Fifty year ago today, our city went up in flames. There are plenty of articles on why it happened and the problems that still abound. I thought it might be helpful to add one on how we have gotten better. These are my favorite things that have happened since 1967 that have made or are making Detroit stronger—outside of Downtown and Midtown. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what else should make this list.
10. Detroit City Football Club. Admittedly, a fan base with an affinity for profanities sounds like a tough sell for this list, but I went to my first game last night and was blown away. You can’t help but love a beautifully diverse team playing in the shadows of a rail yard with thousands of fans singing Detroit love songs for almost the entire 90 minutes.
9. The Fab Five. Even though only two players were from Detroit, and the team played for a university in Ann Arbor, it felt like what people didn’t like about them was what they didn’t like about Detroit. And that was fine with us. Their joy playing the game and irreverent ways captured the heart and soul of our city.
8. U of D Jesuit High School. This school almost moved in the 70’s and was fortunate not to close by the 80’s, when it was a soot-stained building hemorrhaging students. Now, it looks more like a college campus with a strong enrollment base from 50+ cities around Detroit and an on-going commitment to make sure that at least 20% of its students come from Detroit, made possible by alumni who donate $2 million in financial aid given to some 300 families each year.
7. The Cody Rouge Neighborhood. Crime has dropped across the board in this community because of an alignment of great people at Cody’s small high schools, Don Bosco Hall, the Cody Rouge Action Alliance, GM and Oak Pointe Church. They have worked together for ten years now to help all kids succeed in school, not just to put the toughest ones out. Other neighborhoods would be wise to learn from their progress.
6. The Bad Boys. It took eight years to become a championship team after the Pistons only won 16 games in 1981 and drafted Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripuka. To get there, they overcame two of the best dynasties in NBA history in the Celtics and Lakers, and they forged a reputation that made us proud as the national media continued to take shots at our city along the way.
5. Detroit PAL. I don’t know of any other city in America that has such a strong organization focused on improving character through sports across so many neighborhoods as Detroit PAL. More than 13,000 young people played in one of their 11 sports leagues last year, and my own kids’ experience in them was better than the wild west mentality of youth sports leagues they have played in the suburbs.
4. The Auto Bailout Smackdown. When the leaders of the Big 3 went to DC in 2008 to get a much needed bailout like the banks were generously handed a few months earlier, they were ambushed and humiliated by a smug politicians in front of a national TV audience. That brought us all together like no other event. Almost overnight, it seemed like people went from bragging about how long it had been since they set foot in Detroit to just bragging on Detroit.
3. The Chrysler SuperBowl Commercial. “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?” it asked. This thing came out of nowhere on America’s biggest stage to put Detroit back on the map as a cool place to be.
2. The Detroit Police Department. It hasn’t always been fair or pretty, but the Department’s hiring and promotion policies transformed the culture of the force in a very short time. We would be in a much tougher place had they not done so.
1. The new Detroit School Board. After almost 17 straight years of State control, the first major act of Detroit’s new school board was to hire a white guy from outside the city. This comes just a couple years after Detroit voters elected the first white mayor since the riots. Our schools and our city are 81% African-American. The heart of Detroiters to forgive and move forward is worth lifting up as the most noteworthy event in the last 50 years.
It’s also worth noting that when predominately white cities and school boards around Detroit elect people of color as leaders in similar positions, then we will really be making progress.