A Harlem rebirth in Detroit?
Detroit is having a moment.
With bankruptcy hopefully soon in the rearview mirror, I can't open a newspaper or check my Twitter feed without seeing another hopeful story of the city's rebirth – whether it's a family moving to one of the city's struggling neighborhoods to renovate an abandoned home or a new small business opening up in the West Village. Having grown up right outside of Detroit, I can't remember a moment of greater excitement or opportunity.
But one of my most important takeaways from my tenure as New York City's deputy mayor for economic development is that "moments" pass. What counts is using those moments as opportunities to create structural and self-perpetuating change.
This is crucial for Detroit. Today, many of the exciting investments we're seeing are speculative. Homeowners are taking paper losses on their renovations on the hope that the real estate market will improve; entrepreneurs are losing money on their businesses while they wait for more customers to arrive. The optimism is real, but speculation is not a sustainable model.
This week, I participated in Detroit Homecoming, a gathering of business and philanthropic leaders with ties to Detroit. During one of our sessions, I discussed the rebirth of one of New York's most historically significant neighborhoods, Harlem. There are very big differences between Detroit and Harlem. Harlem is a neighborhood, while Detroit is a major city with its own government. Detroit is a manufacturing center, which Harlem never was. Still, there are enough similarities to make the comparison instructive as Detroit looks to its post-bankruptcy future.
From its highs in the early 1950s to its low point in the 1980s, Central Harlem's population plummeted by 60 percent. In 1980, just 5 percent of residents had a college degree, and 40 percent were living below the poverty line. Today, though, Harlem is on the rise.
There are four major lessons we can learn from Harlem's rebirth.
The first is that it begins with thinking small.
Things began to change when local residents took action on a modest scale. One organization started by focusing on a single blighted street, negotiating with the city to turn over control of apartment buildings to tenants who formed cooperative associations. Over time, that one street came back to life — then another, then another — creating a ripple effect that spread across the neighborhood.
An organization called Focus: HOPE is deploying a similar model in Detroit, empowering communities to participate in local decision-making.
The second lesson is the value of diversity.
Between 1940 and 1990, Central Harlem was more than 90 percent African-American. Today, as the neighborhood has grown, increased diversity of background, ethnicity and income contributes to Harlem's vibrancy. Detroit, too, must attract a greater diversity of residents. Establishing pro-immigration policies is key.
Perhaps Michigan needs an Urban Homestead Act that encourages new Americans to purchase vacant homes in Detroit and sets them on the path to becoming contributors to the city's recovery.
The third lesson is that Detroit can't go it alone. For all the neighborhood-specific community work that contributed to Harlem's rebirth, it couldn't have happened without strong support from the rest of New York City.
The same holds true for Detroit. Detroit and the state of Michigan will rise or fall together, and public policy must reflect that unavoidable truth.
Finally, the fourth lesson is that rebuilding takes patience. Creating lasting structural change doesn't happen in a year or an election cycle; it's measured in decades and generations.
The steps to building a great neighborhood or city aren't glamorous or headline-grabbing. But by thinking small, embracing diversity, working hand-in-hand with the state and taking the long view, I am extremely confident that all the pieces of a successful and sustainable recovery are at hand.
Dan Doctoroff is chief executive officer of Bloomberg L.P. A Michigan native, he served as New York City's deputy mayor for economic development from 2002-2008.