A Hand on the Brow of a Humbled Giant

Sunday, March 23, 2014 (All day)

The bud
stands for all things, even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely…

– Galway Kinnell, excerpt from his poem St. Francis and the Sow

Pride, caution, humility, smarts and a quantum of civic commitment gather at a large conference table in a restored brick building above a popular coffee house at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Alexandrine Street in Detroit. Undaunted by the bracing February descent of the polar vortex outside, a dozen voices describe life at the fragile forefront of an iconic American urban future. A sense of opportunity tempered by realism permeates every person who enters Kresge Foundation’s Detroit office, an outpost of the Troy, Michigan-based philanthropic behemoth. A Community Partners delegation listens, queries, leans in, listens more. Laura Trudeau, Kresge’s Detroit program director, facilitates the conversation.

A native of Detroit, Trudeau’s web of relationships stretches from the offices of the beleaguered city’s federally appointed emergency manager, to a legion of colleagues in the philanthropic world, to the Mayor and Governor’s offices, to business and civic leaders making huge economic bets downtown, just 30 blocks away. She and a crack pickup team of planners, residents, organizers, electeds, visionaries, investors and others helped shape and guide a multi-year civic engagement project that produced in December 2012 the remarkably ambitious “Detroit Future City.” The strategic framework plan is on everyone’s lips simply as “DFC,” an acronymic code for fierce faith and grounded hope in the face of astronomic odds.

Browsing DFC’s 300-plus pages (or, for the attention-challenged, the blessedly short executive summary), you get the distinct notion that the folks huddled around the Kresge conference table have their searching eyes on the long game and their warmly shod Midwestern feet planted firmly on planet Earth. More than that, they’re backed by Kresge’s multi-million dollar, sustaining investment in what can only be described as an “action center” – it, too, referred to as DFC – occupying nearby street-front offices. It’s headed by Team Capability incarnate. Besides a savvy urban planner and a respected community organizer, the action center’s principals include former Detroit mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr. Cockrel served on the Detroit city council and knows city government with the same intimacy that a Vegas dealer knows his deck. Cockrel has a seasoned elected official’s knack for intuiting in advance what cards the rest of us won’t see laid on the table until they’re actually played.

A trip downtown, into and up an elevator lobby featuring a fountain of spray from giant showerheads ten stories above, takes you to the warren of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures. Gilbert, another native Detroiter, raised Quicken Loans to riches and decided a few years ago to invest $1.3 billion in 40 nearby high-rise office buildings. No dummy, Gilbert’s attracted a spry, energetic workforce with an average age of just 29 years. His network of more than 100 companies large and small employs about 15,000 people. He’s shrewd enough to know that a long bet in real estate means also investing in a youthful workforce that wants to live, work, recreate and procreate near their jobs. Add a few good schools (something yet to be done), and you’ve got the DNA in place for a gutsy bunch of urban pioneers to stick around and spawn generations to come.

Detroit’s shine has dimmed dramatically from its halcyon decades as the chrome colossus of American automania. Its geographic bounds remain the same, but what was once built out as a city of two million souls embraces but a scattered 700,000 today. Gap-toothed residential streets and the wrecked infrastructure of a downed industrial juggernaut have left ready for demolition some 78,000 blighted lots, nearly 30 percent of the city’s 350,000-plus properties. Today, nearly 20 square miles of Detroit’s occupiable land sits vacant.

The good news: sweet seeds born of bitter crisis have taken root. Kresge’s stewards – and Laura Trudeau in particular – would deflect all credit for Detroit’s still unproven pivot away from the foundation and into the greater community. That’s exactly as it should be. But the presence of human intention in the turnaround shows everywhere. Just scratch a bit of the accreted industrial-era grit from yet another wall or two and out pops a city proud to declare itself a reborn creative metropolis. And that intention has been husbanded and nurtured by a handful of determined residents in league with the lean, loaned expertise and resources of a few key philanthropies and a corps of civic leaders who care.

Listening with an ear for how Detroit’s lessons can inoculate Los Angeles against the prospects of a similar fall from urban grace, our Community Partners delegation saw enough with our own eyes to know a lovely new bud has flowered in the vast and varied garden of post-industrial urban America.

Go. Touch for yourself. A humbled giant stirs. DFC lives.

 

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