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The Road to Rebuilding Detroit

The bankruptcy of Detroit is well-worn territory. After the city announced in July of 2013 that it would default on its $18 billion debt—the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—headline after headline cemented a familiar narrative within the public consciousness. “The Motor City Goes Bust,” USA Today announced bluntly. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times simply wrote: “Out of Money, Detroit Calls It Quits.”

But as the dust cleared on the city’s default, the story on the ground, if not in the papers, began to change.

Almost exactly one year after declaring bankruptcy, in July of 2014, construction workers broke ground on a project few still thought possible in Detroit: the M-1 Rail, a 3.3-mile streetcar route in the heart of the city. For nearly 60 years, similar projects had sputtered through failed promises of urban revival, but after years of seemingly hopeless headlines, ongoing construction on the $145 million project has come to symbolize a new era in Detroit.

“Everybody kind of watched and said, ‘Look, they’re ripping the road up,’” said Paul Childs, chief operating officer for M-1 Rail. “It was a realization for everybody.”

Along Woodward Avenue, where the M-1 will eventually run, much of greater downtown Detroit is now a construction zone—a first phase of the city’s literal rebuilding. In September, work began on a new hockey arena for the Red Wings that promises to be the centerpiece of a new 45-block entertainment district. Further downtown, once vacant architectural relics from the city’s golden age have been renovated to house new tenants as varied as Silicon Valley startups and local religious organizations.

But while the vision for a new Detroit begins with the greater downtown, where 40 percent of the city’s jobs exist, its ambition extends throughout the city. “You can’t have a seven square mile oasis in a 140 square mile city and think you’re going to have prosperity,” said Ned Staebler, president and CEO of TechTown, an entrepreneurship engine in the city. “It doesn’t work like that.”

For the coalition of local officials, businesses and nonprofits leading the way, the blueprinting of the city presents an intensely varied task. “We’re innovating, developing new solutions [and] new answers to try and solve some decades old problems,” said William Jones, Jr., CEO of Focus: HOPE, a Detroit-based organization that focuses on growing economic opportunities within the city.

In recent decades, as Detroit’s neighborhoods have thinned out, so have the services they need: grocery stores, healthcare facilities and schools. Many of the vacant structures left behind still stand, demanding a plan to address the city’s 40,000 blighted buildings and 70,000 vacant lots. Meanwhile jobs and job training are scarce; the people who live within those neighborhoods face a 38 percent poverty rate and 23 percent unemployment—significantly lower than they have been, but still well above the national average.

As a result of the complexity of the city’s challenges, many of the success stories that are starting to emerge tend to be the product of years-long collaborations between local organizations with an understanding of the community and national stakeholders that bring outside resources and expertise necessary to rejuvenate it.

The M-1 project alone required seven years of planning to coordinate 24 funding sources ranging from the Michigan Department of Transportation to the philanthropic Kresge Foundation to JPMorgan Chase. As the construction continues, its board of directors includes members from philanthropies, consulting companies, financial institutions and local nonprofits.

Meanwhile, it took 10 years of fundraising from local and national partners for the Community Health and Social Services Center to move its operations from a former car dealership into a state-of-the-art $17 million facility. Today it serves 13,000 mostly poor and often uninsured residents in the economically distressed Southwest neighborhood of Detroit.

“This city needed more than just an investment.  The city needed partners who could provide expertise in human resources, technology, finance, and running a business better. What we have seen on the ground are people committed to working with us to make sure our support can create real, tangible change,”

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., which announced its commitment of $100 million in Detroit last May.

Detroit is realizing the fruits of their collaborations with the various businesses, nonprofits and community groups in early signs of progress in the city, though significant challenges remain. While Mayor Duggan has said that the only statistic that matters is  population growth in Detroit—which hasn’t happened yet—occupancy rates in renovated neighborhoods along the M-1 are at 98 percent and both residents of Detroit and the nation as a whole can feel the sense of renewal and change that is clearly underway.

“When I came here in 1981, I thought the city was poised for a comeback back then,” said Focus: Hope’s Jones. “It’s been bubbling and percolating, but it hasn’t seemed to hit critical mass until recently.”

Jones’s longtime sense of optimism is common across Detroit, which has always been a city that evinces hope. The city motto is, after all, “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” But longtime residents across the city say this time feels different.

“We’ve gone through these iterations of hope and hopelessness and […] people coming into the communities that are going to promise this and promise that,” said Ricardo Guzman, CEO of the Community Health and Social Services center and a lifelong Detroiter. “What we are now seeing, however, is a group of individuals, but in particular, a couple of folks, who are serious about investing in the city.  And that’s what’s really been the big difference, is that people are doing it and following through.”