Editorial: Job 1 is Detroit neighborhoods
Mayor Mike Duggan's decision to give his second State of the City at the Old Redford Theatre in northwest Detroit says a lot about his priorities. By giving his speech in the heart of one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, Duggan signaled a focus on making the city a place more people will want to call home.
It's an essential piece of Detroit's comeback. As the mayor said, "it all starts with the neighborhoods." Residents must believe their quality of life will improve if they are to be convinced to give Duggan's plan the time it needs to unfold.
With bankruptcy behind the city and elected officials back in control at City Hall, Duggan offered a blueprint that for the first time belongs wholly to him.
He barely mentioned downtown in the hour-long address, recognizing that the central business district has the momentum to succeed on its own.
But the neighborhoods have not yet participated in the revival — just this week, it was reported property values fell 10 percent in Detroit, an indication that demand for homes is still lagging supply.
Duggan's strategy for dealing with blight is a huge step forward from past policies. Instead of knocking down every abandoned home, or leaving them untended for so long they become beyond repair, the mayor is trying to save as many as possible and put families back in them. The auctions of homes and side-lots and new programs to offer no-interest loans for home repairs will mean the city has to spend less tearing down buildings in the future.
Likewise, the assurance that the street light replacement program will be completed this summer, 18 months ahead of schedule, will give neighborhoods a safer feel.
The mayor made a big promise in pledging the city's bus system will service all routes on an on-time schedule by this summer. Reliable transportation is essential to lowering unemployment in the city.
Duggan said 80 new buses will be added to the Department of Transportation in the next few months — thanks to help from the federal government. He also noted that as reliability improves, ridership numbers are growing.
And he rightly touted his efforts to rationalize the city's property assessments, which have led to lower tax bills, and as a result, a higher percentage of citizens paying their taxes.
The two toughest challenges facing the city remain public safety and schools, and on those Duggan has a long way to go.
While citing 200 new police officers expected to be on the streets this year — many transferred from desk jobs — and other crime fighting initiatives, the mayor acknowledged that 300 homicides is still far too many. Reducing violence will require more than just improved crime fighting techniques.
"The numbers are going in the right direction, but we have got to change the culture in this city," Duggan said. "Every life matters." That's got to be more than a slogan. Firmly establishing respect for human life must be everyone's mission.
On schools, Duggan repeated his firm position that he is too busy fixing the city to take on fixing the schools, though the the two jobs are one and the same. Without quality school choices, middle-class families will not make the city home.
Nor will the mayor accomplish the other major goal of his speech — inclusion.
Making sure all Detroiters participate in the city's comeback is essential to a healthy city. And it starts with getting residents the education and job skills to qualify for the new jobs being created in the city.
While largely skirting the Detroit Public Schools problem, Duggan did advocate for more skills training for the city's young people.
"Give the kids some alternatives," Duggan said. "Give them something to do."
He has suggested some ways he could help the schools, including having the city play a bigger role in enrollment and transportation among all schools, traditional public and charter. That's a start. But Duggan will have to be a full partner in improving education.
Overall, it was an upbeat speech that did what Duggan needed to do — project a sense of forward motion in the city and make residents believe that better days are ahead. If he can return to the stage next year having made substantial progress in improving life in the neighborhoods, Detroit will be on its way to a sustainable comeback.