Change Agents, City Transformation, Development

‘We ain’t what we was’: Tangible progress on Detroit’s road to recovery


It’s already the end of January, the coldest, snowiest, wind-chilliest January on record for Detroit.  Happy New Year!

During the Martin Luther King Day commemoration this month I heard a recording of Rev. King quoting an old Southerner speaking somewhere in the deep South.  He said,

We ain’t what we ought to be,

We ain’t what we want to be,

We ain’t what we’re gonna be,

But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

DIAThat old gentleman was speaking over a hundred years ago of African Americans in the South but it seems to me you could apply his thoughts today to a city in the north that we all know and love. Detroit ain’t what it ought, wants, or will be, but thank God it’s also not what it was.

Detroit is a long way from being out of the woods but a lot has happened to move the city forward just since mid-December.  To wit:

  • A new mayor with an aggressive plan for the city has been installed and is in office.  He’s actively “partnering” with the emergency manager and a new city council.  The mayor will run the city day-to-day; the EM will manage the bankruptcy issues.  Potential Huge Progress.
  • The governor has proposed a $350 million state grant to the city to address the employee pension issue and help to save the DIA’s art, and ten national and local charitable foundations (with the recent addition of the Kellogg Fund’s $40 million) have pledged $370 million to address the same issues.  Now the DIA itself has come to the party with a $100 million pledge over 20 years.  That’s $820 million of help from ourselves and our friends.  Who says Detroiters don’t care about our pensioners and our art? This is real, tangible, meaningful progress.
  • Downtown and Midtown apartments and condos are sold out (98% occupancy) and developers can’t build fast enough to meet the demand.  More are coming…plus more out-of-town and out-of-country developers looking to jump on the bandwagon.
  • The Downtown Detroit Partnership has created a $4 million business improvement zone to help businesses clean up the downtown area.  And Dan Gilbert’s work continues unabated.  More good news.
  • For the first time in a long while, streetlights along Woodward Avenue are actually being turned on again.  Even in the recent bitter cold, DTE workers have been in their cherry-pickers replacing burnt out bulbs and turning the lights back on.  At long last.  And speaking of Woodward, preparatory work on the M1 line is getting underway and RFQs  to potential contractors are out along with enthusiastic and hopefully not too inflated projections of the potential economic development boom the M1 line will bring with it to the Woodward corridor.
  • Police Chief James Craig has released a 108-page plan to attack the city’s crime problems, including adding 150 officers by year-end, responding to emergencies in five minutes or less, and reducing overall crime by 10 percent.  It’s a start. Hi_Res_Front_Entrance_2 compressed
  • The North American International Auto Show just completed its most successful run in over a decade with 55 all new models unveiled and more than 800,000 attendees.  Two domestic vehicles – the Corvette Stingray and the Chevrolet Silverado – were named North American Car and Truck of the Year.  How long has it been since two domestic vehicles have won the coveted “Of the Year” awards?
  • General Motors named Mary Barra Chairman and CEO, the first woman ever to run a major auto company.  General Motors?  Who’d have thought?
  • The Detroit Symphony Orchestra signed a new contract with its musicians eight months before the old contract ran out.  The new contract is within the financial guidelines of the DSO’s ten year strategic plan. This is the same organization that endured a crippling six month strike before signing its last contract.  “One DSO” is working!  Meanwhile, the Michigan Opera Theatre lured a new president and CEO, Wayne Brown, from his 16-year stint as director of music and opera at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Good get, MOT!  And good news that MOT founder and general manager of 43 years, David DiChiera, is sticking around as artistic director.
  • On the sports front, Jim Caldwell leaves his position as offensive coach of the Baltimore Ravens to become the 26th head coach of the Detroit Lions.  Here’s hoping he’ll be more successful than the first 25!  Lions’ superstar receiver Calvin Johnson should be even better with his offseason knee and finger surgery and Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrerra’s minor off-season surgeries should help to assure that the World Series we’ve been expecting in Detroit will actually happen in 2014. Now if only we could get the Red Wings and Pistons back to their old winning ways…

Taking off the rose-colored glasses, of course, there are still huge issues looking for a response and huge problems waiting to be solved.

The bankruptcy.

The neighborhoods.

The crime.

The schools.

The blight.

The potholes.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  The good news is that in just the past six weeks there have been so many tangible, meaningful steps forward along Detroit’s road to recovery.

— Bud Liebler is the owner of The Whitney.

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One comment on “‘We ain’t what we was’: Tangible progress on Detroit’s road to recovery

  1. I believe that may be a captivating element, it made me think a bit. Thanks for sparking my pondering cap. Now and again I get so much in a rut that I simply really feel like a record.

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