As the 2012 award-winning documentary Detropia makes its broadcast debut this week on PBS, TFN's Restoring Prosperity in Older Industrial Cities working group will run an occasional series of blogs highlighting Detroit's continuing fight to rebound from the sudden 2008 collapse of the auto industry.
In Detroit, the ever-present gap in municipal services has led to similarly ceaseless ingenuity on the part of Detroiters citywide. By necessity, the space created by the city’s limited capacity to meet the needs of its residents has made room for innovative solutions and incremental progress by nonprofits and others. It is this creative energy that both contributes to the current appeal of the city and bolsters community-based initiatives ranging from unconventional beautification efforts to full-fledged local business support. In turn, do-it-yourself community development strategies are contributing to neighborhood revitalization success stories across Detroit.
While much has been written about the resurgence of Downtown and Midtown Detroit in the last few years, the ongoing work in Southwest Detroit is indicative of increasing signs of new life along commercial corridors beyond city’s core. Southwest Detroit is a well-established example of neighborhood-scale economic development led by a strong community organization. Over the last couple decades, the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) has overseen the transformation of the commercial character of the neighborhood through community policing, a robust façade improvement program, and the first Business Improvement District in Michigan. These programs were made possible by the neighborhood and SDBA’s tireless efforts to build momentum and harness resources. Most recently, when it became clear that Detroit’s streetlight repair plan would exclude West Vernor, SDBA exhibited the creative capacity that typifies Detroit communities by independently raising funds to repair and maintain streetlights along the commercial corridor. This local prowess has no doubt led to the likes of Detroit public radio host Craig Fahle deeming Southwest Detroit a “self-sustaining neighborhood.”
Other initiatives which contribute to entrepreneurial opportunities in Detroit’s neighborhoods originate from disparate sources but will soon converge on Livernois Avenue. Revolve Detroit is a new program that aims to “foster the evolution and vibrancy of Detroit’s neighborhood business districts.” A collaboration between the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and local leaders, property owners and entrepreneurs, Revolve is gaining traction across the city through the activation of vacant storefronts with viable businesses and an eye toward permanent tenants. West Village has already seen the effects of Revolve and Livernois’s Avenue of Fashion is likely next!
Also coming soon to the city’s northwest Livernois Avenue is Detroit SOUP, a micro-grant program “celebrating creative projects in the city.” At monthly SOUP events, attendees pay five dollars for soup, salad, bread and—most importantly—a vote for one of a handful of projects pitched during the evening. More often than not, winning projects underscore community building and neighborhood identity. This year, Detroit SOUP will circulate into several Detroit neighborhoods, where locals will vote on projects within their own communities. Focusing on fledgling businesses, Hatch Detroit is another grant-making program that will also be hitting the streets with its upcoming Neighborhood Initiative, which will champion storefront makeovers on Livernois Avenue and other lucky retail districts across the city. Another small-scale innovator, Kiva Detroit, is also making micro-loans to small businesses across the city through partnerships with local community organizations.
While these initiatives cannot yet boast the holistic impact of Southwest’s efforts, they all seek to support local neighborhood revitalization efforts with a focus on community building and local partnerships. The success of these incremental endeavors depends upon healthy collaboration with neighborhood-based organizations that ensure a commitment to the community through ongoing service. Importantly, the initiatives included here are intentionally tapping into local networks and existing community assets. Simultaneously, these programs—and their associated projects and people—boast a contagious creative energy that makes Detroit an exciting place to work and live.
Ceara O’Leary is an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. In this series of blogs, Ceara shares her perspective as a community development professional and relatively recent Detroiter.