting on the part of organizations and people to not want to talk about this openly. ... We've got to figure this thing out together."

That's one of the messages in the Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework published earlier this month by CDAD. It calls for a process that includes folks genuinely listening to each other for feedback, ideas and collaborative planning, "Even when it is difficult, confrontive and time-consuming."

Difficult, confrontive and time-consuming? There's no lack of those attributes around here.

What I find refreshing is that CDAD recognizes problems and says, "Let's have at it." Part of the reason we haven't worked out local problems is a lack of listening, which leads to a lack of a lack of buy-in from all interested parties. For instance, when it comes to neighborhood development there is lots of fear and mistrust regarding which neighborhoods are slated for support and which are slated for depopulation as the city moves forward. The same thing is in play as Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb makes decisions about school closings. Bobb and the school board don't seem to be talking to each other.

I've spoken with a lot of organizations and activists in Detroit over the years and lately I've wondered how it is that all of these people of good will can't get on the same page and get some traction going to get the city on track.

"A lot of groups have been working in neighborhood-specific areas, but lack of a citywide strategy limits the amount that we can get done," says Tom Goodeeris, executive director of the Grandmont/Rosedale Development Corporation. "This brings all of our work together in a more cohesive approach. If we can somehow find a way to align all these groups, everybody's work should be multiplied."

CDAD's document¬† — online at — was created through a yearlong process that included public forums and participation from City Council staffs, major foundations and CDAD's member organizations and individuals. The process outlined points to ways all stakeholders can have a say and come to consensus. The document is not a master plan, but it's intended to lead to a doable plan. CDAD intentionally chose not to label any specific neighborhoods as good or bad or anything else. What it did was list attributes that could be applied to various neighborhoods, for instance, the degree of blight, income, prevalence of owners versus renters, etc. Some could be agricultural areas, some industrial, some walkable neighborhoods.

"There is a future for every part of the city," says Sandra Yu, director of the Build Up Detroit program  of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, one of the non-community development organizations involved. "This helps provide information for communities to use in planning their future. Take the issue of downsizing the city. We don't like it, but we know it's going to happen. It's important that people are engaged in the process and benefit from it."

DWEJ's involvement is a case in point. A lot of the discussion about right-sizing the city is about land use. The people involved in environmental justice have key information about pollution and its effects. That would be important to know in deciding about population centers, urban agriculture and greenways.

"Those of us who are trying to figure this out, we have not done a good job of working with each other. Not connecting the dots very well," says DeSantis. "If we don't go there, it's going to continue being confusing. ... I've been at this for 30 years. It does feel disjointed and chaotic. We've had two or three years of political leadership in chaos and that has really, really hurt. When I'm out there it's very clear that Detroiters understand that our city is very, very vacant. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not know that."

While many agree on what the problems are, there is not a lot of agreement on what to do. Change is difficult, and when there is a lack of communication during the decision-making process fear and opposition can spring up. A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting at Little Rock Baptist Church focused on uniting Detroit. During a discussion on land use several people expressed a fearful sentiment that "outsiders" were buying up land in the city with the objective of "taking over." Add to that the specter of relocating residents away from sparsely populated areas in order to concentrate city services on more densely settled neighborhoods and you can generate a lot of opposition. Rather than avoiding it, CDAD would suggest that we have that discussion. Let's get all the baggage out there and deal with it.

This is a big issue. There are few discussions about Detroit's future that don't involve what to do about the 120,000 vacant lots and empty properties within its borders. And while CDAD's document does not push locations or details, it extols a vision of urban agriculture, greenways and green manufacturing.  In order to do these things many of those properties need to be gathered together into parcels.

"A lot of the attention to this subject of how we deal with vacant land seems to have focused in on the idea of relocating people," says Goodeeris. "This isn't like in the '50s where thriving neighborhoods were wiped out to build freeways. The attention is in the wrong place to focus on relocation. We can make a lot of progress before this becomes a sticky issue, if we are creating neighborhoods that people want to live in."

Goodeeris suggests a long-term strategy in which residents sell future rights to their property rather than relocating now. That's an approach I haven't heard before and certainly less divisive than the city using eminent domain to force people off their property.

There will be more good ideas on the table and ears willing to hear them at a mid-April meeting planned by CDAD to begin using the framework to actually create a plan. Listening to others and creating consensus takes time but leads to more positive outcomes. This is where it starts.

"What we're finding is nobody wants to see Detroit fold — no lights out," says DeSantis. "Nobody wants to see a ghost town. The great irony in it is maybe we had to get to this point for a different kind of thinking to emerge."

If that's what it takes to get things going around here, let the arguing begin.

More manifestos:
At least one other group is currently seeking broad buy-in on a document for moving the city forward. See How many others are out there? Drop me a line.

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