What’s behind Detroit’s rebirth?

 By RP Siegel

After a recent trip to Detroit, RP Siegel was struck by the progress being made by that city, regenerating their economy, and saw some striking parallels to the West Virginia story, particularly the aspect of millennials moving back. In fact they are attracted by the low housing prices and the opportunity to play a significant role in designing the community. But because Detroit is a major city, there are important differences, especially considering the role that cities are expected to play in the future. There is a collaborative and welcoming culture forming here for millennials, with a growing tech and energy transformation industries presence to provide jobs…

(Cover photo by

Just three short years ago, Detroit, the Motor City, looked more like a car stuck in a ditch, than the sleekly gliding chrome image of days gone by. Detroit went bankrupt in 2013, bringing the economy to a halt and sending people and businesses fleeing. Now, the city seems to be moving again. Detroit, which literally rose from the ashes in 1805, when it burned to the ground, seems to be a city that keeps coming back.

The ditch may have been deeper this time. At the time of the bankruptcy, the population dropped to little more than a third of the all-time high of 1.8 million, while the unemployment rate topped 22 percent (now it’s finally below 10 percent, still twice the national average). For the first time since 1850, Detroit is not one of the top 20 US cities.

Not many people gave Detroit much of a chance. That’s all the more reason why what’s been happening there is remarkable. Getting a car out of a ditch is relatively simple. All you need is a tow truck. You attach a cable and pull and the whole car comes out. But if you hook up a cable to a city and start pulling, you might just end up pulling the city apart.

That’s not happening in Detroit. It would seem that numerous tow trucks, some small, some large are pulling now, each connected to a different facet of the city. And while no one agency is coordinating it all, it’s the degree of interconnection within the city, and a uniquely Detroit spirit of optimism that seems to make it work. Let’s take a look at a few of initiatives.

Creative workspace in downtown Detroit/1

Moving a city away from bankruptcy and towards flourishing, means, among other things, moving people away from poverty, sometimes one person at a time. Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS) is located in the 760,000-sq ft (70,606 sq-m) A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, an Albert Kahn-designed building that once housed the GM design studio where the first Corvette was born. Today some 1,400 students are there, learning transportation, product, graphic, and interior design and other creative endeavors.

One alumnus of that program, 27-year old Veronika Scott, took a two-year studio class in 2010 that challenged students to address problems in the real world. Scott focused on the homeless. When she saw individuals camping out in a children’s playground gym covered with clothing and tarps across the street from a homeless shelter, she recognized the importance of autonomy and pride to this population. That’s when she first came up with the idea for a coat that can be converted into a sleeping bag. She set up shop in a small room in a homeless shelter and began making them. One day, a woman came up to her and said, “we don’t want coats, we want jobs.”

That simple pronouncement led to the birth of the Empowerment Plan, a program that employs homeless women for 1-3 years, making coats and a living, while they get themselves back on their feet. The Empowerment Plan currently employs 23 women and has already distributed a total of 15,000 coats, in 30 states and seven Canadian provinces. It’s a first step, pulling some of the poorest Detroiters out of poverty and onto the road again. The Empowerment Plan receives raw materials for the coats from Carhartt and General Motors. GM, as part of their drive to become a zero-waste company, actually donates insulation that is produced from scraps of leftover soundproofing from the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Verano, part of a recycling program that brings in $1 billion annually for the company.

Sleeping bag coat

The Empowerment Plan is located in the Ponyride workspace incubator, which tells another part of the story. Detroit’s falling fortunes allowed entrepreneur Phil Cooley to pick up the 30,000 sq ft (2,787 sq m) workspace for $100,000 which enabled him to offer low-rent space to startups, many of whom are impact-oriented millennials.

Cooley, who runs the successful Slows Bar BQ restaurant, in the rising Corktown section, wants to help these entrepreneurs and artists “focus on their craft and not worry about making the rent.”

Another Ponyride alumnus, fashion designer Roslyn Karamoko of Détroit is the New Black, is getting ready to open a storefront on Woodward Avenue, downtown Detroit’s main commercial artery where they will sell the wildly popular t-shirts bearing the company name.

I learned that information from Whitney Eichinger, Director of Communications at Bedrock Detroit, the real estate company that will be renting Karamoko the space. Bedrock is one of several companies owned by Dan Gilbert, organized under the umbrella of Rock Ventures, which includes Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Rock Ventures maintains a substantial and growing presence in Detroit consisting of more than 90 buildings. On the day Detroit filed for bankruptcy, Gilbert said, “We simply do not have a choice. Detroit will thrive again… and sooner than most think.”

You could say that Bedrock’s focus on “strategic redevelopment of Midwestern urban cores,”bringing vitality in the form of world-class retailers, innovative design firms, and residential properties back into downtown from the suburbs and farther afield, is paving the way for a better future. Detroit is home to a treasure trove of architectural beauty that has been covered over or fallen into disrepair, that Bedrock has a passion for restoring. A thriving, beautiful downtown will bring customers and success to Karamoko’s new shop and many others like it. These, in turn, will create jobs and pay taxes to further support the city’s recovery, while putting Detroit back on the national map.

Creative workspace in downtown Detroit/2

In the process, Detroit is becoming a “magnet for innovation.”

Of course, much real estate in Detroit was pretty stuck, too. Many homes and businesses have been abandoned and fallen into dangerous disrepair. That’s why the city’s blight demolition program hit a milestone of 10,000 houses in 2.5 years making it the largest and fastest program of its kind in the US.

According to the city’s website, “Demolitions are part of a much broader anti-blight strategy under way in Detroit. Property auctions, nuisance abatement agreements, and community partner sales have led to more than 1,400 properties being renovated in neighborhoods across the city. More than 4,600 vacant side lots have been sold to neighbors and put back to use. And aggressive anti-foreclosure efforts have kept tens of thousands of families from losing their homes and having them become vacant.”

Joshua Newell, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, sees all that vacant land as an opportunity for more productive, creative, and sustainable uses. Newell is studying the network of footpaths that crisscross them as well as the urban garden sprouting up across the city “as important piece[s] of the urban fabric.”

One example, Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s Earthworks Urban Farm is a 2.5 acre certified organic farm located in the city. Volunteers get to take produce home with them and whatever isn’t sold on market day goes to the soup kitchen. That’s healthy food in what has long been a food desert.

Another way to utilize all that empty space while helping those urban farmers is to recycle all the food waste being created in the city and turn it into compost. That’s the passion behind Pashon Murray’s work at Detroit Dirt. Already committed to the circular economy as a key to a sustainable future, she found that many companies were already recycling plastics, metals, paper and such, but there seemed to be a blind spot when it came to recognizing the resource value of food waste. After a little prodding, GM began providing their cafeteria scraps. The Detroit Zoo also got onboard, providing herbivore waste. She converted all this into compost, which has found its way into many places around the city including urban farms and a rooftop garden at GM Headquarters, which sits in a group of repurposed shipping containers. “For me, says Murray (who can be seen in this commercial) it’s a chance to participate in the shift of our local economy.” Citing all the available space in Detroit, Murray envisions expanding her program a hundred-fold.

SEE MORE: Urban transformation in progress by RP Siegel


We’ve mentioned GM several times. Indeed, the automaker has played a significant role in Detroit’s transformation. There are many reasons for a company to invest in the community from which it draws its workforce, beyond just doing the right thing. “You’re not going to bring people in to live and work here and not be engaged in the community. You need a good educational system.” So says Lori Wingerter, VP of the GM Foundation. GM has been giving for decades, and one particular program, stemming from a $27.1 million gift to the local United Way, has seen results. The GM Student Corps is a summer jobs program for local high school students that allows them to work on projects to physically improve and increase pride in their schools, while learning quite a few lessons themselves. Each of the 13 teams consists of 10 students, two GM retiree volunteers, and a college student intern.

Many of these students, says Matt Ybarra, a former college intern with the program, now program coordinator, “come from neighborhoods and families and households that are resource-constrained, and they might not have the same kind of people that I had in my life to support and guide me. These relationships, I think, can really pay off in those important ways.”

GM Student Corps

The goal of the program, says Ybarra, “is to develop the students into empowered problem-solvers.” Some of the projects they have completed involve repairing and repainting the entrance areas around a school, or refurbishing bathrooms. These are things that in more affluent areas, the school districts would do themselves, but these districts can barely afford the most essential repairs like fixing leaky roofs. One team I visited was renovating a playground area beside a local middle school. They removed sharp objects and unsafe mulch, digging it out by hand on a 90-degree day while maintaining high spirits the whole time.

They will replace the mulch with new mulch that meets safety standards, plant flowers and shrubs, add picnic tables and restore playground equipment. Providing safe places for young people to play is important. So is instilling a sense of community service and the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it. As for the retiree volunteers, who serve as mentors as well as team leaders, 80 percent of them have returned every year, giving up 10 weeks out of a short Detroit-area summer for the satisfaction of doing something that really seems to be making a difference.

Our vision is that Detroit become a global model for sustainable redevelopment. That includes things like Green and Healthy Homes...


We’ve talked a lot about getting the city unstuck and moving again but is that enough? How do you make sure it’s moving in the right direction? That’s the concern of Guy O. Williams, President & CEO, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. “Poverty amplifies everything,” says Williams, so does climate change. Williams worries about what that combination of those two will do in Detroit with its “population with greater needs and a local government with fewer resources to meet them.” “I know you can’t have a vibrant city without a vibrant and strong downtown, with a variety of businesses that pay taxes and employ people. But who’s participating and setting the tone for the recovery of the city?”

Can a new Detroit emerge with a prosperity that touches all? We’ve seen pathways and programs and incubators that can bridge the divide that lies unspoken across the city. But these paths are narrow and only a few are crossing at a time. “What my organization is up to,” says Williams, “is system change. We’re trying to provide three things: a vision, a mechanism, and technical data and support to help it come together. We’d like the government to take this and meet us halfway.”

Williams and the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative have put together a climate action plan. “We’re the only city in the country where the non-profit sector created such a plan.”

The group has commissioned the University of Michigan to conduct a climate evaluation and Anderson Consulting to do an economic analysis. Says Williams, “Our vision is that Detroit become a global model for sustainable redevelopment.” That includes things like Green and Healthy Homes.

SEE MORE: Millennials in post-coal world by RP Siegel

Six Month Anniversary of the West Virginia Mine Disaster

Meanwhile, there is resistance by those who don’t consider it a priority and are too busy trying to get things running, without worrying about whether they are running in the right direction. Says Williams, “we need everybody, including companies like GM and Rock Ventures to join our choir.”

The transformation of Detroit’s built environment can really drive sustainability, but only if it’s built in from the beginning. The same thing is true with allocating and protecting green space. “The construction boom is providing job opportunities, but in order for those that need the work the most to participate, they need better training programs and the opportunity to show that they can do the work.”

Of course, Detroit has a long way to go and much room to improve, but the energy, commitment and vision of its people could well be an inspiration to other cities.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.