Detroit, where there’s more to the story

Detroit is one of eight cities Knight Foundation considers “resident communities.” In the last five years, the foundation has committed more than $45 million to projects there. Below, freelancer Mary M. Chapman writes about the challenges and opportunities facing the city.

Some news accounts of Detroit’s woes sound like postmortems. Causes of death: financial insolvency, decreased population and unemployment, complicated by home abandonment, subpar services and high crime.

Those conditions are fact. But tough, resilient Detroit has heard last rites too many times to count. After all, the boulevard to bankruptcy is long and wide. All those other times on the brink, Detroit has shrugged off its troubles and kept going.

The bankruptcy filing on July 18 poses the city’s biggest test yet.

But that’s only part of the story. Even as the city makes history as the largest U.S. municipality to seek Chapter 9 protection, it’s also experiencing, in some areas, a momentum-shifting surge of public and private investment and business and residential growth. People are working together to start organizations, hatch community projects, reimagine businesses, and launch creative and digital economies. 

Detroit—an important, thriving center of culture—is also a community where brothers John S. and James L. Knight operated a newspaper, the Detroit Free Press. Because of that connection, Detroit will continue to receive sorely needed help from the Knight Foundation, an independent, national foundation that the brothers founded in 1950.

In the last five years, Knight has awarded 59 grants totaling $43 million to efforts that have a direct impact on Detroit. It is one of eight cities the foundation describes as “resident communities,” where it has program directors on the ground leading its grant making. Investment areas include arts and culture, journalism and media innovation, community and economic development, and entrepreneurship. This week the foundation announced $2.1 million in new funding for 56 projects in the Knight Arts Challenge Detroit.

“If you have big cities that you want to invest in today in America, I can’t think of a more exciting place to invest in than Detroit,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation’s vice president for community and national initiatives. 

This year, Knight combined community and national initiatives into a single portfolio. Now, community work will drive the foundation’s work nationally, rather than vice versa, Coletta said. “The way we’ve invested in the arts in Detroit, and are watching the arts drive a new narrative for the city, is very instructive in terms of what we do nationally,” she said.

A downtown renaissance

One area the foundation will continue to support is Greater Downtown Detroit, which despite the city’s bankruptcy filing is more vibrant today than it’s been in decades. While Detroit experienced a 25 percent population loss between 2000 and 2010, the 7.2-square-mile collection of neighborhoods that includes downtown declined at half that rate, according to a recent Hudson-Webber Foundation study. Developers such as Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans founder who moved his headquarters downtown from the suburbs, are transforming downtown, filling loft spaces and creating a work-and-play environment. Major employers like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Compuware and General Motors Corp. have relocated to downtown in the past decade.

Detractors argue that downtown experienced a renaissance in the early 1980s that fizzled, so this one probably will, too. But “this is different; you can feel the optimism and there’s no stopping the progress,” said venerable Detroit booster and entrepreneur Emily Gail, who 30 years ago popularized the slogan “Say Nice Things About Detroit” and opened businesses downtown when few others would, or could. These days Knight grantees such as the Detroit Development Fund, a nonprofit community development financial institution, are assisting small business owners, contractors and others who are ineligible for traditional financing.

Current efforts to transform Greater Downtown began in earnest in 2006, when Detroit hosted the Super Bowl. A couple of years later the recession hit, diminishing corporate support. However, that led to new pop-up businesses and smaller-scale projects. “The entrepreneurs said, ‘We can’t wait around for the big investments from big players,’” said Robert Rossbach, spokesman for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a nonprofit development partner with the city. “Now, it’s still kind of small grass roots plus major investments from major partners, and the foundations are helping.”

Buzz generated by innovators and small-business entrepreneurs includes Knight Foundation grantee Urban Innovation Exchange, a one-year-old initiative that showcases the people and projects contributing to the city’s small-business movement. It tells the stories of new leaders online and creates opportunities to learn about, participate in and lead local efforts.

The concept of sharing—that there’s enough pie for everyone—is key to the economic zeitgeist, said Claire Nelson, director of Urban Innovation Exchange. For example, if a startup boutique needs clothing racks and the store nearby has extra, the boutique is welcome to use them. “A lot of people who are passionate about solving problems in Detroit are going to do it despite financial challenges, including bankruptcy,” she said.

Nelson said it’s important that innovators feel part of a collective mission. “People are having fun testing out ideas, but we don’t want them to feel burned out. So it’s important that they’re recognized as doing something small that might have bigger consequences.”

Detroit’s new start

In addition to an influx of residents and small businesses, Greater Downtown has an enhanced riverfront; the Detroit Medical Center; the Henry Ford Health System; a major research university, Wayne State; a new Whole Foods grocery store; and a top design school, the College for Creative Studies. But the city is 139 square miles, and some residents who don’t live in Greater Downtown feel left out.

“It’s going to take a long time for what they’re doing in the downtown area to trickle down to me,” said Detroit historian and photographer Dale Rich, who lives on the city’s hardscrabble east side.

As a whole, Detroit’s troubles are acute. Nearly 80,000 abandoned buildings pockmark its neighborhoods. It is wobbling under a debt load of $18 billion. An emergency manager is in place, considering the liquidation of assets, including art from the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts, another Knight grantee. Poverty is pervasive. Crime is up. Active and former city employees are worried about their pensions.

 But given Detroit’s plummeting population over the last half century—from 2 million residents to 700,000—it has made sense to focus on an area on the upswing, Coletta said.

“We plan to concentrate our investments so that people can see and feel the energy, and we can begin to attract people and their taxes and their shopping dollars back to Detroit.”

That’s not to say Knight isn’t committed to Detroit’s neighborhoods; it is, through such organizations as the Detroit Development Fund. And strings of progress are starting to connect. There’s a new 365,000-square-foot shopping center near Detroit’s northern suburban border, for example, and art-related economic development in the Seven

Mile/Livernois area. Neighborhoods such as the Villages are seeing new small businesses, and the Palmer Park residential district is receiving new investments.

In addition, with the input of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., civic leaders have initiated a neighborhood plan called Detroit Future City, a framework for future collaborations. Part of that plan calls for bolstering thriving neighborhoods and converting other land into parks or commercial districts. “We’re looking at foundation grants to work with some organizations to put together pilot projects to see how the plan will play out,” Mayor Dave Bing said.

Beyond that, other plans are afoot. A new bridge to Canada could enhance Detroit’s role as a hub of international trade. Emerging technological and medical industries could create new economies. A three-mile light rail line is closer to reality than ever, and a new professional hockey stadium is on its way.

Katy Locker, Knight’s new Detroit program director who begins the job Sept. 16, said the foundation’s propensity to take risks will serve Detroit well. “The hardest part will be understanding what’s working, where the gaps are and where those gaps are best suited—public sector, philanthropy or volunteerism.”

She said Knight will be proactive. “A foundation can also have a specific point of view about what’s needed in the community, and then can scan the community and bring in resources to build something new,” said Locker, a Detroit resident and current vice president for Hudson-Webber Foundation.

Because the needs are so great, Locker concedes her task can be daunting. But she’s upbeat about Knight’s role in Detroit’s present and future progress. The foundation plans to grant at least $5 million to Detroit revitalization efforts this year.

“I just think the narrative should be more than that of change,” Locker said. “Knight has a competitive spirit, and we want to take little glimmers of progress and see how we can stoke the fire, how we can push things along a bit.”

“And if you’re doing good with our money,” she added, “we’ll find ways to get you more.”

Mary M. Chapman is a freelance journalist based in Detroit.