Can it work here? 

I have seen what a vibrant Midwestern city can look like ... and it's not Detroit. During a recent trip to Minneapolis for my niece's wedding, I got an eyeful. The city has a good mass transit system. During a walk, I found businesses right in the neighborhoods. They weren't on major thoroughfares: Coffee shops, restaurants, markets, dry cleaners and vintage clothing stores were down the street from where people lived. There are three lakes in the city, and a park system surrounds each lake and the rivers that connect them. Bike trails, jogging paths and recreation facilities are used year-round.

My brother lives on the bad north side of town, the highest crime area, and he says he feels safer there than in any other city he has lived in — that includes Grand Rapids, Philadelphia and Detroit. His house is on the parkway that goes through the city; you can see a lovely green area with people in it. Not a deserted, dirty, weed-filled vacant lot.

"What impressed me about Minneapolis is there are so many people in the parks in the middle of the day," says Ed Egnatios, a senior program officer at Detroit's Skillman Foundation. "There are tons of people using those parks."

Egnatios coordinates Skillman's Good Neighborhoods program and has been looking at what works in good neighborhoods across the United States. He's working to bring that vibrancy to Detroit. The foundation has identified the six Detroit neighborhoods for the program, and the bulk of the program grants will go to organizations in the Brightmoor, Cody/Rouge, North End (the Woodward corridor from I-94 to Highland Park), Osborn, Chadsey/Condon and Vernor neighborhoods.

Although three of the neighborhoods overlap with the city's Next Detroit areas, and there's some cooperation, Good Neighborhoods is a separate effort. Except for the North End, the Good Neighborhoods areas have the city's highest concentrations of children; North End was included because it's on one of the city's main arteries, and the planned light rail line will run through it. It's critical to Detroit's revival.

Skillman has always been focused on children, but it shifted to a more holistic strategy when Carol Goss became director in 2004.

"For children as a total, it's getting worse," says Egnatios. "Statistics show that we are now worse off than the children of rural Mississippi. We need to help children as a whole, to change the odds for all children, not just help one child beat the odds."

We're worse off than rural Mississippi? In my lifetime Mississippi has been held up as an example of all things bad. It brings up visions of half-naked children and dirt-floor shacks. Mississippi gave the blues the blues. People who wanted better lives used to leave there to come to Detroit.

Skillman defines a good neighborhood as one where children are safe, healthy, educated and prepared for success in life. It has set these goals through a just-finished planning period that included neighborhood residents.

That's how Minneapolis started on the path that created what I saw there. In 1991 their Neighborhood Revitalization Plan decentralized development planning. Instead of the city deciding what neighborhoods needed, the money was made available to fund grants written by neighborhood associations and block clubs. Neighborhood watch programs, beautification, economic development, housing, crime prevention and other initiatives grew from neighborhood needs. That didn't give them a good mass transit system, but it sure gave them places they'd want to get to.

Of course, one crucial difference between the two cities is that Minneapolis has a city council that's elected by districts. Their representatives are responsible to specific sets of constituents. (I'll bang that gong in a future column.) Detroit's government has, in comparison, been slow to find its way in neighborhood revitalization.

Of course, there's more going on in Detroit than these few Skillman neighborhoods. For instance, Marygrove College at McNichols and Wyoming is setting out to enhance its ties with the surrounding community so that they become resources for each other. College representatives have been meeting with community leaders, block clubs and others. They're planning a town hall meeting in July that will help prioritize issues.

"You start with understanding the community," says Brenda Bryant, dean of Marygrove's social justice program. "There are relationships and resources in the community that you don't know about. ... You have to understand what our gifts and assets are. We need to become a lifeline to each other."

Safety has emerged as an issue, as well as beautification, housing and jobs. And the bottom line is the quality of life. It's not easy anywhere in Detroit.

On the southwest side, community activist Elena Herrada fights all the same problems as the rest of the city with the added complexities of a burgeoning Latino and Arabic immigrant community. She says that 99 percent of the businesses along Vernor are owned by immigrants — mostly Arabs.

"The Arabs have learned to speak Spanish," she says. "They run Latino grocery stores."

But the population is also under siege from government immigration authorities. Places where immigrants go to help them ease into their new community have become targeted by government agencies to identify people they characterize as undesirable or illegal. The war against terror and the fear of Latinos crossing our southern border have created a xenophobic atmosphere around immigrant communities.

"We need protection from deportation and detention," says Herrada. "Stop the attacks. People have stopped coming to English classes. They stop participating in the community when they see people being randomly taken away. When they eat breakfast at a restaurant every day then see that someone else that has been eating there regularly turns out to be an agent, they stop going out."

Still the southwest side is one of the neighborhoods targeted by the Skillman Foundation and Next Detroit. And the Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project under construction along I-75, while controversial and disruptive to the neighborhood, has had one unforeseen positive effect: The neighborhood welcome center on Bagley east of the project has become friendlier. "People are coming to the coffee shop on foot and on bicycles. It's become a better community space with no cars," says Herrada.

Neighborhoods and communities coming together are Detroit's best hope. We've been fractured by race, and terrorized by crime and violence. Our industrial base will continue to shrink as evidenced most recently by the wage and job cuts at American Axle. Our education system that once fed workers to auto companies needs to create entrepreneurs who will create the business base of this new century.

"On a block a neighborhood does better when there is a block club, and block clubs work together as associations," says Egnatios.

Sounds like organizing from the ground up. It seems to have made a difference in Minneapolis. It could make a huge difference here.

Larry Gabriel is a Detroit writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at

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