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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Detroit takes on problems that were once beyond reach

City workers painted a vacant building in Detroit last month.

By Mitch Smith

On a stretch of Detroit’s West Side with mostly empty storefronts, the building with “Fried Fish” painted on its window had not served a meal in years. A small forest had sprouted in the alley. Plywood patched holes in the back.

Detroit has long been overwhelmed by properties like this, decaying structures that have become time capsules from more prosperous days. For years, such buildings were largely allowed to rot in place, slipping to the bottom of the priority list in an era when garbage went uncollected, parks unmown and budgets unbalanced.

That is changing. Detroit, which 10 years ago became the largest American city to file for bankruptcy, now has money for basic government functions such as park maintenance and commercial code enforcement that long festered out of reach in the municipal hierarchy of needs.

Derelict buildings such as the old fish restaurant, which has racked up thousands of dollars’ worth of citations, are being newly scrutinized with hopes that they will be either spruced up or torn down. On a steamy day last month, city crews cleared out brush from the alley and slapped a fresh coat of brown paint on the building’s front — small steps that workers saw as evidence that Detroit had turned a corner.

Still, in a vast city with a long list of challenges, there is no consensus about what to tackle first. There are no quick fixes. And there is no choice but to move one troubled parcel at a time.

“We’re eating an elephant here,” said Alvin Nunn, a supervising building inspector, who spent a recent afternoon examining another faded business corridor whose vacant buildings had busted windows, peeling paint and trees growing atop saggy roofs. “The corridor is the first few bites of the elephant.”

Back in July 2013, when Detroit sought bankruptcy protection, it was failing at the fundamentals of governance after decades of disinvestment and population loss. Retired city workers saw their pension benefits reduced. Some questioned whether the city, which had boomed along with the American auto industry, had much of a future.

A decade later, the city has defied the most dire predictions. Budgets have stabilized, basic services have been restored, home values have increased and pockets of development have taken root.

For those who lived through the bankruptcy, the change is stark. Brad Dick, a longtime city worker who is now Detroit’s chief operating officer, recalled meetings that took place just before the bankruptcy filing to make sure there was enough fuel for police cars in case vendors cut off the city’s accounts.

These days, he is helping oversee construction on a nearly 28-mile stretch of trails and green space, the first portion of which opened last year, and pitching a plan to build a space for weddings and other events in a city park.

“Did I ever think I ever could go to a mayor eight years ago and present to him a wedding party venue? No,” Dick said. “I was just trying to get the grass cut. I was trying to get trash trucks.”

Detroit remains a place with abundant problems. Abandoned houses, though fewer in number than before, continue to atrophy. Violent crime remains pervasive. And, according to census data that the mayor disputes, Detroit’s decadeslong population decline has persisted, with about 620,000 residents today. In 1950, the city’s population peaked at more than 1.8 million.

The simultaneous realities of Detroit add urgency to this moment, when the national economy is healthy and the city’s coffers are flush with federal pandemic relief funds. For the first time in a long time, there is money to go beyond the basics, offering a chance to think about aesthetics.

“Nobody in Chicago ever called their sister to say, ‘My streetlights went on!’ You don’t celebrate that in a vibrant city,” said Mayor Mike Duggan, who was first elected during the bankruptcy and is now in his third term. “And we don’t want to celebrate those things. Here, we want to celebrate the new park, the new riverfront.”

Indeed, parks in the city have flourished since the bankruptcy, when about half of them were shut down. The waterfront on the Detroit River, once an unwelcoming mass of concrete, now features scenic walkways and fishing spots shared by residents and tourists.

At a butcher shop on a worn-down stretch of Seven Mile Road, though, owner Joe Kawa said he had watched the neighborhood decline since the 1990s. There were few customers left, he said, and he had considered closing.

His brother and co-worker, Steve Kawa, who lives near the store, said the city needed to focus on increasing the population and reducing crime. Then, he said, businesses would be more likely to invest.

Gabriela Santiago-Romero, a newly elected member of the City Council from southwest Detroit, said she would prefer to see a greater effort to improve the city’s infrastructure. She said she was “less focused on beautiful things and more focused on functional assets.”

Santiago-Romero said that while she understood the city’s strategy on addressing blight, she worried that the code enforcement blitz was penalizing property owners who had stuck it out through Detroit’s worst days but now had little ability to pay for improvements.

“To go from a place,” she said, “where you could essentially do what you wanted or not be held accountable to the city, to now be told, ‘Here are all the codes, here are all the things you have to do and maintain,’ I think it’s a little unfair.”

In the first years after bankruptcy, development was largely concentrated in the city’s downtown and midtown areas, around corporate offices and colleges and museums.

But over the past several years, the city has tried to spur investment in struggling commercial strips in other parts of Detroit. The city, which has an area of 139 square miles, has used public money to widen walkways, install bike lanes and help businesses get started.

Edward Carrington, a developer who lives in the city, decided to take a chance on one of those strips, along East Warren Avenue, where the parking lot of a former Pizza Hut has been converted into a farmers market, and ginkgo trees have been planted beside new bike lanes. But foot traffic is limited and buildings are still boarded up.

Looking back, Carrington said the bankruptcy was a reset button for the city — one that caused real pain for many people but that also gave Detroit a chance to refine its identity.

Carrington said he was hopeful for his city’s future, and for the future of the shuttered bank that he bought on East Warren. Over the past couple of years, he worked with area residents to devise a plan for a new building on the site that will house a dumpling restaurant on the ground floor and apartments above. Construction is underway.

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