As Detroit Emerges From Bankruptcy, Mom Urges Native Son to Come Home

City’s political and business elite woo expats with post-bankruptcy blueprints. But can they pull it off?

Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 18, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

DE­TROIT—Twenty-nine years ago, I stood in the drive­way at 15285 Coram in the north­east corner of De­troit and said good-bye to my par­ents—and to my ho­met­own. The end was just be­gin­ning for both the in­dus­tri­al era and the news­pa­per in­dustry. The only job I could find was in Hot Springs, Ark.

My moth­er was raised across the street from 15285 Coram. My fath­er grew up three doors down. Their fath­ers, uncles, aunts, and cous­ins all lived nearby and worked for the Big Three. Their fam­il­ies were lif­ted in­to the middle class by uni­on wages that grew dec­ade after dec­ade un­til the 1980s, when I left De­troit. 

“Be good,” Dad said. I was 22, a Uni­versity of De­troit gradu­ate who had not traveled out­side metro De­troit ex­cept for a high school trip to Iowa and time spent at the fam­ily cot­tage in nearby Canada. Every­body, it seemed, had a cot­tage those days. The Amer­ic­an Dream roared to life in De­troit every Fri­day af­ter­noon, when fact­ory work­ers—rid­ing cars they built and bought—steered “up north” to their second homes. “You’ll do great,” Mom smiled. As I ducked in­to my over­stuffed Ford Es­cort, she quickly ad­ded, “and you’ll move back to De­troit.”

Some memor­ies soothe. That one aches—on this day, any­way, be­cause I’m in town to at­tend the “De­troit Home­com­ing,” a con­fer­ence of 120 nat­ive De­troiters who left the city years ago. I ar­rive sev­er­al hours early and drive to the old neigh­bor­hood. From that same drive­way, I can see the lot where my mom’s child­hood home once stood; a vic­tim of ar­son a dec­ade or so ago, its charred, wooden skel­et­on is bur­ied be­neath a thick­et of wild flowers and brush. Dad’s old house is still in good shape, the only one on the block to look hab­it­able for a middle-class fam­ily.

The house at 15285 Coram, where Mom and Dad raised four kids and eased their own par­ents in­to re­tire­ment and death, gave way to fire this year. Squat­ters came first, then ad­dicts and ar­son­ists. The tiny lot is now cleared of debris, ex­cept for a young tree cling­ing to the burnt-or­ange ground where our gar­age once stood. With twiggy arms and a few flut­ter­ing leaves, the sap­ling seems to be wav­ing hello. Or is it wav­ing me away?

Chuck­ling at the thought, I pull out of the rut­ted, weedy drive­way. A 10-minute ride north will take me across 8 Mile Road to St. Clair Shores, where I’m meet­ing my moth­er for break­fast. I punch “Mom” on my cell phone, and she an­swers on the first ring. We both say, “You home?”

Be­fore fin­ish­ing that story, what can I tell you about this “De­troit Home­com­ing” con­fer­ence? Bot­tom line: It’s a sales job—all hype and hope and “please in­vest here.” The city’s cor­por­ate and polit­ic­al elite hope to dazzle the De­troit ex­pats, mostly wealthy busi­ness­men and wo­men who might lay bets on the city. It’s no ac­ci­dent the event is tak­ing place just a few weeks be­fore Judge Steven W. Rhodes ap­proves De­troit’s plan to es­cape bank­ruptcy.

In a small, pre-din­ner re­cep­tion on the con­fer­ence’s first night, I’m close enough to over­hear May­or Mike Dug­gan schmooz­ing an in­vestor from Con­necti­c­ut-via-De­troit, “Thanks for com­ing,” Dug­gan chuckles. “Leave your money.”

We get private tours of the city’s cul­tur­al at­trac­tions (the Mo­town Mu­seum and bat­ting prac­tice at Comer­ica Park, home of the De­troit Ti­gers); of its new in­dus­tries (the tiny “Shinola” watch fact­ory is no match for the ginorm­ous auto plants that star­ted leav­ing De­troit in the 1950s, but it’s hip); and of a few re­cov­er­ing neigh­bor­hoods (like Cork­town and Midtown).

The or­gan­izers didn’t in­vite me for my money. They’re angling for a glow­ing story about the city’s re­birth, and I sus­pect they’ll be dis­ap­poin­ted by what I even­tu­ally write. I’m a cup-is-half-empty guy, a pro­fes­sion­al skep­tic—and De­troit is strug­gling through bank­ruptcy that might, fi­nally, mark the rock bot­tom of a dec­ades-deep hole. The climb out will take years, maybe gen­er­a­tions, if it hap­pens at all. A year ago, when the city entered in­to bank­ruptcy, I wrote:

I love my ho­met­own. And I hate what De­troit’s de­mise might bode for our coun­try. Wrench­ing eco­nom­ic change “… in­come in­equal­ity … polit­ic­al cor­rup­tion “… in­ef­fect­ive gov­ern­ment “… ri­gid in­sti­tu­tions “… chron­ic debt and ra­cism—these are the things bank­rup­ted De­troit, mor­ally and fisc­ally, and they’re an ex­ag­ger­ated re­flec­tion of the na­tion’s chal­lenges.

This is not my first trip home, not by a long shot. My wife grew up in a sub­urb of De­troit, and we re­turn to Michigan sev­er­al times a year to vis­it our fam­il­ies, or va­ca­tion at our cot­tage in the north­ern woods. Two trips this year were for fu­ner­als—my fath­er’s and my moth­er-in-law’s.

I’m think­ing of my fath­er, an ex-De­troit cop, when Quick­en Loans founder Dan Gil­bert sits across from me at din­ner. Gil­bert owns much of down­town, and he em­ploys a huge private se­cur­ity force to keep those streets safe. Mean­while, my fath­er’s be­loved De­troit Po­lice De­part­ment is cash-starved and, like the city, a shad­ow of its former self.

Gil­bert seems like a good guy—or at least a guy who cares about the city and is try­ing to do good by it. He tells a bunch of us, “This city, it’s go­ing to shock people in five years.” Come on—shock? Really? Yes, Gil­bert in­sists.

Built like a fireplug, Gil­bert speaks in rap­id bursts of big words and ideas, and with a con­fid­ence that is as in­fec­tious as it is re­hearsed. In five years, he says, down­town De­troit and Midtown—an emer­ging neigh­bor­hood of hip­sters and young en­tre­pren­eurs—will be knit­ted to­geth­er by a new hockey arena/busi­ness dis­trict. Thou­sands of aban­doned houses and oth­er blight will be erased from every city neigh­bor­hood. In half a dec­ade, he says, “smart in­vestors” will have built the first new neigh­bor­hoods, de­vel­op­ing cheap land in ex­change for prom­ises to build po­lice sta­tions, schools, and parks. Smart in­vestors, Gil­bert de­clares, like the “De­troit Home­com­ing” ex­pats.

“There’s no sil­ver bul­let here,” he says. “It’s not go­ing to be one fam­ily or one group. It’s got to be wide. It’s got to be deep.”

One after an­oth­er, De­troit’s lead­ing men and wo­man try to woo us—or our money—back home, leaven­ing genu­ine en­thu­si­asm from scraps of hope and pro­gress.

“It’s not a time of fixes,” says Gov. Rick Snyder, a Re­pub­lic­an. “It’s a time of re­in­ven­tion.”

“People are start­ing to be­lieve in the fu­ture of this city,” says Dug­gan, a Demo­crat, dur­ing a Power­Point present­a­tion on plans to erad­ic­ate blight, in­centiv­ize hous­ing, and fix the wa­ter sys­tem.

“We’re here to stay,” says Wal­ter Robb, CEO of Whole Foods Mar­ket, which de­fied De­troit skep­tics and opened a gro­cery store in Midtown. Not long ago, a loc­al re­port­er asked him, “How much money do you have to lose be­fore you leave?”

Mary Barra, CEO of Gen­er­al Mo­tors., ex­cites us with plans to build a flag­ship Ca­dillac sedan at GM’s De­troit-Hamtram­ck plant. Gil­bert and his in­vestor pal War­ren Buf­fett yuk it up on stage. The city’s hockey prince, Chris Il­litch, gives us a peek at the new arena blue­prints. When I bump in­to Ilitch later, he says the city’s polit­ic­al and busi­ness lead­ers have not been this united in 50 years—and I be­lieve him.

It’s all so im­press­ive, this con­fer­ence, and yet “… well, this is still De­troit. Barra doesn’t both­er telling us that she’s mov­ing GM’s Ca­dillac brand to New York, of all damn places. Buf­fett laughs off Gil­bert’s at­tempt to se­cure in­vest­ment com­mit­ments. Dug­gan has no good an­swer for the fate of De­troit’s schools.

It’s up to the event’s key­noter, Dan Doc­toroff, to bring us back to earth, to ac­know­ledge the gulf between hope and real­ity in De­troit. A ho­met­own boy, Doc­toroff served for six years as New York City’s deputy may­or. He’s the con­fer­ence’s real­ist, telling the ex­pats to tem­per their as­pir­a­tions. “The good­will money runs out quickly,” he says, adding that smart money won’t come un­til in­vestors see pop­u­la­tion growth.

Doc­toroff pre­dicts that journ­al­ists even­tu­ally will grow tired of writ­ing “De­troit comeback” stor­ies and shift to “De­troit missed its op­por­tun­ity.” He urges city boost­ers and lead­ers to “think small.” Rather than over­prom­ise, do the little things well, he says, and cre­ate a “vir­tu­ous cycle” of suc­cess. Fix the street lights. Re­pair the roads. Pick up the trash. If one per­son no­tices that the city trash ser­vice is pick­ing up garbage on sched­ule, after years of mis­man­age­ment, that per­son might start put­ting his trash out on time. A neigh­bor might no­tice and start drag­ging her trash to the curb on time, too. One day, Doc­toroff says, a sub­urb­an­ite might drive through that neigh­bor­hood, no­tice how clean it’s be­come, and buy a home.

Doc­toroff has big ideas, too. Michigan should look at what Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln did to en­cour­age west­ern mi­gra­tion: Provide urb­an “set­tlers” free or cheap land in De­troit. An­oth­er idea: Ease visa re­stric­tions so the city can be­come a home for 50,000 im­mig­rants. Fi­nally, Doc­toroff says, the may­or must take con­trol of the city’s schools.

The ex­pats ap­plaud Doc­toroff. They love his hope and ap­pre­ci­ate his cau­tion. To any­body who talks to him af­ter­ward, Doc­toroff re­peats these three sen­tences: “Don’t get ahead of your­self. Don’t make prom­ises you can’t keep. Say what you can do, and do it.”

Break­fast with Mom is at a diner on Jef­fer­son Av­en­ue near 10 Mile Road, across the street from Lake St. Clair—in a mod­est neigh­bor­hood on the south­ern edge of Ma­comb County, where in the 1980s poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg fam­ously found a la­bel for work­ing-class whites who con­sidered Demo­crat­ic pleas for eco­nom­ic fair­ness code for ad­vantaging Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. I was raised by two such “Re­agan Demo­crats.”

People like my par­ents are good-hearted and tol­er­ant, but so­cial change hit them hard. Long­time white res­id­ents left the city—they say the city left them—in waves, after the 1967 ri­ots and school in­teg­ra­tion in 1976. They love and loathe their city. They ro­man­ti­cize the past and col­or the present with every shade of cyn­icism.

While driv­ing to the diner, I tell Mom why I’m in town. “They’ve brought a bunch of us ex­pats back to sell us on De­troit.” I ex­pect her to take the bait—to rant and re­min­isce, like al­ways. In­stead, she shakes her head and says, “I think De­troit is com­ing back.”

Say what?

“I do, really,” she says. “There are some great things hap­pen­ing down­town and midtown.” Mom pauses. I think she can see the shock in my face. She says, “For years, whenev­er you said you were from De­troit, people looked at you with sym­pathy or made a joke. Now they want to know what you know about the city, or tell you about some­body they know mov­ing back in­to De­troit.”

One of the young im­ports is her grand­daugh­ter, my 26-year-old daugh­ter, Holly. Born in Arkan­sas and raised in sub­urb­an Wash­ing­ton, Holly de­cided after gradu­at­ing from col­lege to spend a year or two in com­munity ser­vice. She joined City Year and asked to serve in De­troit—a city she had vis­ited three or four times a year while grow­ing up, be­cause my wife and I were de­term­ined to re­main con­nec­ted to our fam­il­ies and to the Mid­w­est. After City Year, Holly quickly got a job at The De­troit News, then fell in love and mar­ried a loc­al guy. They live in Midtown.

Her 22-year-old sis­ter, Gab­ri­elle, gradu­ated from James Madis­on Uni­versity in rur­al Vir­gin­ia a few months ago, and now at­tends law school at Michigan State Uni­versity, 90 miles from De­troit. That leaves just my wife, Lori, and our 16-year-old son, Tyler, liv­ing in Ar­ling­ton, Va. De­troit still feels like home.

We fin­ish break­fast and I reach for the check. It’s time to head down­town for the start of the con­fer­ence. “When are you mov­ing back?” Mom teases. I think of that sap­ling on Coram, wav­ing hello.

“Someday, we’d love to.”

“Someday,” she smiles, “you’ll do it.”

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