Why Detroit Matters
Mayoral candidates are making neighborhood restoration the centerpiece of their campaigns
Illustration by Michael Hirshon
During the campaign for mayor, you'll hear both candidates talking about the importance of fixing neighborhoods. Much of the discussion focuses on what many perceive to be a disproportionate share of resources going to downtown redevelopment, while residents see continued disinvestment and decline in their neighborhoods.
Obviously, prioritizing citizens' everyday needs is critical if the city is to stop the decades-long population drain. The payoff for current residents is clear. But is there a payoff for the suburbs, too?
Detroit and its suburbs have long had a contentious relationship. It's worth noting, however, that many suburbanites have significant roots in the city. Chances are, if you're more than one generation deep in southeast Michigan, your parents or grandparents lived here. Families were raised, memories created.
How many of us have waxed nostalgic while driving past the home where our formative moments took place? But what happens when the neighborhood you knew is a shell of its former self? What happens when the elementary school you went to is boarded up or the stores you visited or the playgrounds you played on aren't there anymore?
Good memories are often replaced with emptiness, sadness, apathy, or even animosity.
How do those feelings affect how we think about the city? Had we done a better job of taking care of neighborhoods, might we think differently about how — and whether — to help the city recover?
It seems critical to stop the decline and repair the neighborhoods we can — and swiftly — lest another generation lose their fondness for the city.
So what's the plan? Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and ex-Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan are both making neighborhood restoration a centerpiece of their campaigns. I talked to both candidates, and both say the keys to reversing the city's decline are crime prevention and blight reduction.
"The first thing ... is dramatically cut down on police response time," he says. "We continue to have a large number of sworn police officers sitting in offices dispatching cars … more than 50 officers filling out payroll instead of being on the street. We need to take every job that could be done by a civilian at half the price … and get our officers on the street responding to calls. And when they are on the street, we've got to give them the resources they need.
"I hear over and over from officers that they arrest somebody [then] go to type the arrest report on the computer in the car, and the computer's not working," he says. Instead of being able to drop off the prisoner and get back on the street, officers have to go in to the precinct and type up reports.
"There are so many operational things that could be done right now that could cut police response time," Duggan says. "That's the first step. The second step is, go back to what Boston, New York, Richmond, and what we were doing in Detroit back when I was prosecutor: an absolutely coordinated strategy on gun violence" that involved cooperation among state, federal, and local authorities.
"We went after every single person that committed a crime with a gun ... with whatever charge … that led to the bigger sentence," he says. "We communicated to potential criminals that this was going to happen. It led to the lowest murder rate in 30 years."
Duggan also wants to tackle blight reduction the same way he did as prosecutor: by "seizing the abandoned houses … I was taking entire neighborhoods at a time, filing suit against the owner of every abandoned house, saying that you can't maintain your property in a way that's a nuisance to your neighbor."
He says he then sold structurally sound abandoned structures to families. "When you fill in the abandoned houses … the rest of the neighbors don't want to move out. … A lot of people remember that program, and they want to bring it back."
"We have to start by stabilizing the population and then grow it. And that will only happen when people really believe that they are going to be safe, that you can educate your children in their neighborhoods, and that you have quality services."
To make things safer, Napoleon says he plans to "have an officer assigned to every square mile of the city … That officer will be responsible for focusing on those quality-of-life issues that [affect] the people of that neighborhood."
He says those officers would be better able to identify and remove abandoned vehicles and monitor "stores and businesses that don't cut grass, don't pick up trash, [and] allow graffiti on their businesses.
"You have residents … who create issues for the rest of the neighbors when it comes to quality of life," Napoleon says. "You don't see that in livable, walkable, or sustainable neighborhoods ... That officer in that one square mile could set what I call a climate of compliance with the law.
"We are going to ask the people … who have a vested interest in just that area to help clean it up," Napoleon adds. "If we get every business to commit to cutting just one vacant [lot] every week or two … that's a long way towards cleaning up that square mile … If we need something for the children who play in a park there … we'll ask them to help the people who are keeping you in business. So we are going to organize to a level that's never been seen in this community."