September 22, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Daniel Howes

CCS center proves Detroit can rebuild

The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education marks another step in Detroit's New Center renovation. (The Detroit News)

A little after 10 a.m. today, some of Detroit's heaviest hitters are expected to celebrate the opening of the College for Creative Studies' new center in the remodeled hulk of the old General Motors Argonaut Building.

Expect speeches, smiles and applause for philanthropists Bob Thompson and Al Taubman, whose $15 million gift to the $145 million project got his name on the building. The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education marks another step in the revitalization of Detroit's New Center; renovation of an architectural icon; opening of a public charter school for grades six through 12; and a deepening commitment of the college to a community that needs all the help it can get.

Most of all, they'll be celebrating an idea gone right in Detroit, even if they don't exactly say so. The Taubman Center is bricks-and-mortar validation that a few smart politicians, influential business leaders and innovative educators can coalesce around an idea, push through the soggy blanket of negativity nearly smothering southeast Michigan and show how things can work.

"Good ideas that really are about the well-being and future of the city can bring people together ... and [help] put aside disagreements and differences of philosophy," Rick Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, said in an interview Monday. Detroit has "been suffering from a barrage of bad publicity, and it's completely obscured the good things that are going on here."

Yes, it has. For way too long, change like that evinced by the Taubman Center -- innovative reuse of abandoned urban sites, college housing in the heart of the city, opening of charter schools that would, yes, compete with union-controlled public schools -- was deemed unwanted, unworkable and an inevitable source of conflict.

The city wouldn't let it happen, the thinking went. The unions, their friends in the Legislature and on the City Council wouldn't let it happen, presumably because it was preferable to cling to a hopelessly broken business model than embrace a new one the special interests could not completely control.

Lenders and donors wouldn't let it happen either, because they didn't want to throw good money after bad. Nor did they, with self-evident justification, want to enable the kind of bad behavior so obvious in the political culture, the management of the public schools, the city bureaucracy and the continuing criminal investigations of both.

But it happened anyway. The opening of the Taubman Center, with 375 kids in the sixth, seventh and ninth grades already attending classes along with undergrad and graduate students in design at CCS, is both a searing indictment of Detroit's failed status quo and a glimpse of what can happen when those forces are circumvented.

Change can come to America's most dysfunctional major city if the guardians of Old Detroit get out of the way. It helps, of course, that their retrograde arguments have collapsed under the weight of economic circumstance and the harshest judge of all -- their own residents, fleeing by the thousands and taking their tax revenue with them.

Remember when Detroit, its then-mayor whipsawed by the intimidating tactics of its teachers unions, spurned industrialist Bob Thompson's offer to provide $200 million to build 15 high schools in Detroit? Insiders reveled in their Pyrrhic victory, outsiders were aghast and Thompson's people pressed ahead anyway, powered by an idea to provide quality educations to the youth of the city.

Their latest manifestation is the charter school and its gymnasium inside the Taubman Center, made possible by a $19 million gift from the Thompson Educational Foundation. Its official, if verbose, name is "Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies."

The school and the center around it stand for so much more. Renewal; the fusion of public education with undergraduate and graduate school in the heart of Detroit; an answer to the cynical "it-can't-be-done-here" mantra; a college's unmistakable commitment to the community around it.

And, most of all, it's hard proof that a future for the city America too often wants to forget begins with ideas that refuse to die quietly -- because they expose the inconvenient truths all around them.

dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com (313) 222-2106 Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays

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