Detroit and Michigan at a crossroads

Xavier de Souza Briggs

This is not the first time Detroit has risen from the proverbial ashes.

But in July of 1967, the ashes were all too real: 1,400 buildings burned to the ground, 7,000 National Guard Troops stationed in the city, and 43 people dead in the wake of convulsive race riots.

In the wake of the riots, it was plain to see the exclusion so long endured — in housing, schools, labor markets, small business, and other sectors — not in the Deep South, but in America’s industrial Northeast and Midwest, supposedly the land of opportunity for African-Americans and other people of color in the 20th century.

Coalitions eager to construct the “New Detroit” tried to bridge those longstanding divides — not just disparities in wealth or life chances, but deficits of trust and shared commitment. Civic capacity — the capacity of a broad cross-section of state and local players to identify shared agendas and mobilize the resources needed to advance them significantly — is critical to expanding those other finite resources, of money and political will, and then deploying them in the most effective ways.

But, in spite of best intentions, the new Detroit resembled the old one. As people left the city en masse, the burden of blight and debt continued to weigh heavily on the city’s families, companies, community organizations, and public coffers until the bankruptcy.

Now that the city is back in the starting blocks following the “grand bargain” — an effort that both reflected and helped replenish civic capacity — it is crucial that it and the wider metro region, with support and partnership from the state, chart a path of equitable development.

For this to work, for the future to be different from the legacy of 1967, two critical things need to happen.

First, across lines of political jurisdiction, race, class or party, building civic muscle through an inclusive approach to problem solving needs to be as intentional as doing push-ups. There are no signs anywhere in America, or Brazil or South Africa or anywhere else we at the Ford Foundation work in the wider globe, that shared agendas and trusting networks blossom spontaneously. They get built, cultivated, sustained — or not. It’s spadework.

Second, a number of big collective projects, which define successful communities in this competitive age, need to get done. For example, with Detroit in that small club of urban areas experiencing depopulation in some neighborhoods and gentrification in others, equitable development will not be possible without a major commitment to housing that stays affordable for poor and working families of all backgrounds. And after decades of false starts, the Detroit region can at last create a public-private transportation system that serves the region — that helps everyone, regardless of income or color or zip code get to work, school, health care, civic amenities and more.

On the bright side, as the recent gathering of investors to launch the first-ever Detroit Startup Week underscored, we’re seeing impressive progress in creating a vibrant and more inclusive “entrepreneurial ecosystem” worthy of this historically entrepreneurial region. “Linked learning” and other proven innovations are pointing the way to equitable, career-relevant educational improvement, as shown by the big commitment announced recently by JP Morgan Chase in partnership with government, employers, and philanthropy. Meanwhile, a pioneering partnership called Develop Detroit is poised to leapfrog over the many urban regions in our country that lack a smart and nimble approach to financing housing for equitable community revitalization.

The city, its suburban neighbors and the state can at last focus squarely on the challenges associated with equitable development rather than persistent decline. But as we pause to reflect on the lessons of that summer in 1967, it behooves us all to recognize what it will really take to make a future, made in Detroit, that’s very different from that past.

Xavier de Souza Briggs is vice president of economic opportunity and markets at the Ford Foundation.