Can This City Be Saved?: Reconstructing Detroit after bankruptcy

It is Aug. 6, the feast of the Transfiguration, and Albert Aaron stands on a corner on the East Side of Detroit, political flyers in hand, ready to chat up anyone willing to hear why his candidate should be the city’s next mayor. Three weeks earlier Detroit made national headlines with the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. Today Mr. Aaron is trying to get out the vote for the mayoral primary, pondering ways to transform Detroit and perhaps even his own life a little.

Mr. Aaron boils the complex of the city’s many problems down to a mere two. “We need money,” he says, “and we need jobs.” He explains: “The private sector isn’t bringing in jobs anymore, and the city can’t do it.” To him that just means the people of Detroit will have to step up. “We need to be creative,” he says.

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Just about 17 percent of Detroit’s registered voters will make the effort to vote in the primary on Aug. 6. Maybe the stay-at-homes are wondering, what’s the point? Much of the power wielded by the city’s mayor has been handed off to Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, a bankruptcy attorney who managed Chrysler’s historic restructuring. Appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in March, Mr. Orr confronted a mountain of long-term municipal debt and commitments—his team estimates $20 billion or thereabouts. On July 18 he declared Detroit insolvent and diverted the city’s trickling revenue stream away from bondholders and toward life support for Detroit’s diminished city services.

Municipal Meltdown

A casual cruise through Detroit offers plenty of evidence of the municipal apocalypse often depicted in the national press. Even “hot” neighborhoods like the city center, the riverfront and midtown are haunted by boarded-up specimens of 19th- and 20th-century architecture and abandoned, collapsing industrial sites. In outlying precincts wildflowers and grass rise as high as an elephant’s eye in expanding tracts that are slowly making the transition back to prairie. Small outposts of occupied houses are often all that remain of neighborhoods that were once packed street corner to street corner with solid, single-family homes.

Conservative pundits blame Detroit’s downfall on “unionized rapacity” and government corruption, but its cash-flow problems are more profound than what mere greed and incompetence alone could accomplish. Detroit’s tale of urban woe would not be complete without some attention to the city’s troubled race relations, “white flight” and the equally depressing force of deindustrialization and job loss, first to suburbs around the city, then to Nafta neighbors Canada and Mexico and finally all over the world. Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950 and has collapsed to just about 685,000 today.

City services have been in decline for years and are now at mortally dangerous levels of dysfunction. Mr. Orr, in a devastating report on the fiscal and physical state of the city released in June, said it can take police as long as 58 minutes to arrive on the scene following a 911 call. (Police have challenged this claim.) The city’s managers literally cannot keep the lights on. According to the report, streets lights in 40 percent of Detroit do not work, and Detroit is crowded with some 78,000 “abandoned and blighted structures” and 66,000 “blighted and vacant” lots.

If the bankruptcy proceeds, bond holders may receive as little as 10 cents on the dollar for their municipal holdings, and more than 21,000 retirees may lose health coverage and face deep cuts in their monthly pensions. The pension cuts will be especially devastating for retired police and firefighters, who do not have Social Security to fall back on.

The institutions of the archdiocese have tumbled along with the fortunes of Detroit. Parish and school closings have signaled a vast retreat from the city over decades. “We are having to face a lot of the same realities as the civic order,” Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron says. “We live in this world, not on planet Mars, so we have to figure out how we find a new way to be the Catholic Church within the city of Detroit.”

Detroit is poised to become some kind of cautionary tale for other U.S. cities struggling with rising costs, declining populations and persisting job loss. Will it be a story of ruined retirees, lost civic treasures and scavenging vulture investors, or will it be a tale of shared sacrifice, reinvestment and civic reinvigoration that involves all members of a recovering community?

A Tale of Two Cities

Many residents, even some who are making it through rough times themselves at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Meldrum Avenue (one of two operated by Capuchin Franciscans in Detroit), have a sense that the bankruptcy may be an opportunity for a civic reboot, albeit an opportunity imperiled by competing political and economic interests. Benjamin Tolbert III stretches his weekly food budget by grabbing lunch at the Capuchin kitchen. “They’ve got some very good chefs here,” he affirms as he finishes off his plate.

He thinks the bankruptcy might mark a turn for the better—finally—for his home town. “If it will allow things to become arranged where, economically speaking, the city can begin and start anew as far as their finances, it could be good,” he says. “Detroiters are fighters, I know that from experience. I deeply believe that Detroit will bounce back from it.”

Not everyone at the kitchen shares his equanimity. Enous Coleman, a widower who has been coming to grab lunch with the Capuchins since his wife passed, says there is a lot of undirected anger among his neighbors over what has happened to Detroit. He would love to focus it on the politicians. “You know they’re all rats,” he confides with cheerful certainty.

Mr. Coleman is incensed about plans to go after the pension packages of city workers. “Even the folks that don’t have nothing are getting stuff taken,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.” To his eyes, the attitude of the powerful and the policymakers now governing the city is, “Folks you don’t need, sweep ’em up under the rug.” “Seems like we’re being swept,” he adds.

Steve Washington came as a client to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen 10 years ago. Now he is on staff and helps move 450 plates a day. The kitchen makes a crucial difference for many Detroit families, according to Mr. Washington, who often use it to supplement food budgets while they divert cash-on-hand to other necessaries. “With this bankruptcy, without this kitchen, a lot of people would have nothing,” he says.

Like many others, Mr. Washington is a Detroit optimist, more or less. He says he has personally seen positive signs of civic life in recent months. He notes new development and vitality in neighborhoods like downtown Detroit and its midtown neighborhood and the commercial strip along Woodward Avenue. Even the dreaded gentrification is not necessarily a bad thing for Detroit, he says, if it brings people back into the city. But he wonders about how Detroit will invest what little resources it has to get the city back on its feet.

Reviewing the squalor of the neighborhoods and the hipster splendor arising in midtown—“Look, a Starbucks! A new Yoga studio!”—suggests the potential of a renewed Detroit emerging as a tale of two cities: bankruptcy facilitates development in central districts, but the surrounding city is abandoned. A handful of neighborhoods are clearly in a turnaround. What about the rest? Mr. Washington is skeptical of city development notions that have prioritized the construction of a hockey stadium while most Detroit residents are crying out for more police, better schools and street lighting. “It’s good for downtown; it’s good for other areas and other developments, but how much of that will get here to the people who really need it for housing, for the abandoned buildings?” Mr. Washington asks. “I don’t know.”

Detroit On the Rise?

Anne Stoehr, a one-time resident of Detroit who now lives in nearby Grosse Pointe Woods, is tired of the doom and gloom she keeps reading about Detroit. “Keep telling people that it’s hopeless, they’re going to believe it,” she says. “It’s not true; not if we just pull together.”

Indeed, not all the news from Detroit is bleak. Local corporations have joined in an $8 million campaign to provide 23 new emergency medical service vehicles and up to 100 new police cars to replace the city’s aging and poorly maintained municipal fleet. Quicken Loans brought its headquarters and 7,000 jobs to downtown Detroit in 2010, inspiring a rush of tech start-ups to join in. Cafes and restaurants are opening. New jobs are being created by entrepreneurs attracted to the city by its low overhead.

Mrs. Stoehr is volunteering along with some friends on a Tuesday morning at On the Rise, a bakery sponsored by the Capuchins. The business provides its east side community with wholesome fare that would otherwise be completely lacking and offers its employees, one-time inmates of Michigan’s jails and prisons, steady work and new, marketable skills.

“These guys are really great,” Mrs. Stoehr says, gesturing to the men working with her. “Sometimes people just need a second chance,” she adds. Her friends nod approvingly as they hustle over trays of pastries being readied for a journey to the Eastern Market.

The bakers at On the Rise are getting that second chance partly through the efforts of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, a community development agency that brought back to life the building that now includes the bakery and a number of market-rate apartments above it. Cathey DeSantis, C.S.J., is executive director of the alliance. A native of Detroit, Sister DeSantis is completely out of patience with national press reports that depict her beloved city as America’s Midwestern basket case. She has even less patience with the “rubble porn” tourists from the suburbs—even from overseas—rubber-necking staggering neighborhoods to grab snapshots of their photogenic decay.

“People love to show pictures of the Packard plant [abandoned for decades] and neighborhoods where the grass is up to the windows,” she says. “Well, there’s some of us who live here every day. We know the story, and I don’t know why everybody else has to see it.... It’s just overkill to me.”

She complains that kind of coverage encourages residents to “feel powerless to tell another story.” And there is another story to be told about Detroit, one of resilience and tolerance and commitment, she argues. Sister DeSantis is no Pollyanna; she knows the city has a hard course ahead of it, but she would rather talk about the successes her organization and others working to rebuild Detroit are having. The D.C.P.A. has restored homes, opened rental and retail sites and helped many Detroit homeowners maintain their homes and, more important, stay in them as their neighbors fled around them.

Are their efforts paying off? “Big time,” she says. The agency’s 100 rental units are all filled; the On the Rise bakery has become a neighborhood retail anchor; and the D.C.P.A. will soon open a new mixed-use development along Gratiot Avenue that will include a Head Start school and a cafe for On the Rise. The cafe will be just about the only place in the neighborhood to grab a cup of coffee and a danish. That may seem like a small thing, but such small civic graces are the stuff that viable neighborhoods are built upon, a D.C.P.A. staff member explains.

Sister DeSantis calls the bankruptcy filing “a very mixed bag. “Some people are very happy about it. They think this is the end of the end of the crisis and the beginning of something new. And some folks see it as a takeover, one more swipe at Detroit” from the state government. She mostly worries about the bankruptcy’s threat to Detroit’s retired and current municipal workforce, who have already accepted a number of pay and benefit cuts to edge the city closer to fiscal balance. “To me it’s really sad to see so much of it happening on the backs of folks that have been working for years and years and years,” Sister DeSantis says. “On the other hand, hopefully what comes out at the end is an opportunity to bring it all back.”

If Detroit’s tale of decline and abandonment shifts in the future, how is the archdiocese poised to respond? Even after years of parish and school reductions, Archbishop Vigneron says, “we still have a higher density of parishes within the city of Detroit than we do outside, more parishes per square mile, more parishes per resident.

“One of the most important things is to experiment and find new ways for a parish to do its mission in the context of the city of Detroit,” he says. “I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to expand the mission of the church in the city of Detroit. Mergers are really about creating a healthy platform from which we can then do our mission of sharing the Gospel and serving our community.

“I think the people of Detroit are a lot more resilient than what the visiting media have picked up,” says the archbishop. “It is a city of great faith,” he adds. The people believe that “God is with us and God will get us through this,” he says.

Christopher Prater is poring over his MacBook inside Great Lakes Coffee on Woodward Avenue. A young African-American entrepreneur, born and raised in Detroit along with 12 siblings, Mr. Prater returned last year to the city after a dozen years in Atlanta. He is rejoining the family construction business and has also opened a clothing store. For years Detroiters have watched their best minds accept diplomas from Wayne State University and then head straight out of town. Mr. Prater is just the kind of bright, energetic young person the city would love to have rejoin it for a comeback. And he is confident the city will overcome the setback of the bankruptcy, “however bad it seems.”

“With any reorganization, you start off at ground zero again,” he says. “After we re-emerge there are going to be some unique opportunities in the city of Detroit; so I’m excited about it.

“At the heart of what Detroit is, we’re a manufacturer,” Mr. Prater says. “We have to get back to the roots of what we are, and that’s making things,” he adds, recalling Detroit’s car-producing heyday and its critical manufacturing role during World War II. “If we can [move from] making a car to making a tank,” he says, “we can make hangers; we can make an Apple computer.”

Detroit’s future is not a yard sale, he says with confidence. Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy, can return to prominence again. “No question about it,” Mr. Prater says. “You are going to see some very great things coming out of Detroit.”

More:

Catholic Charities Plans 2014 return to Detroit

Kevin Clarke talks to Detroit resident Chris Prater.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron on the Catholic Church's presence in the struggling city.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Atkinson
4 years 1 month ago
Lots and Lots of cities have already gone thru what Detroit is now experiencing, mostly did inner city renewal, clearing hundreds of acres and rebuilding from the ashes. Look at Nagasaki/Hiroshima today from ashes to two of the most beautiful and productive cities in history. It might take 50 years, but it can be done, First project is to reduce the plight to ashes, then rebuild in 21st and 22nd century visions.
Robert O'Connell
4 years 1 month ago
How did Japan recover from WWII? Was there a "Marshal Plan"? How does a city fnance a rebuild? I ask because we no longer enjoy the economy America once had -- free from competition in Europe, Asia, etc. and the dominant manufacturer of industrial as well as commercial goods. America itself is growing more and more like debtor-Detroit every day. How do we pay for reducing he plight and rebuilding?
John Walton
4 years 1 month ago
Here's an idea -- reduced capital gains taxes, city income tax, and Michigan income tax. None of those annoying Michigan small business taxes which hit you before you open the doors on January 1. For foreign citizens investing in Detroit promise of permanent residency status after 10 years.
John Corr
4 years 1 month ago
Let's hope for the best. Let's also look at Camden, South Chicago, Atlanta, East St. Louis, parts of St. Louis, Oakland, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Akron. etc. More to come? Or more already here?
Ronald Pelley
4 years 1 month ago
Nice reporting by someone who has not served in the trenches. But it avoids discussing the issues that really count. #1 Drugs, MJ as entry and Heroin as Detroit's finest. Everything flows downhill from here and nobody want to give up our Sacred Sacrament. #2 Secondary to #1 above - Don't be a Snitch makes public safety impossible and drugs role in street crime makes Detroit City uninhabitable. #3 Fathers, ain't none, in Detroit City, 66%+ of newborns are fatherless #4 Jobs for folks with 8th grade education with full benefits and middle class income are gone and will never return - deal with it or move on. Detroit City's problems are not financial they are profoundly spiritual. I have seen greater poverty in decades in the third world. But I have never seen more profound spiritual desolation. Until Detroit owns up to having one of the most severe drug problems in the US and owns up to having abandoned family morality nothing will happen. Brothers and Sisters move out of town because there is no future here in Detroit, only drugs, street crime and fatherless babies. Encouraging Signs! Immigration! Migrants from Latin America and the Middle East are establishing vibrant communities with family values but are confronted with institutional racism denying them effective representation in civic governance. Hopefully, the recent change from "At Large" to "District" will allow migrants access to political representation. Confess your sins and return to God. Amen DOC RON
Stanley Kopacz
4 years 1 month ago
Wall Street isn't spiritually desolate? They seem to be doing quite well. All that moolah makes it even harder to confess your sins and return to God. The wealthy suburbs aren't spiritually desolate? It's materialism as the entree with maybe a side order of nice domesticated spirituality, but all things in moderation.
Thomas Farrelly
4 years 1 month ago
Ronald Pelley's comments about drugs, fatherless families, and low educational attainment are striking. To the extent that they are true, and I have no reason to doubt them, they make hopes for recovery seem like whistling in the dark. These toxic problems exist in the ghettos of almost every major city in the US, and no one has figured out how to solve them. In Detroit they appear to have overwhelmed the entire city. Bringing in uneducated immigrants from Latin America is a foolish idea. You do not alleviate poverty by importing more of it.
Jasmine Rivera
4 years 1 month ago
I would ask that America please interview actual parishioners, not just the Archbishop. As a Detroit Catholic, I feel it is absolutely unconscionable that the Catholic Church, which emphasizes option for the poor, has been systematically leaving the city of Detroit. I am amazed to see this article in America and by the comments from Archbishop Vigneron. For many years now the Archdiocese has pulled out of Detroit, abandoning parishes and Catholic social services in the inner city such as soup kitchens and pantries and redirecting priests and Archdiocesan resources to the wealthy suburban churches, "following the money". For example, a tax has been levied on all parishes to contribute 15% of income towards the Catholic schools, which in the city of Detroit barely exist (2 remain)--therefore poor city parishes are paying for suburban schools. The poorest parishes have been forcefully merged, worsening their finances, while an unjust debt repayment schedule to the Archdiocese has been levied upon them and are now facing closure so that the properties can be sold, traumatizing parish families. Vigneron's statements re: parish density do not mention that most parishes in the city are closed; there is little to no Catholic presence in the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history in a city crying out for Christian pastoral care and charity. The Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance (mentioned in the article) was formed as a response to the forced closures in 1988 and is fighting for the city parishes who are systematically ignored by the hierarchy. As of now several cases are in Rome, investigating the merger process and the lack of cooperation by the chancery. I would urge America to follow up this story with the desperate parishioners in Detroit whose voices have not been heard by the chancery. This interview did not ask Vigneron about what the Church is going to do to help, only offering general vagaries about the city bankruptcy and the resilience of its people, many of whom are now in the process of forming protests against the Archdiocese's neglect of the city. One must sadly wonder why the Church, which should be an active and real presence in Detroit with preferential option for the poor and has Pope Francis for our example, has no real long-term plan to serve one of the poorest cities in the United States. Please interview actual parishioners regarding the Archdiocese in Detroit, not just the Archbishop.
Jonathan James
4 years 1 month ago
"Can this city be saved?" Better question, is "Should this city be saved?"
Ernest Martinson
4 years 1 month ago
Detroit’s chance of being saved is slim given that there is no indication of radical reconstruction after bankruptcy. The chance for a new life would have improved if General Motors and United Auto Workers would have also suffered bankruptcy. But they were bailed out by government. The very same government that has long subsidized the oil industry, transportation industry, and the benefits of union workers.

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