Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Detroit is "a city that's willing to work for its survival"

Feb. 9, 2011, 6:19 p.m., Posted by Trabian Shorters

'Now we're from America but this isn't New York City or the Windy City or Sin City and we're certainly no one's Emerald City,' says the voiceover of a moving Superbowl ad that seemed to be about Detroit's toughness and pride rather than about a luxury car.

The ad was a hit but I had just spent a week in Detroit meeting with friends and grantees in the midst of a snow storm that the locals shrugged off as 'only' dropping 8-12 inches of snow.

So you need to hear me when I say that's Detroit swag. There are people who LOVE Detroit! Young do-it-yourselfers are choosing this city over any place else because they are feeling Detroit.

20-something Emily Doerr, who plans to open a hostel in the city this spring, brims with affection when she says 'Detroit is a gritty defiant place and it's not like any other city. It's beautiful but strong. Gritty, defiant, unique and cool is an attractive combination to young people.'

No one in Detroit pretends that this is a golden age but they quickly tell me that they don't want to live anywhere else.

'I want to be here when it turns' says Osvaldo (Ozzie) Rivera. He grew up on the South side. For 57 proud years he's seen the cycles of hope and disappointment and still maintains that the next few years are a critical juncture for Detroit.

'I don't use the word desperation because that denies the presence of hope. It's better to say that people here are really willing to try a different way now.'

He must be right. There are plans underway to shrink the city, turn as much as 1/3rd of the town into green spaces, build a rail-system through the heart of motown, allow entrepreneurs to develop the neighborhoods in which they live.

Pamela Hurtt, a native Detroiter who is a consultant to the New Economy Initiative says it this way 'The biggest description of Detroit is that she's very resilient. She often forgets the real gem that she is. She forgets that her DIY spirit launched so many industries in the country. She put cars on the streets; she made music that blended people together.'

Apparently she still does.

The troubles of the city haven't gone away. There's still a deficit, record unemployment and a fight for the future on almost every front. But that's one of the truths about Detroit. Anyone who has lived through it knows that things fall apart and it's up to us, all of us, to pull them back together. So rather than curse the darkness, the future is in walking toward the light.

That idea resonates with Marco Eadie, who grew up in Indian Village, runs Maverick Media and said that Detroit's future is with the doers.

'When you show that people in a community actually do care enough to roll up their sleeves and take care of their community, that can attract corporate involvement as well.'

Rishi Jaitly, who moved to Detroit a year ago with his wife Anuja who is a Detroit-native says 'Detroit-Love' runs deeper and wider than you might assume. He and his wife founded Michigan Corps to build a global network of business leaders from Michigan who support education and entrepreneurship in Michigan.

'Whenever I've called these leaders on the phone, the response is Rishi, I'm in. And they aren't talking just about the company they run. They are personally in. And that's what we want.'

With this much love and power coursing around the city, it gets easy to catch a case of hope yourself. That's why Knight Foundation is willing to bet on the creative people like these who inform and engage their neighbors, friends and fellow Detroiters in efforts to design and create this community's future.

Whether it's the corridor in midtown, the public projects out of court-town, the Internet access projects in libraries and the north end or the entrepreneurial partnerships of the NEI, we are backing those who inform and engage this community in its own interests.

But no one believes its going to be easy. In fact, its going to be very, very hard. But hard isn't new to this city. Detroiters have stared impossible square in the face for 30-years and are still daring it to blink first.

It's a proud city. It's a tough city. It's a gritty city. But more than that, it's a city that's willing to work for its survival.

Detroit has swag.

'This is the motor city; this is what we do.'