Atlantans visiting Detroit discover a city rising from the ashes in unpredictable ways

By Maria Saporta

DETROIT – Despite all the turmoil experienced by the biggest city in Michigan in recent years, a fierce pride of place shines through among members of the community.

Yes Detroit recently went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Yes, one of its recent mayors – Kwame Kilpatrick – resides in federal prison after being convicted on 24 federal felony counts, including fraud and racketeering. And yes, the City of Detroit has be losing jobs and population for 60 years.

But an Atlanta delegation of 130 leaders in Detroit, attending the annual LINK (Leadership. Involvement. Networking. Knowledge) trip, discovered another angle of the city – an unvarnished conversation about its challenges and examples of how the city is once again rising from the ashes.

Mike Duggan

Ceasar Mitchell, president of the Atlanta City Council and mayoral candidate, greets Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (Photo by Michael Halicki)

One of the brain-twisters readily apparent about Detroit is the election of its mayor – Mike Duggan – in 2013. Duggan, a white businessman who had lived in one of Detroit’s suburbs, was not able to run on the ballot because of a residency issue when he filed.

So he ran as a write-in candidate in a city with an African-American population of more than 80 percent with 15 candidates on the ballot and another write-in candidate, Mike Dungeon, a black barber.

Duggan led the field of candidates with 46 percent of the vote, and then won in a run-off with 55 of the vote. Since then, Duggan has been working closely with Dan Gilbert, the chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans reinvesting in the city’s core.

But Duggan, who is running for re-election, also has been working the city’s neighborhoods on trying to remove blight and attract new residents to the city.

“It is a special time for our city,” Duggan told the Atlanta crowd at a dinner in the Detroit Institute of the Arts – speaking in front of a Diego Rivera mural. He jokingly asked if Atlantans were “wondering how someone who looks like me become mayor of Detroit.”

Then he described the plight of Detroit – how major sports teams had moved away and how manufacturing plants had closed and how people had fled to the suburbs.

Renaissance Center

Renaissance Center – the headquarters of General Motors – is a symbol of Detroit – designed by Atlanta architect John Portman (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“It was decades of things being taken away,” said Duggan, who said he didn’t get the support of the business community. Instead he met in people’s homes, and the word of his grassroots campaign continue to grow. “Whenever you break bread with a group, everything that divides them…the differences fade away. For too long in Detroit, we have let ‘us versus them’ politics tear us down. It no longer is going to matter if you are black or white. Everybody is going to be welcome.”

The LINK delegation, which began its meetings on Wednesday, was impressed at how candidly  people from Detroit talked about their problems.

“Detroit is the lowest academically performing city in the nation,” said Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation.

Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said that when she assumed that role on March 7, 2016, the teachers went on a sick out protesting their working conditions – after not getting a raise in 10 years. There was lead in the water in some schools. They were running out of money, and the system was $617 million in debt.

The state, which had taken over the schools and managed them for 16 out of the last 20 years and accumulated that debt, did agree to pay it off. But the system has been underfunded while having to face competition of private charter schools both inside and outside the city.

Nearly everyone who addressed the LINK delegation spoke of the problems of race and racism in Detroit – and the creation of a poorer, blacker population in the city with a more affluent and whiter population in the suburbs.

Detroit Institute of Art

Atlantans at opening dinner in the Detroit Institute of Atlanta surrounded by Diego Rivera mural (Photo by Michael Halicki)

A racial tension surfaced when Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, was on a panel with Bob Daddow, deputy county executive for suburban Oakland County.

“Oakland is the richest county in Michigan. You cannot negate the race factor. Race sill plays a significant part in everything we do,” said Anthony, who added that people only care about regionalism when their particular area will benefit. But the City of Detroit subsidizes the rest of the region, even though its taxes and insurance rates are much higher. “We help everybody. People in this city have supported millage after millage (increases).”

But when Anthony was asked how Mayor Duggan got elected in a majority black city, Anthony’s answer was enlightening.

“Folks did want a change,” said Anthony, adding that Duggan was viewed as helping revive Detroit’s economy.

State Sen. Coleman Young II, the son of the former popular Mayor Coleman Young, has announced he’s running against Duggan, arguing that the current mayor has ignored African-Americans living in Detroit’s neighborhoods in favor of downtown and Midtown.

But Anthony disagreed, saying he is endorsing Duggan’s re-election.

“We are helping him remain focused on the neighborhoods,” Anthony said. “We are in the middle of developing the city and moving to another level. We have no reason not to support Mike Duggan. Right now he’s the right man for this job.”

A smaller group of Atlantans – part of the LINK Forward delegation – spent one-on-one time with Mayor Duggan, when he talked about the role of race with his campaign. As Atlanta developer/photographer Andrew Feiler recounted, Duggan was greatly influenced by former President Barack Obama’s ability to talk openly about race, and he has applied that to his leadership.

“It is not about African-Americans electing an African-American mayor,” Feiler said about Duggan’s comments. “It was about electing people who were going to benefit the lives of African-Americans.”

Mike Duggan

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan visits with Atlanta delegation (Photo by Michael Halicki)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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