Could Detroit be Leading the Way Forward?

The homicide rate surging in cities across America. In Chicago, “someone was shot every two and a half hours and someone murdered every 14 hours,” in the first half of this year, according to a recent article in the City Journal.  This increase in shootings and the recent shooting of police officers makes America’s cities seem them most dangerous they have been since the crack epidemic in the 1980’s.

Funny thing is, I work in one of the neighborhoods that was historically one of the nation’s most dangerous, and it really doesn’t seem dangerous at all any more.  Could it be that Detroit is leading the way out of the morass of violence and hopelessness?

Over the last month, I have enjoyed the opportunity to lead a crew of 12 young Detroiters working to remove blight and beautify the neighborhood around the SAY Detroit Play Center in the Osborn neighborhood in Detroit.  The work is hard and nasty—cutting down overgrown shrubs and weeds; picking up trash caked into the ground; and scraping, sanding and painting garages in humid 90 degree plus days—and our crew excelled at the challenge.  Last week we began mowing the overgrown lawns in the blocks around our center, and most of the crew wanted to work right through their lunch.  They are making an impact and getting a paycheck, and they are loving it.  It’s a joy to see them flourish.

The fact that this is all happening in and around a recreation center that had been shuttered during Detroit’s bankruptcy is worth noting.  It has taken an infusion of people each doing a little bit more.  Community residents fought to re-open this center for kids.  Mayor Duggan teamed up with Mitch Albom to make that happen, and then the Mayor made it a priority to get at least 8,000 kids a job this summer through Grow Detroit’s Young Talent.  The Detroit Pistons refurbished the basketball court here, and then gave more funds to get 50 kids sponsored for employment.  The Kresge Foundation gave hundreds of lawn mowers and weed whips to Black Family Development last summer in their partnership with Life Remodeled to remove blight on 300 blocks with 8,500 volunteers over one week, and they shared their equipment with us and organizations like us to keep the blight down going forward.  We even got a hand from Pastor Joel Osteen and 75 people from Lakewood Church in Houston who brought a much-needed boost to our effort last week.

That may sound like a ton of positive people and energy and it is, but it pales in comparison to the negative forces that have been at play in this same community for more than a generation.

Efforts like this are happening all over Detroit.  More than 10,000 people will be volunteering to remove blight in the Denby neighborhood this week, and then 2,500 people from GM will be doing the same a couple weeks after that in the Cody-Rouge neighborhood.  Hundreds of people from churches that partner with each school will continue to volunteer to sell concessions, coach teams, mentor students and help to build that social capital that makes American communities strong.  Their lives will be richer as a result.

It’s not just the work that is done.  It’s the relationships that are built.  It’s the message that we send when we spend time with kids that most of America has given up on: You matter.

Detroit has spent most of the last forty years leading in every negative crime indicator.  It could be that what we have learned from those trials will help to show cities across America a way out.