The Death and Life of Detroit

by Barry Yeoman on May 1, 2012

Neighborhood groups are bringing the blighted city back, one block at a time. Will City Hall stand in their way?

Originally published in The American Prospect.

Joe George shows off Artist Village to a group of University of Michigan volunteers. Photos by Barry Yeoman

A SHIVERING KNOT OF COLLEGE STUDENTS stands outside Motor City Java House as John George unlocks the front door. It’s 15 degrees in Detroit on a February morning, and fresh snow covers the Old Redford business district. Cold weather doesn’t stanch the flow of volunteers coming to the city’s northwest corner: They show up every Saturday, arriving in shifts, ready to swing sledgehammers and twist crowbars. George’s wife, Alicia Marion, has learned to expect this traffic since she opened the coffeehouse in 2010. She puts on an apron and starts brewing.

George is a brash, baseball cap–wearing jokester of a man, single-minded in his mission and impatient with bureaucracies. He runs a nonprofit called Motor City Blight Busters, which both demolishes and rehabilitates abandoned houses and has helped stage the comeback of this commercial strip. He was born a mile away in Brightmoor, the adjacent neighborhood of single-family houses built for the workers arriving en masse in the 1920s. At 53, he has never seen anything but a steady exodus of Detroiters. But he remained here, out of hometown loyalty, even as he found himself living near a weekend crack house. “They’d move in and set up camp, throwing bottles in the street, pissing in the bushes,” he says. Instead of leaving—a young father’s instinct—George bought some plywood and boarded up the house without first asking permission. He mowed the lawn, trimmed the shrubs, and hauled trash to the curb. “When the drug dealers came back, they couldn’t get in,” he says. “They got back in their Jeep, and they left.” That night 23 years ago, Blight Busters’ model of lot-by-lot reclamation was born.

Today, the student volunteers will tear down a garage and clear debris from a demolished house, part of Blight Busters’ plan to create an urban farm one block away. Before the work begins, George gives us a quick tour of some renovated buildings behind the Java House, collectively known as Artist Village. The warren of casually furnished rooms hosts art classes and open-mic poetry. “Originally, when we pulled up the carpet, the concrete came with it,” George says. “That is literally how rubblefied this property was.” We emerge into a courtyard covered with murals—a collaboration between artist-in-resident Chazz Miller, adult volunteers, and local children.

This is a more intimate Detroit than I—than most of us—have consumed in the media. Detroit takes up an outsize space in the American psyche, with Eminem and Clint Eastwood proclaiming the auto industry’s resurgence in dewy Super Bowl ads; with glowing recovery stories pairing the words “Midtown” and “hipster”; with apocalyptic (and accurate) images of Dresden-like streets; and with a millionaire mayor touting the most ambitious plan in modern history to reshape a U.S. city. Viewing it through those media lenses is like peering through a kaleidoscope or maybe at a Rorschach test: A city in recovery. A city in free fall. It depends on who’s telling the story.

That either-or doesn’t reflect what I hear in places like Old Redford and Brightmoor, where ruin and hope, anger and promise, live side by side. There’s a lot of work to do, and not nearly enough money, but residents are plowing ahead without waiting for permission. They hope their efforts dovetail with the Detroit Works Project, a massive effort now under way to remake the city. They hope, too, that Mayor Dave Bing’s call to “depopulate” certain neighborhoods doesn’t leave them in the crosshairs.

THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ILLS THAT HAVE BATTERED the American Rust Belt have taken a particularly wretched toll on Detroit. The city was walloped by Federal Housing Administration loan policies starting in the 1930s that encouraged segregated suburban development, and again by systematic discrimination against the Southern blacks who came for factory jobs during the Great Migration. A toxic racial climate exploded into lethal riots in 1943 and 1967. Urban-renewal projects eviscerated African American neighborhoods. “Blockbusting” real-estate agents scared white homeowners into selling their houses cheaply after desegregation. Then came the meltdown of the automobile industry, the influx of crack cocaine, and the recent foreclosure crisis. All these factors abetted and magnified one another, spurring whites, then African Americans, to leave. In 1950, Detroit had 1.85 million residents. Sixty years later, it had 714,000.

It’s hard to describe the city’s physical landscape without producing what Detroiters call “ruin porn.” Brick houses with bays and turrets sit windowless or boarded up. Whole blocks, even clusters of blocks, have been bulldozed. Retail strips have been reduced to a dollar store here, a storefront church there, and a whole lot of plywood in between. Not a single chain supermarket remains.

The schools are a mess. Forty-seven percent of Detroiters cannot adequately read. The Friday night I was there, four people died in unrelated shootings. Craigslist offers houses for $1,500 to $3,000 if you’ll pay the back taxes. Buy two, and you’ll get a volume discount.

There is a counter-narrative, and it’s not just in the Super Bowl ads. For young entrepreneurs, Detroit has become something of a mecca, with its real-estate bargains and underdog spirit. The population of college-educated Detroiters under 35 has grown 59 percent since 2000, and even casual visitors can feel that comeback in the neighborhoods nearest downtown. There are coffee houses, a new youth hostel, and “pop-up shops” where emerging designers sell their work on a rotating basis. In historic Corktown, patrons congregate at the hammered-copper bar of Slows Bar-B-Q, waiting two and three hours for a table. The online mortgage company Quicken Loans moved downtown from the suburbs in 2010, and founder Dan Gilbert has been buying up real estate with the hope of creating an urban corridor for technology start-ups. Midtown, the burgeoning arts district near Wayne State University, is about to welcome a Whole Foods.

This is the Detroit that excites Mayor Bing, a former pro basketball player who went on to build a profitable steel company. Elected in 2009, Bing came into office believing that the city’s future lies in strengthening its core. Detroit is too diffuse, he says, with a tax base that’s too atrophied to deliver services everywhere. Residents of the most beleaguered districts would do better to relocate. “We’ve got people spread out all over this city,” Bing tells me, sounding a theme dating back to his campaign. “Because of the foreclosure issue, neighborhoods just went to hell. But we do have a lot of pretty strong neighborhoods. It was obvious to me that, with the amount of resources we have, we could no longer provide services for people all over 139 square miles. We needed to really change the thought process and get people to come into areas where there was density.”

Even with her block in Brightmoor emptying out, Bernice Walker considers herself “on a blessed land.”

In 2010, Bing launched the Detroit Works Project, a sweeping effort to make the city more clustered and efficient. He didn’t offer a finished plan but rather advocated a series of steps for shifting Detroit’s population toward its center. The city would tear down 10,000 vacant and dangerous houses. It would also steer development subsidies toward relatively stable districts that needed bolstering. “We’ve got to reinvest in the stronger neighborhoods,” Bing says. “Otherwise they will deteriorate to a point where you can’t fix them, either.”

More controversially, Bing said he wanted to nudge people out of the declining parts of the city. Relocation incentives were too costly, so instead he planned to prod them by cutting back services like garbage collection and street lighting. Early on, a consultant’s report explored the possibility of shutting down water and sewer lines, or tearing up roads and recycling the concrete. Bing didn’t endorse specific cuts. But he made it clear that service reductions to sparsely populated areas would be key to the success of Detroit Works. In places like Brightmoor, 15 miles northwest of city hall, resistance immediately began to build among residents who didn’t consider their communities expendable.

EVERY SUNDAY MORNING IN BRIGHTMOOR, before she leaves for church, Bernice Walker strolls along Outer Drive praying for her neighbors. Dear father, she says, look out for each and every one on this block. Heal their mind, their body, their hands, their soul. Help us to look after one another, Lord, nobody break into nobody’s houses. And whatever the desires of their heart, they get. Each year, there are fewer people to pray for. Back at home, Walker looks out her living-room window and points to a gutted brick house across the boulevard. “The man used to have garage sales every day, winter or summer,” she tells me. “He would buy [repossessed] stuff at storage units and sell it at his house. That’s how he made his living. The house next to him was a boy and his mother. She was in the Army. He was in a wheelchair. That’s been vacant five or six years. The house on the corner, that man’s name was George. He was so big, he’d just sit on the back porch and sleep.”

Walker, who is 55, moved to Detroit from Appomattox, Virginia, in 1975, at the tail end of the Great Migration. She hired on at Chrysler’s McGraw Glass Plant, where she cut and shaped windowpanes for more than a decade, until, she says, “crack cocaine got a hold of me.” By the time she moved to Brightmoor in 1992, she had quit drugs and started a family. Her landlord sold her the Outer Drive house for $17,500, and she’s worked ever since at a high-school cafeteria. “It’s like God’s been looking out for me for the past 20 years,” she says. “I’m on a blessed land.”

Sometimes, though, her environs feel more cursed than blessed. Between the last two censuses, Brightmoor’s population fell from 20,000 to 13,000. Forty percent of its families live below the poverty line. One in five households lacks a car. Brightmoor has the city’s highest rate of low-birth-weight babies. Only 42 percent of its pregnant women receive adequate health care. For every ten residential lots, only six contain houses, and on many blocks, that number is considerably lower.

Walker urges me to drive a two-mile circuit behind her home, which she describes as a “war zone.” On this snow-muffled day, it doesn’t look like a battleground so much as a city reverting back to nature. Some blocks have only one house, or maybe a few, making it possible to squint and imagine driving through the countryside. Later, I look at the route on Google Maps, where the streets were photographed in warmer weather. The emptiest blocks are colonized by Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers, which poke through the ruins and debris.

Brightmoor resembles many of the areas Bing considers a drain on city services. It’s not hard to understand why the mayor wants residents like Walker to move elsewhere. But many others see this place as a laboratory for envisioning what a sustainable postindustrial neighborhood might look like.

The early evidence is just 500 feet from Walker’s house. Cross Outer Drive and keep going a bit, and you’ll come to a 21-block section of Brightmoor nicknamed the Farmway. It too has abandoned houses, and even a boarded-up elementary school. Still, the streets here look inviting. They’re filled with visual indicators of a take-charge community.

First, there are the plywood boards securing the empty houses. They’re covered with miniature murals: sunflowers, quilt patches, inspirational quotations. “When the fear is gone,” says one, “only I will remain.” Many are painted by children. There are also new nature trails, a playground, and an adult fitness track. The most striking difference, though, is how many vacant lots have been converted to community and market gardens. Local residents, including youth raised on fast-food diets, are growing organic vegetables and selling some of them at a local farmers market.

One garden is called Ms. Gwen’s Edible Playscape. I meet its namesake, Gwendolyn Shivers, at the day-care center she runs out of her home. Shivers, who is 49, has lived on this street since she was a teenager and remembers when crack and prostitution arrived in the 1980s. “People started moving out,” she says. “Next thing you know, the drug dealers had moved in. The police would run them off, and they’d come right back and set up shop the same night. After that happened, people stopped caring.” Neighbors locked themselves inside. Empty houses burned. Brightmoor became known to outsiders as the place to dump trash with impunity. The social fabric grew tattered during those years, but it didn’t unravel completely.

Gwendolyn Shivers.

Shivers dates the start of the turnaround to 2006, when a professor’s wife named Riet Schumack bought four contiguous lots and turned her backyard into an urban farm with dairy goats, laying hens, and meat rabbits. Taking inventory of the community’s best assets—kids and land—Schumack and a neighbor created a garden to be run by local youth. When the 9- to 15-year-olds sold their vegetables at the farmers market and grossed $200 during their first hour, interest in the garden spiked. Later came festivals, children’s art activities, and employment projects for teens. Neighbors say the Dutch-born Schumack has worked to build sincere relationships in the Farmway, navigating the thickets of race and class. “She includes everyone,” says Shivers, who is African American. “Everyone.”

Dumping and dealing subsided. Residents who had grown battle-weary felt re-energized about new projects. Shivers, who has run her day-care center for 25 years, collaborated with Schumack to create a public garden designed by youngsters. “They were so excited by what they had planted and watched grow that every morning, when they came: ‘We’re going to the garden,’” Shivers says. “Seven-thirty in the morning: ‘Let’s eat breakfast in the garden.’”

This transformation-in-progress is still mostly confined to 21 blocks. But there’s no obvious reason why it can’t be replicated. Brightmoor is rich in human capital: When I attended a meeting of the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of community groups, the church social hall was packed on a frosty Thursday night. Brightmoor’s small houses and farmable land offer the potential for a district that grows more food, uses less energy, produces some of its own jobs—and perhaps saves the city money. Larry Simmons, pastor of Baber Memorial A.M.E. Church, pointed me back to one of the empty stretches behind Bernice Walker’s home. “We could block off both ends of that street, turn off the streetlights—help solve Mayor Bing’s problem—and plant an orchard,” he says, throwing out his arms, palms up, to accentuate the obviousness. “How simple is that? Instead of talking about shutting down the whole city, the challenge should be to everyone in Detroit: How can you up the activity index where you are?”

IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT BRIGHTMOOR COLLECTIVELY WINCED when Mayor Bing announced, in a September 2010 televised address, his plan to concentrate the city’s population. Bing later told the Detroit Free Press that no one would be forcibly relocated by his Detroit Works Project. But he added that some residents “need to understand that they’re not going to get the kind of services they require.”

“We were going to be mothballed,” says Simmons, the pastor. “It’s not a big leap to figure that out.”

In a city where relocations have been commonplace, the reverberations were hardly limited to Brightmoor. Detroiters remember Poletown, the working-class neighborhood condemned in 1981 so General Motors could build a next-generation auto plant. (GM promised 6,000 jobs and never came close.) The Bing administration’s use of loaded phrases like “winners and losers” didn’t help. “It was perceived by us that they were going to get rid of all our neighborhoods, they were going to cut off all our services, and it was put out there that they were going to turn off our water,” says Eastside resident Sandra Turner-Handy, community-outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “When you don’t have transparency, people tend to create their own perceptions.”

The first public meeting of Detroit Works, held at a church the following week, drew an overflow crowd of 900. They were fearful of being displaced, skeptical that anyone was listening, and angry when the mayor turned up late. Some waved fingers and shouted down facilitators. “As sure as I sit in this chair, Bing and his committee already know what they want to do with this city,” an older resident named Wilma Berry told a TV reporter. The mayor insisted that he didn’t want to “dictate” the city’s future. But he added, “We will repopulate some neighborhoods. We will depopulate some neighborhoods.”

Reeling from the raw emotion, the organizers responded with more scripted agendas at later meetings, using clickers to record answers to multiple-choice questions. (Attendees had to choose, for example, what was most important: public safety, public health, lighting, parks, or mass transit.) “I couldn’t even answer most of them,” says Maggie DeSantis, president of the Warren/Conner Development Coalition on the city’s Eastside. “I knew I was being led to a certain conclusion.” Nor was she alone, she says: “People are not stupid. They know when they’re being manipulated. When you have families that have been forcibly removed over several generations, three and four times, they’re not going to be saying, ‘Oh, fine, whatever the mayor wants to do.’ That’s not going to happen.”

Brightmoor residents have used the neighborhood’s abandoned houses as a community art project.

The administration understood it was losing Detroiters’ trust. “Sometimes we were at fault for saying things that perhaps we should not have said,” says Karla Henderson, a top administration official who has helped lead Detroit Works. The city retrenched and last July launched what many call Detroit Works 2.0. The mayor’s office is running short-term pilot projects to see whether services can be delivered more efficiently. But the big show is in the long-term planning, which is happening outside city hall, overseen by representatives from the business, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors. Leading the new civic-engagement effort is Dan Pitera, who teaches architecture at the University of Detroit, Mercy.

When I meet Pitera, he takes pains to dispel the prospect of shrinking Detroit’s footprint—a prospect he truly considers off the table. Atlanta, he tells me, has almost the exact square mileage, yet thrives with only 420,000 people, nearly 300,000 fewer than Detroit. The city’s future, he insists, lies in creative collaboration with its residents. “Every area has assets,” he says. “In the past, Detroit was homogenous when it came to urban form: single-family homes across the entire area. But now that density is very different. So how do we design a city to actually accommodate multiple densities?” The key, he says, is to “build from the initiatives that are on the ground happening.”

In this vision, Brightmoor isn’t jettisoned. Instead, it finds its own adaptations to a declining population. “We get it,” says Kirk Mayes, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance. “It’s inefficient to do things the way we used to. We understand there’s tons of areas in Brightmoor where house after house is vacant. But on those very blocks, there’s one or two people that are still hanging on. What we are hoping is that through a focused discussion, and through cooperative planning, the neighborhood can take on the brunt of responsibility of approaching those families and saying, ‘Look, this doesn’t make sense anymore.’” If those holdouts can be relocated within Brightmoor—remaining close to their friends and churches—there can be a better concentration of city services, Mayes says. (Community leaders have been brainstorming about creative mechanisms to finance relocations.) Vacant land can be turned into “fields of alfalfa and timothy, or sunflowers, or shortgrass and prairie,” he says. “That starts to deal with issues like rainwater runoff.” Detroit’s wastewater treatment system gets notoriously strained during storms.

“We understand that changes have to happen,” Mayes says. “We’re just saying: Don’t make it turn into something that happens to us. Allow us to do it together.” During Detroit Works 1.0, he says, the decision-makers didn’t seem to grasp this. Now, they’re listening more closely. “So I’m optimistic,” he says. “Six months ago, I would have told you something different.”

NOT EVERYONE SHARES THAT OPTIMISM. Once Mayor Bing raised the specter of shifting resources to denser, more central neighborhoods, activist Malik Yakini couldn’t shake his fear of “the regentrification of the city.” Yakini heads the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which promotes urban agriculture and cooperative food-buying. “I’m concerned that we don’t create this little oasis for whites moving back into Midtown—that has nicely paved streets and bike lanes and access to the highest-quality produce—and then the majority population is left to fend for itself.”

Yakini gives voice to a hard-to-ignore fact: In a city that’s 83 percent African American, many (though not all) of the young movers and shakers who have drawn so much media attention are white. The press has labeled these newcomers “hipsters,” with all the connotations of irony and retro fashion. But what strikes me, when I meet some of these young leaders, is how similar they sound to the longtime Detroiters who are working to jump-start their neighborhoods.

One morning at Motor City Java House, I’m introduced to a 30-year-old visual artist named Amy Kaherl, who is part of that fast-growing demographic. Kaherl runs Detroit SOUP, an organization that gives “micro-grants” of up to $1,000 for projects benefiting the city. It hosts monthly dinners: Five dollars buys soup, salad, pie, and a vote. Entrepreneurs present their ideas, and the winner of a secret ballot takes home the evening’s proceeds. SOUP has funded everything from a community radio station to an enterprise involving winter coats that double as sleeping bags, produced by (and distributed free to) homeless Detroiters. She has come to the Java House today to discuss the possibility of a SOUP dinner in Brightmoor.

Kaherl grew up north of the city, in a suburb called Sterling Heights. She moved to Los Angeles to earn a master’s degree in theology with an emphasis on pop culture. She moved back to Michigan when her mother died in 2008 and marveled at how easily Detroiters welcomed her into their cultural scene. “The ego of when you go to some big cities—‘I’m very important; you should know me’—that feeling didn’t seem to exist,” she says. The poverty here is just too wrenching, and the need for all hands on deck too great, for L.A.–style climbers to get any traction. “This city, man, you’ve got to leave your ego at the door. If it’s about you getting famous, or you moving ahead, then you’ve picked the wrong city because you will be sniffed out within moments.”

Living near Midtown, Kaherl knows about the billions being invested in her midst. But she’s more interested in how people without deep pockets are working together for the common good. The sleeping-bags-for-the-homeless project, for example, is based at Pony Ride, an old print shop in Corktown that Phillip Cooley, Slows Bar-B-Q’s 34-year-old owner, bought out of foreclosure and turned into low-rent incubator space. When I talked with Cooley—a former model who has lived in Barcelona, New York, and Milan—he echoed many of Kaherl’s sentiments about Detroit. “It’s the only democratic city I’ve ever lived in,” he said. “I love the way that people work together here, doing so much more with so much less.”

A few days later, I attend SOUP’s second-anniversary dinner, inside a former industrial film studio that nearly swallows up its 400 guests. It’s cold inside, so we huddle around patio heaters, drinking PBRs and watching acrobats spin and flip on aerial silks. Eventually we sit on the floor and listen to four short presentations. The winners are three locally born siblings—without a shred of hipster irony among them—who are publishing what they call Detroit’s first new guidebook since the 1980s. They intend to include the entire city, they say, not just cool neighborhoods like Midtown.

Throughout Detroit, residents have dealt with the closure of businesses that provide basic necessities.

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE BOTTOM-UP PLANNING EFFORT, in both depth and reach, has been unfolding on Detroit’s Lower Eastside. This is diametrically across the city from Brightmoor, but it faces many of the same challenges. The area’s 44 percent population loss from 2000 to 2010 far outstrips the city’s average. Ten thousand vacant lots and structures pock its ten square miles. It also contains some of Detroit’s greatest affluence, including the mansions of Indian Village and the mayor’s official residence.

“The Lower Eastside has traditionally been a little more racially tolerant, and as a result, a little more colorful,” says Maggie DeSantis, who has done community-organizing work for almost 40 years. Particularly during the racially charged 1960s, she says, it received less attention from City Hall than whiter areas. “As city services withdraw, as you get less police presence, you get more and more people saying, ‘That’s it. I’m gone.’”

Worried that in the sparsest areas “somebody was going to eventually decide to turn off the lights and cordon off the neighborhood unless we did something,” as DeSantis puts it, several community organizations came together in 2009. They secured foundation funding for what would become the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP). “The premise was always: We have a lot of vacant land. Infill housing is not the answer, because we recognize the population is trending downward,” says planner Khalil Ligon, LEAP’s project manager. “There’s no market to bring new people in. But how do we improve the quality of life for people who are still here?”

By the time LEAP was getting under way, Mayor Bing had started talking about reducing services to some neighborhoods. “[That] was a very good catalyst in scaring people and saying, ‘Whoa, we need to be ahead of that,’” says former Eastside resident Sandra Yu, a program manager with the nonprofit Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.

Residents were hired to canvass their neighbors. Conversations took place on front porches, at coffee hours, and at kiosks set up at public events. Four thousand people filled out surveys. Community members came to meetings and spent hours poring over technical information that had been translated into everyday language. They talked with landscape architects, planners, and city officials involved in Detroit Works.

Lower Eastside residents evaluated every block for its best possible purpose. They recommended some for traditional housing and others for innovative uses like habitat restoration, urban homesteading, and “green venture zones.” In January, LEAP released a 70-page block-by-block blueprint for the Lower Eastside. Along with elaborately detailed maps, the plan features six proposals for neighborhood–stabilization projects, including a food-processing business incubator and the conversion of a blighted commercial corridor into a “green thoroughfare.” A spin-off nonprofit will help turn these projects into reality. The document also outlines the zoning and other policy changes needed to implement the community’s wishes.

Many of the conversations were hard. Residents were afraid the plan would lead to forced relocation. Some ideas—particularly urban homesteads that rely on solar power and gravel roads—sounded weird. Over months, fears subsided and positions softened. “People who came to the process saying, ‘I won’t want to move,’ or ‘I don’t want a farm next to me’—as they learned how these things could be beneficial to their neighborhood, those attitudes started to change,” Ligon says. “Being able to ask questions and talk to people who were authorities on these things, and having access to information, made all the difference—[as did] creating an environment where just because you do live in a neighborhood that’s completely blighted and bombed out, we’re not writing you off.”

LEAP provided a model for citizen leadership—“a perfect example of how it can happen,” says Yu, who is trained as a planner. Not that this work can be done entirely by neighborhoods. “Watersheds don’t pay attention to city boundaries,” she says. “Regional transportation, service delivery, all of that—there has to be an overall structure. But that doesn’t get to the block-by-block level. That’s where there’s that opportunity for residents to say, ‘OK, within those citywide structures, we’re going to fill in that real granular level.’”

THANKS IN PART FROM THIS REMARKABLE COMMUNITY ORGANIZING—not to mention the initial uprising—Detroit Works now seems more closely aligned with the people who will be affected by its decisions. “We’ve all grown from this,” Dan Pitera, the civic-engagement director, told me.

As I walk into my interview with Mayor Bing, on my last day in Detroit, I assume he will say much the same thing. Instead, it seems like the mayor has tuned out the backlash.

“Let’s focus on the areas where there are most people,” Bing says, his words mirroring the rhetoric that sparked the initial revolt. In “those other neighborhoods,” he says, “people need to understand: We don’t have enough money to invest in your neighborhood. I would prefer to refurbish homes in the more stable neighborhoods and get you all to move and have a better quality of life. You can be safer. You can have the bus service. You can make sure your trash and garbage is going to be picked up like it ought to be. Police, fire, schools, you name it—all of the things that make up a good community, that’s where I want you to move. Now, if you want to stay where you are, that’s your choice. But you do need to understand you’re going to be at a disadvantage by not coming to the core of the city.”

Bing says that he supports Detroit Works’ long-term planning process. But he adds that its end product would be “nothing more than a recommendation.” As for neighborhood-level efforts like LEAP, the mayor says, “you can’t vision this city in a microcosm. It’s not like I want to shut those kinds of organizations down. But you’ve got to pick and choose.”

Pitera isn’t shocked when I describe this conversation. He reminds me that the long-term planning is unfolding outside City Hall. Bing does not attend the meetings. “He is not working off the same information we are at this point,” Pitera says. “With the speed and intensity we’re working, it’s only natural we have information he doesn’t have.” The newest data, he says, provide evidence that Detroit can function well without shutting down neighborhoods. Pitera predicts that by the end of the planning process, the mayor and community groups will end up on the same page.

Whether or not that happens, no one on the ground is waiting for edicts. From the Lower Eastside through Midtown, up to Brightmoor and Old Redford, the needs are too urgent not to push on. “I love Mayor Bing,” says Blight Busters’ John George. “But I also want to say in the same breath that mayors come and go. Detroiters stay and stick.”

Faith and hope in Brightmoor.