Detroit's Call

Driving through Detroit yesterday it was clear this town is barely hanging on by its fingertips, but that many of the people who will bring it back are already here. The question for me is what will the rest of us do – will we hear Detroit’s call or turn away. I know what I want us to do. The NCAA championship game between North Carolina and Michigan State was played just blocks from my hotel. Outside my hotel window last night I could hear and see droves of people filing down the street making their way to Ford Field. A festive mood had come over this part of town.

But I could also see from my hotel window the towering GM building hovering over this city, a constant reminder of looming bankruptcy and failed manufacturing. Indeed, everywhere I looked I could see buildings draped with for-lease signs, begging for occupants.

I found myself speechless as I drove through some of Detroit’s neighborhoods. Blocks of boarded up, burned out, stripped homes, many standing right next to houses still occupied. I kept wondering who lives in these remaining homes, what are their names, where do they go during the day? I could keep driving, but what about them?

One neighborhood was bordered by a multi-story abandoned factory, which literally stretched three or four blocks. Nearly every window broken, parts of the building crumbled, with unruly weeds surrounding it all. This ominous building came right up to the sidewalk; people lived in dilapidated homes less than fifty feet away.

Some people have suggested that Detroit is living through its own Katrina. Yesterday I was reminded of my time driving throughout New Orleans after Katrina. There, block after block was left in disrepair; FEMA’s white trailers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. In Detroit, just as in New Orleans, one wonders if the rest of the country can hear people’s call.

But when we do, we should not just hear the call of despair in people’s voices. There are amazing people who live in Detroit, who care deeply about their community. I spent the morning with Mike Foster and Bishop Anthony Russell who spearhead the Detroit Community Initiative, where they are building new homes, training people in financial literacy, and providing important human services. We met in an old hospital building they are now turning into a new center.

Charlie Anderson and Alan Dozier, from Communities in Schools of Detroit, are bringing schools and communities together to change schools and the surrounding communities. We met in a former elementary school building that CIS turned into their headquarters and training center. The building was just a couple of blocks from the factory I described.

Rich Homberg from Detroit Public Television is demonstrating that public broadcasting can be an important community catalyst and convener, and that even (especially) in hard times stations can step forward and help communities move forward.

Finally, there was Luther Keith, John X. Miller, and Genevieve Clark from Arise Detroit, a coalition of more than 300 block clubs, community groups, churches, businesses and other organizations that connects people to hundreds of opportunities to mentor, tutor, clean up neighborhoods and to get involved in positive programs to help children and families.

These examples tell us something important about Detroit: while this city has hit hard times, it is not without its own public innovators and powerful success stories. Now, our task is neither to dictate solutions to the city nor pity the people, but rather to stand beside this great community and join hands with these individuals.

But will we? It's one thing to celebrate the fact that Detroit hosted the NCAA Final Four games, but such games come and go. People and the place remain. My hope today is that we do not turn our backs on Detroit after the game’s final buzzer. That would be far too easy to do; instead, we must hear Detroit’s call.