People from Detroit call their hometown the “D.” The reason at first appears obvious—Detroit, the letter D—it’s straightforward. But below the surface, that single letter represents so much more. Walking around the city center, it’s impossible to miss the Diverse city culture. Artists and foodies intermingle with suits rushing from one meeting to the next. White faces intermingle with black. From Dawn until Dusk, the business district is a melting pot of culture and creed. But as evening approaches, faces grow darker, not for lack of light, but because 8-5 Detroit has gone home for the day, leaving 24-7 Detroit to its reality.
Beyond the gleaming high rises and art-deco sky scrapers, is the real city center. Detroit, which was home to over 1 million-souls just 20 years ago (and close to 2 million 40 years ago) will be lucky in the next census to reach 800,000. The aftermath of this Decline includes 30,000 homes that must be raised in just the next few years; 10,000 school children who leave the school district every year in search of a quality education; the collapse of median home values from $50-60,000 just five years ago to $7,500 today; and a population where over 1/3 live in poverty.
Despite this reality, Detroiters are proud, professing their moxie and facing challenge like home-town hero Joe Louis, chin set and fists flying. Thousands of homes lost? We’ll develop green space and explore urban farming. School children lost? We’ll build a robust charter school system that outshines the old. Adults left behind? We’ll promote broadband access and help thousands cross the digital divide to promote access to learning and information. National media reports negative views of our city? We’ll launch Declare Detroit, Detroit Yes, Model D, and an array of grassroots community and media efforts to organize, provide a balanced view, convey hope, and clean up our act.
Detroit takes punch after punch and keeps on rolling, but if the city is to move forward it must do more than endure. Various transformation efforts underway in the City have become points of pride that drive passion and hope. A recent Knight Foundation/Gallup study shows that strong passion for community is highly correlated with economic growth. The question is how to best help these transformation efforts not just stay on track but maximize their capacity to yield a brighter future.
A 2004 MIT book, Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, looked to two struggling manufacturing communities in Pennsylvania (Youngstown and Allentown) and found that, despite sharing very similar economic histories, the two took very different transformation paths. The critical success factor for Allentown over Youngstown was the mobilization of key organizational actors around desired outcomes.
Both communities had prevalent and strong social networks and relationships, but in Youngstown social ties among the community’s leadership tended to reinforce civic relationships among actors who were already well-connected. In Allentown civic ties tended to bring together more diverse actors who were not traditionally well connected and emphasized idea-sharing and alignment. The book concludes that, an important element of Allentown’s relative success was its broader, more interactive civic-engagement approach.
Communities that emphasize the development of smart social networks, and that cultivate those networks around a common vision and goals, experience more inward investment, innovative thinking, and ownership and action-taking. It is a positive outcome that numerous stakeholders are organizing to take on Detroit’s many challenges and are harnessing passion to build a new community future. But understanding how to harness the strength of social networks and to maximize the power of well-conceived civic engagement could accelerate positive momentum and shift efforts to a higher playing field.
Communities are made up of complex webs of systems and networks that emerge and recede depending on the moment’s need. If those systems and networks fail, communities can fail, regardless of the passion people have toward an alternative outcome. Detroiters are not willing or ready to admit defeat, despite unprecedented socio-economic and other challenges. In fact, many Detroiters are struggling against all odds to repurpose and rebuild. In the midst of the scramble, we can give these efforts a significant boost by helping them align with and engage key players that can help them innovate, connect resources, and succeed in moving their implementation strategies forward.
In these unusual times, we must look beyond the usual suspects to cultivate innovation and commitment that can turn the tides for the city. Moxie counts, but it’s the people who are in your corner who can help you lose or win the fight. Being deliberate about engagement and collaboration can make world of Difference in the D.