Can Detroit Restart Its Engine?


This post of part of a series sponsored by Pinchot. Read more here

Pinchot’s 2014 Summer Study Tour took Pinchot students, alumni and faculty to America’s “Rust Belt.” The group visited Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit to explore sustainable business opportunities at these significant sites of industrial success, decline and rebirth. In this series of blogs, participants share revelations and reactions along their journey.

Business moguls are investing heavily in downtown Detroit.
Business moguls are investing heavily in downtown Detroit.

By James Coburn

Detroit is a dichotomy.

The city’s innovative spirit that brought us the assembly line and the modern auto industry lives on in wildly successful new enterprises like Quicken Loans. Yet Detroit’s much-publicized poverty has spawned a depressed yet resilient culture that continues to struggle to pull itself out of the gutter.

Big ideas, modest progress

The macro thinkers of Detroit’s Economic Growth Corp. are focused on job creation. Their mantra is “one job creates many,” expressing their belief that jobs are an important way to get the city back on its feet. Yet the sheer scale of the municipality – 170 square miles – makes the pace of progress seem slow.

Place-making and art are happening all over the city: On the many abandoned properties, as well as downtown, through the efforts of Ford, Quicken Loans, and business moguls like Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch. These efforts are attracting young talent into a city center with many buildings that only five years ago were mere skeletons of themselves. Driven leaders like Mayor Mike Duggan are tirelessly pushing ahead to create innovation areas in the city to encourage new industry and create sustainable jobs. The city is also acting as fast as resources will allow to remove the remainder of the nearly 78,000 abandoned homes and putting in up to 800 street lights a week to create a safer city.

Neighborhoods taking charge

Brightmoor residents reclaim a blighted neighborhood.

While these efforts are making strides in Detroit’s recovery, some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods aren’t waiting on the system – or the moguls – to help them. The residents of Brightmoor, an area of abandoned homes, drugs and homicide, are taking back their neighborhood through planned community efforts.

Members of Neighbors Building Brightmoor have planted numerous community gardens – often near houses known for illicit behavior as a way to keep an eye on them. They also spearhead art, youth and housing revitalization programs, and have recently partnered with the Wayne County Sheriff to pair residents and deputies in regular neighborhood patrols that focus on quality of life as much as criminal activity.

Such locally-grown efforts seem to be a trend in many of Detroit’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods, building hope for the “Paris of the Midwest.”

James Coburn has spent the last 8 years working in Marketing and Advertising while living in his home state of Utah. James is working to earn his MBA in Sustainable Systems and when he’s not concentrating on school you can find him developing youngsters coaching youth lacrosse, as well as having adventures in the mountains around his home.

Pinchot University

Pinchot, a university for the common good, is a pioneer in sustainable business and transformational leadership. Housed under Pinchot are both the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and Organizational Systems Renewal schools as well as the Pinchot Edge school of professional development and Center for Inclusive Entrepreneurship.A recognized leader in building collaborative learning environments, Pinchot offers hybrid format programs with robust digital learning and campuses in Seattle and Bainbridge Island, WA. Pinchot builds on the intellectual capacity of its home region to shape change agents, from startup entrepreneurs to leaders of the world’s largest organizations, who drive a conversation committed to the common good.

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