Editor’s Note: Prior to and during the upcoming Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference, Detroit Unspun/TheHUB, Comcast and WWJ Newsradio 950 will bring you stories that showcase the transformation of our city’s neighborhoods.
By E.B. Allen
Detroit for Detroiters. It’s a phrase that echoed deeply at the Detroit Policy Conference, a gathering where the city’s need for neighborhood revitalization was a persistent theme of the day.
That means creating new leaders. It means stabilizing neighborhoods with block clubs. It means having the difficult conversations around race, responsibility and gentrification. The message, you could say, was loud and clear.
The message and the mission of moving the city forward were apparent as about 800 community activists, non-profit leaders, entrepreneurs, elected officials and philanthropists converged on MotorCity Casino Hotel for the Detroit Policy Conference Feb. 24.
Hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber, the fifth annual gathering of stakeholders and organizers engaged in strategy on topics ranging from revitalization to public safety in Detroit’s neighborhoods.
“Leadership is the key to everything,” Luther Keith, founder of ARISE Detroit! told an audience in the Sound Board auditorium.
Keith was a panelist in the breakout session, “Sustaining Neighborhoods: Champions of Revitalization,” with Tom Goddeeris, executive director of Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp., Quincy Jones, executive director of Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, and Henry McClendon, Skillman Foundation program officer. DTE Energy Foundation head Faye Nelson Foundation moderated the conversation.
“Secondly, there’s got to be collaboration,” Keith said. “Who in your neighborhood thinks like you? Who identifies the problem the way you identify it? Leadership and building organizations, that’s how you fight crime, and that’s how you build quality of life.”
Victoria Kovari, general manager of the City of Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods, echoed Keith’s ideas about collaboration, in an interview with TheHUB. While ongoing challenges like removing vacant homes and eliminating blight are consistently on local government’s radar, she says citizens can centralize support efforts.
Residents can also make hands-on improvement by contacting their city district managers about the free wood program, and organizing volunteers to help seal empty houses.
“We’re systematically going through, tearing down publicly owned property,” she said. “We can’t demolish privately owned property. If we can’t tear it down, we want to board it up and secure it.”
Rico Razo, manager of the city’s District 6, including communities as distant as Woodbridge and Southwest Detroit, told TheHUB residents are regaining their optimism. Programs like the city’s “Own, Sweet Own” support mortgages and homeownership, while citizens dedicate more of themselves, financially and emotionally, to the community, said Razo.
“People are hopeful about what’s going on. It’s the first time we’ve gained population in 60 years,” he added.
District 6’s Woodmere Community Block Club, with its volunteer police patrol, Midwest Citizens Council, Woodbridge Association and others are among those that help make the difference in Detroit’s push to reestablish greatness, Razo said.
“As people become more organized great things happen.”
But Jones, of the Osborn Alliance, reminded the audience in his panel discussion that becoming organized requires honesty about the city’s economically unequal and racially polarized populations. Topics including gentrification and marginalized opportunities for long-time Detroiters versus newcomers can’t be avoided, Jones and others insist.
“We must be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations around race and equity,” he said.
Keith encouraged full-on dedication, beyond lip-service and sideline strategies, for any person or group professing concern for the city.
“Don’t be a drive-by organization,” he said. “Drop in, have dinner at somebody’s house. Get to know people.
“Don’t ‘save’ Detroit, be Detroit.”