Community members are stepping up to fill in the gaps in bankrupted Detroit.
Inscribed on Detroit’s city seal is the Latin phrase, “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus,” meaning “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”
It’s a slogan many of the city’s residents may not be able to recite word for word, but it’s a life motto many incorporate into their daily lives as they work to keep a crippled city from completely self-destructing.
Already a struggling city, Detroit was hit hard by the 2008 economic collapse, and hasn’t rebounded yet. Once home to 1.8 million people, the city’s population is down to about 700,000, and the once-bustling Motor City has more than 70,000 vacant homes and businesses and owes more than $18 billion in long-term debt.
Last year there were 411 homicides, the highest in years, and the city has an unemployment rate of 23.1 percent — one of the highest in the nation.
“[In Detroit] you’ve probably seen the destruction of an American city on scale with the carpet bombing of World War II,” says Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Though lawmakers may largely have decided to give up on the city, many of the city’s remaining community members have not and are working together to rebuild a strong city Detroiters would be proud to call home.
Andy Didorosi, 26, is one life-long Detroit resident who is fighting to revive the city. He said that when read in the newspaper that budget cuts had destroyed long-held plans for a light-rail project in the city, he wasn’t sad, he was angry.
“I was pissed. I said, ‘I’ll make the corridor,’” Didorosi, 26, said, “I was an asset liquidator at the time and had recently bought some buses anyway. I’ve always been a gearhead.”
Didorosi started the Detroit Bus Company, and says his initial goal was to provide reliable routes in the city especially in areas where the light rail was supposed to have been built.
“Transportation is a public problem,” Didorosi said. “I don’t necessarily think that the system should be privatized, but I don’t see a better option than providing the services. Hopefully, everything will work itself out and the city will be back on track.”
In addition to the would-be light rail route, Didorosi established a route to and from the Detroit airport, since he said the city’s route was not very good. “The only option is one bus that doesn’t run very often and stops on every corner,” he said.
“It takes three hours to make a 45 minute commute. The city has missed out on holding conventions and we could possibly lose out on hosting the X Games because a lack of transportation.”
Didorosi’s Detroit Bus Company has six buses and runs charter services as well as scenic tours. His company provides free rides for kids to after-school programs and summer jobs.
Though Didorosi’s work is impressive, Detroit is full of people just like him who are using innovative practices not only to keep the city functioning, but to mold the city into a modern community that works together.
As Mint Press News previously reported, in response to the city’s announcement it would be closing 75 parks due to budget cuts — meaning it quits cutting the grass and removes the garbage bins — Michigan resident Tom Nardone bought a lawn tractor off of Craigslist for $250 and began mowing some of the closed parks.
From that first mow, Nardone’s work to give kids in Detroit their playgrounds back caught on, and he formed the Mower Gang — a group of “do-gooders” that works to restore parkland in the city. Now every Wednesday night, a group of about 25 to 30 Mower Gang members meet up and mow two to three parks in the city.
“The city is in a situation where people need this service. Kids need a place to play,” Nardone said, adding that the whole concept of the Mower Gang is to create a space where kids have a place to play, since they are victims of the economic crisis the city is facing.
“Kids are helpless,” Nardone said. “They can’t call a lawn service. They don’t choose where they live. They can only go places in their immediate area.” He added that if kids can’t play at the park, most will be stuck in their house.
At the same time as many Detroit residents were fleeing the city as economic conditions worsened, the city also saw a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents younger than 35 moving in.
In an interview with Mint Press News last year, Margarita Barry said she started an organization called I Am Young Detroit, a website where she shared stories of young entrepreneurs in the hope she would inspire people living in the area and people interested in Detroit to be innovative.
Barry also has a section on her website where she said hopes to create an “ecosystem of employment” by connecting entrepreneurs, young do-gooders and consumers.
“Young entrepreneurs care about the city and want to create something for themselves as well as an opportunity for other people,” she said. “It’s a social endeavor as much as it is a business one.”
Can the average Joe or Jane save Detroit?
Ted O’Neil is a spokesman for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He said whether or not volunteers and entrepreneurs can save Detroit remains to be seen, but added they have already proven that they can succeed where the government has failed. He said the city is operating right now with what he calls “civil society.”
“The Center has defined civil society as a network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families, friends and co-workers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions that generally steps in when political society fails,” O’Neil explained, adding that “Without it, failing cities like Detroit would be in even more trouble.”
But can a group of citizens really save a city that faces billions of dollars in debt, an ever-shrinking infrastructure and an expanding poverty rate?
According to Peter Eisinger, professor emeritus of urban policy at New York’s New School, the answer is likely no. “Detroit is in desperate, desperate shape,” he said.
“Detroit is a vast territory and 40 percent of it is empty. I don’t see any of these efforts having any positive effects. It’s a desperate, band-aid effort to make the city a little more livable for the people who stayed there.”
Thus far, city officials have largely been silent when it comes to responding to the average Detroiter’s work to keep the city operating normally. But in “We Are Not Ghosts,” a documentary chronicling Detroiters’ attempts to reinvent Motor City as a vibrant, new, self-sustaining and human-scaled city, many Detroit residents shared they have come together because “Detroiters are survivors.”
Others added that while there’s something to working in a creative fashion to keep a city functioning, the city’s residents have created a community where they can rely on one another because they must.
For example, since the Detroit Police Department’s budget has been dramatically slashed for years, private security firms have worked with police to keep residents and businesses safe and secure.
The founder of the Threat Management Center, Dale Brown, created a civilian volunteer organization called the Violence Intervention Protective Emergency Response System (VIPERS), which worked with the city’s lean police force to reduce crime in high-crime areas.
Members of Rosedale Park Baptist Church also worked to reduce crime in the area by boarding up and securing abandoned homes in the city to prevent vacant buildings from becoming places for criminals to gather or for people to use drugs.
Community picks up government slack
As the city’s residents work to revive the fading city, many are pushing for more and more privatization — from garbage collection to the water department. The reason? Many Detroiters have lost faith in government, since the government has largely failed to support the community’s efforts to revive the city.
According to an article in the U.K.-based Red Pepper magazine, Detroiters point to the use of “emergency management” teams to save a city from collapse as a “racially motivated phenomenon,” since more than 80 percent of all emergency-appointed managers are sent to predominantly Black cities.
Despite the fact that emergency management teams have what the article deemed a rather lousy success rate and have largely failed to improve the local economy, government officials insisted that Detroit enlist the services of bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr to solve the city’s financial crisis.
But as Shawndrica Simmons, secretary-treasurer of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO union federation, said in August, “In Pontiac, we didn’t run out of money until the emergency manager came along.”