By Bud Liebler
Downtown Detroit Aglow is the Downtown Detroit Partnership’s annual Thanksgiving fund raiser where all the city’s buildings are lit to celebrate the start of the holiday season. It’s a beautiful event and a great opportunity to see how sparkling our city can be.
My wife and I had an opportunity to see a different kind of Detroit Aglow last Saturday night, one we wish everyone in metro Detroit could have shared. It was Detroit Abuzz! And Detroit with a different kind of glow, one that comes from headlights and traffic jams, from the hustle-bustle of people on the sidewalks, laughter and chatter, crowded restaurants, busy theaters and sports arenas.
With the Red Wings at the Joe, Autorama at Cobo, “Fela” at Music Hall and events at the Michigan Opera Theater, the Fox and Fillmore and who knows where else, plus a rink full of skaters on the ice at Campus Martius Park, the city was alive and at its best. And this was a night in February!
In my 40+ years in Detroit this was as busy and stimulating as I’ve ever experienced in the city. And, importantly, it felt safe and incredibly friendly. Everybody seemed to be picking up on the vibe and helping lift it to the next level. The experience added to my already optimistic view of Detroit’s future, which was further enhanced by two events I attended recently. Saturday night was just the icing on the cake.
The first event was a talk by Commander Ken Williams of the Detroit Police Department. Williams, a broad-shouldered, thick-necked officer, wants to change the culture of Downtown Detroit by assuring its safety and encouraging more metro Detroiters not to let their fears keep them from coming Downtown to take advantage of all the city has to offer. He said that per capita Downtown Detroit today is the safest city in America. And he aims to keep it that way.
That claim is hard to believe for most metro Detroiters tired and concerned after reading of random violence that kills nine-month-olds and 12-year-olds in their living rooms. But Commander Williams is talking about Downtown Detroit where he and his team are focused on making the city a walkable community and simply not accepting bad behaviors of any kind, whether it’s drunk and disorderly conduct or parking too close to a fire hydrant. “Downtown has got to create the standard for the rest of the city,” Williams said, and he’s laser-focused on creating and upholding that standard.
Meanwhile, the city is turning on more lights at night, making police (both Detroit police and private security guards) more visible on the streets, adding 1,077 units of new lighting, and keeping public parking lots open, lit and watched. Larcenies from automobiles and panhandling, not shootings and drugs, are the two prevailing issues the police have to deal with in the city. “Park in the lots, or at metered spots, and don’t leave your laptops and I-phones on the front seat,” Williams advised. Seems pretty much like common sense.
The second event that boosted my outlook for Detroit’s future was a community meeting – in the community of Birmingham. Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh came to the burbs to learn what would make suburbanites more interested in coming back into the city. Craig Fahle of WDET opened the session by reminding the audience that Coleman Young died in 1997 and “it’s time to get over the idea that he stifled communication and look beyond what our parents and grandparents told us about the city and start learning about it ourselves and forming our own opinions.”
The audience at The Birmingham Community House was full of people who wore their obvious passion for Detroit on their sleeves. While there were lots of complaints and concerns – crime, taxes, schools, cleaning up abandoned buildings – there was a genuine, deep and apparently abiding love for the city by all those suburbanites who have roots in Detroit.
Pugh, a former newsman himself, argued that most perceptions of the city are generated by the news media who, he said, “tell you what’s going wrong but not necessarily what’s going on.” He said the city is working through “a menagerie” of old issues and lamented that “it’s asinine how much lack of regional cooperation and understanding has hurt us in Detroit.” Pugh urged the audience: “Be realistic. We are a city with many challenges and we’re fixing them as best we can, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
One woman in the audience rose to the occasion and summed it up best when she spoke. “We are all Detroiters. Everybody who’s here is here because we love the city. We all know the problems aren’t going to be fixed in one day, but neither are the problems in other cities. For some reason we only talk about what’s bad around here,” she said. “We have to start grabbing hands and look at what’s good, too, and make the whole picture what we want it to be. If we work together we can do that.”
Cue applause. Cue more reasons for all of us to be optimistic. If you are interested in getting involved click on this link http://wdet.org/shows/wdetraw/episode/a-call-to-action-pledge-now/.
Bud Liebler is owner of The Whitney.