“I have been thinking about your columns and for some reason the issue of ‘darning’ came to mind,” explained my lunch host, a respected Michigan public official. “My grandmother, a product of the Depression, used to darn socks when I was a kid.
“Now everywhere we look, there are gaping holes throughout the rent fabric of Detroit. It strikes me that there is precious little material left in Detroit to ‘darn,’” my influential friend said with a sense of regret.
“Yet, last Friday, I was invited to a birthday party for my oldest son held at a downtown bistro,” he enthusiastically continued. “It was teeming with white 20-somethings who had an interest in urban life. They are Bohemian, largely unmarried and aren’t looking (yet) for a lot of city services.
“Although most were gainfully employed, none could afford to buy the cheap homes in the city because of the crushing taxes of all kinds,” he mused. “It was an interesting momentary immersion in the possibilities that this new generation poses.”
The conversation then evolved into a candid conversation about what Detroit needs to do to reverse the precipitous shrinkage of residents who grew weary of high crime, high costs and diminishing returns. We jointly concluded that revitalization of the urban core is possible with a broad base of young, educated new residents — like those who attended his son’s party.
Elsewhere, my friend noted, it is common for people to move from the city to the suburbs to raise a family and then return as empty nesters. These returnees enjoy living in apartments, condominiums and lofts and seek to rediscover the freedom of living close to where they work and play. They, as well as young singles or married couples, want the luxury of walking, biking or driving to work, restaurants, and stores. They are candidates for Detroit’s “regentrification.”
This process of renewal and rebuilding is characterized by the renovation of once neglected older homes and new housing units in run-down sections. New stores open to accommodate new affluent tenants and property owners.
The revitalized area becomes a destination on which to feast on an exciting synergy of entertainment, restaurants, boutiques and other crime-free venues that attract people of all colors, cultures and ethnicities.
Unfortunately, not every Detroiter will appreciate or celebrate a major influx of white residents — or for that matter, groups of any hue and ethnicity — who threaten to “take back” the city. More than a few elected officials and community leaders will not want to take a back seat to astute, cosmopolitan types committed, not just to political change, but growth and prosperity.
Creating “urban hot spots,” however, has benefits that outweigh any resistance. Not the least of which is fresh talent capable of managing, planning and advising. They would bring back the skills and connections that make successful communities work. In this dynamic environment, government wouldn’t have to force-feed development. Homes and businesses take root based on demand, the way Detroit’s downtown grew in the early years when the city was thriving.
My optimistic friend was not unmindful of landmines exploding all around his vision of a new Detroit. I questioned why any ethic group with any intelligence would migrate to a poor, racially divided city with decaying infrastructure, dwindling services, no tax base and a government immersed in red ink?
To again be seen as hospitable, profitable and livable, he conceded, Detroit would need to first undergo an attitude adjustment about the politics of race, as well as a sea change in political decision-making. The city will have to transition to a social and economic realignment that expands the demographic base of power — culturally rich and diverse.
Unless and until that happens, I thought, my friend would be denied even a glimpse of what a Detroit rebirth might look like.