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A vacant, burned house is pictured in Detroit's east end on March 19, 2013. There are almost 150,000 vacant or abandoned parcels of land throughout Detroit, covering ground equal to the size of Manhattan. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A vacant, burned house is pictured in Detroit's east end on March 19, 2013. There are almost 150,000 vacant or abandoned parcels of land throughout Detroit, covering ground equal to the size of Manhattan. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Detroit may not return to past glory, but don’t stop believing Add to ...

His own efforts have not been without setbacks; one place he was set to renovate was torched this spring. But it’s also rekindled a sense of community and he wants to expand. Contrary to the Future City plan, he doesn’t want the neighbourhood he’s been trying to revitalize rationalized away. “I don’t want to move,” says Mr. Covington.

He’s the kind of person who is asking: Will revival in the urban core, which is so far affecting a largely white, educated population, ever benefit those who need it most?

Clean slate or dirty pool?

Even before the summer’s news made his prospects bleaker, the well-liked mayor, Mr. Bing, had announced he would not seek re-election, frustrated by being trumped by the emergency manager, Mr. Orr. The intervention involves a largely white, Republican-led state government (although Mr. Orr himself is black) assuming control of a Democratic city where more than 80 per cent of the citizens are African American. There are many Detroiters who see the bankruptcy plan as an undemocratic power grab.

That charge does not spare the new urban boosters, either. Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be, recently said that wealthy entrepreneurs such as Quicken’s Mr. Gilbert are buying up land “as if they’re Monopoly properties” and that the city is at risk of ceding power to “an unelected oligarchy.”

And while the new tech jobs envisioned by Detroit Venture Partners are welcome, it will take far more than a few thousand high-tech positions to make a dent on the jobless rate.

As Waterloo’s Mr. Filion says, the city’s poorer residents, many of whom are black, are coping with appalling municipal services and high crime rates and have limited means to move. Meanwhile, without quality schools and improved public safety, families with kids are unlikely to flock downtown. He is skeptical that the city will return to its heyday.

Mr. Kinkead of Detroit Future City says the biggest danger is that Detroit’s own citizens, traumatized by years of mismanagement, will feel the same pessimism: “You have to imagine that for someone like myself, born here, my entire life has been within the shadow of a city in constant decline. … I don’t think any of us fully understand what that does to us. We really need to recognize this might be our only opportunity to turn things around.”

The question is how to get natives to see their city through the eyes of someone like Joshua Smith, an articulate, 23-year-old graphic designer originally from Tampa, Fla. He could have chosen anywhere in America to put down roots, and he chose Detroit. “There is a sense of opportunity here. You can see your footprint,” he says, and then quotes a colleague: “Detroit is large enough to matter in the world, but small enough that you can matter in it.”

Richard Florida, the well-known urban theorist, has been visiting Detroit his whole life. He’s one of the optimists. His chief reason is that the efforts to revitalize the downtown core are being led from citizens and the business community, with a mix of old and new money – something Canadian cities would also benefit from.

“Cities like Detroit are pioneering a new and powerful form of public-private partnership, while our cities depend on government,” he says.

The bankruptcy filing is “unfortunate,” he says, but that needn‘t distract from the bigger process of rebuilding. Michigan’s largest city and metro area has plenty of advantages – proximity to universities, a big airport, affordability, a still-sizable population and a growing group of professionals, entrepreneurs and philanthropists willing to take an active role in the city’s planning.

“Yes, there are issues and there is a long way to go,” Mr. Florida says. “But for the first time in a long time, there is investment and some kind of hope.”

Detroit, the muse for songs like Dancing in the Street and Don’t Stop Believin’, may not return to its past glory. But as 8 Mile’s native son Eminem raps, “there is a resilience that rises from somewhere deep,” and it should not be counted out just yet.

Tavia Grant is a writer for Report on Business. This story includes additional reporting by Richard Blackwell.


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