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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
European Commission President to Visit White House
1 hours ago

With President Trump back from a trip in which he seemed to undermine European alliances while cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the White House has announced that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will visit on July 25. According to a statement, the two "will focus on improving transatlantic trade and forging a stronger economic partnership."

IRS Relaxes Reporting Rules for Dark Money Groups
2 hours ago
House Launches Investigation Into VA Nursing Homes
2 hours ago

"The House Veterans Affairs Committee has launched an investigation into care at the VA’s 133 nursing homes after learning the agency had given almost half of them the lowest possible score in secret, internal rankings. The probe follows an investigation by The Boston Globe and USA TODAY that showed 60 VA nursing homes ... rated only one out of five stars for quality last year in the agency’s own ranking system." Internal documents revealed that "patients in more than two-thirds of VA nursing homes were more likely to suffer pain and serious bedsores than their private sector counterparts, and that "VA nursing homes scored worse than private nursing homes on a majority of key quality indicators, including rates of anti-psychotic drug prescription and decline in daily living skills."

House Republican Introduces Net Neutrality Legislation
2 hours ago

Colorado Representative Mike Coffman has introduced a bill "that would codify free internet regulations into law" by instituting the "basic outlines of the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order." Coffman's bill amends the 1934 Telecommunications Act by "banning providers from controlling traffic quality and speed and forbidding them from participating in paid prioritization programs or charging access fees from edge providers." The GOP congressman has also "signed on to a Democrat-led effort to reinstate the net neutrality rules that the FCC voted to repeal late last year."

DOJ Indicts Another Russian National
20 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.