Detroit: What it's like to live in the most famous bankrupt city in America

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
Detroit Bankruptcy
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A man walks past graffiti in Detroit (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

DETROIT — Ora Williams has lived in her home in the Brightmoor section of Detroit for more than 35 years, and over those decades, she’s seen what was once a thriving middle class neighborhood sink into what many regard as the wasteland of the city.

Crime and economic turmoil drove many residents away. Their homes, left to decay, became epicenters for murders and drug deals. The overgrown trees and brush became illegal dumping grounds for everything from old boats to dead bodies. Neighbors pleaded with city officials to do something, anything, but the government, broke and famously dysfunctional, offered little help.

But Williams, a retired caseworker for the state Department of Human Services, refused to give up on Brightmoor — even as many around her packed their bags and looked for more stable ground. Her endurance is slowly paying off.

Over the past two years, private foundations have come in to help Brightmoor, setting up a community action group to help revitalize and rebuild. The Detroit Blight Authority, a nonprofit that demolishes abandoned homes and cleans up empty lots, cleared out 14 blocks of decay in the neighborhood last summer and plans to tackle another 35 blocks this year.

But the initial work has already transformed the neighborhood — making the streets a little safer and energizing residents who had never given up on the idea that Brightmoor could bounce back, even if it’s getting little help from the city government.

Williams is the first to acknowledge that Brightmoor has a long way to go, and she admits the transformation will be arduous and could take many, many years. But she refuses to walk away, even if it would be easier to live someplace else.

“This is my home,” Williams said. “This is where I raised my kids. … Besides, if everybody decides to run, you don’t have a community anymore. They beat you at your own game. It’s about stick and stay, and believing in what can be.”

Williams is not alone in her hopefulness and her resilience. Her words could be a mantra for the other estimated 700,000 residents of Detroit who are a testament for survival and strength in a city that has struggled for decades and is now in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

But what is it really like to live and work in the most famous bankrupt city in America?

The headlines about Detroit are constantly doom and gloom — and for good reason. The city has major problems. Its long-term debts are at least $18 billion and growing. The infant mortality rate rivals that in developing countries. Unemployment is at 11 percent. City Hall, long mired in corruption scandals, is now under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Municipal services, which had already been lacking for years, have been cut to the bone. Retired city workers are worried about losing their pensions. Half of the city’s 88,000 streetlights don’t work. Roads go largely unplowed during snowstorms. The police reportedly take in upwards of an hour to respond to even the most serious of crimes. And the list goes on and on.

Today, Detroit’s iconic image is almost always a picture of one of its estimated 78,000 empty buildings, which have become an odd tourist attraction. The “ruins,” as they are described, are a striking monument to what the Motor City used to be.

But just as there is blight in virtually every corner of the city, there is also hope and glimmers of new life. It’s an odd dichotomy for a city that many have written off as dead.

In Midtown, just blocks from the boarded up mansions of historic Brush Park, there is a new Whole Foods store — the first new grocery store to open in the inner city in decades. A few miles away in downtown, all the tables at Roast, a restaurant owned by Food Network chef Michael Symon inside the renovated Westin Book Cadillac hotel, are perpetually booked and not just by visitors to the city.

At the bar on a recent Wednesday, a frantic server paused and laughed. “What bankruptcy?” he said.

And that’s what locals say the world doesn’t get about Detroit: that life here goes on, fueled in part by the strength of residents who believe very strongly that the city will come back. And many are working to make it happen in both big and little ways.

In downtown Detroit, Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, has purchased several buildings and relocated his 10,000 employees into what was vacant office space in hopes of reviving the city’s urban core. He’s hoping to create a Silicon Valley of the Midwest by helping lure startups to Detroit with grants and other assistance.

And all over town, small businesses are starting to pop up, founded by a younger generation of entrepreneurs who have descended on the city to take advantage of what locals say is an atmosphere friendly to people who want to test out business ideas with nothing to lose.

“Things are sparking here in spite of the financial challenges of the municipality itself,” said Sandy K. Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who is pitching the city as a comeback story in hopes of wooing potential investors.

Over the last year, companies that make bicycles, handmade jeans and luxury watches have launched in Detroit. At the same time, the city’s bar and restaurant scene is booming — aided largely by Detroit natives who came back to the city because they wanted to build something in their hometown.

“If you are someone who wants to build something, to do something of your own, Detroit is really cool because you can do that right now,” said Amanda Brewington, who opened Always Brewing Detroit, a coffee shop and community space last year.

Brewington, a native of the Detroit suburbs, had been working as a music supervisor in Lansing, but she had dreamed of opening a business in Detroit for years — in spite of the city’s struggles. “This place has always been magical to me,” she said. “People are different here. There is a lot of pride in the city and a ‘do it yourself’ mentality that you don’t find in other places.”

Her parents were supportive but worried. “Detroit? Are you sure you want to do this?” her mother asked.

Brewington, who is 28, scouted locations all over the city and settled on a spot along a gritty stretch on Grand River Avenue in the Rosedale neighborhood of Northwest Detroit — not far from Brightmoor — because she wanted to be a part of a community of people willing to stay and live in Detroit even in the tough times.

“They don’t show them on the news or talk about them when they mention the bankruptcy, but there are people who live here, who work and have a house and have kids and dog and are normal people who are making it,” Brewington said. “Sometimes I think it takes a tougher person to do that because why would you choose to live in a place that isn’t exactly easy or workable to live in? But that’s the thing about Detroiters. They are the people who make it work and help each other and do what needs to be done.”

Many Detroiters liken that resilient mentality to the psychology passed down from auto workers who toiled on the assembly lines to build fleets of cars — a technology that was invented in Detroit back in 1913 during the city’s industrial boom.

“The auto industry really shaped the consciousness that we are all in this together,” said Mary Byrnes, a Detroit native who is a sociology professor at Marygrove College. “Everyone has to work at the same pace, and we are all interdependent with one another. That hasn’t gone away. We depend on each other.”

In her neighborhood in Southwest Detroit, there is little indication of a city under financial duress. The local pub is packed, and new businesses are opening. But she acknowledged that as tough as Detroiters are, there is underlying concern about what the future holds for the city as it tries to navigate its way through bankruptcy.

“On a day to day basis, you don’t feel it. Nothing has changed,” Byrnes said. “But I think people would be lying if they said they weren’t worried about what is happening to our city and the things we love and cherish.”

But, she added, “I am not only worried for us in Detroit, I am worried for other cities because we are the blueprint for how this is going to go down in other cities. We aren’t the only ones who have problems.”

But like Williams and others, she wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

“We know what bad times are like, and we push through them,” Brynes said. “That’s the strength of Detroit.”

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