The Next Detroit:
In Cody Rouge, a glimpse of what the city can be post-bankruptcy
If Mayor Mike Duggan were to ask Kenyetta Campbell how to build a vibrant post-bankruptcy Detroit, she would escort him to the new mosaic mural on Elmira Street in the Cody Rouge neighborhood.
The mural, made of jagged cuts of found porcelain and glass, was quietly dedicated in September. It stands bolted to two wooden posts, behind a fence just in front of Horace Mann Elementary School. It does not tower. Its colors, subtle hues of blue, green, and yellow, do not scream.
In fact, to see what Campbell sees, you must fix your eyes beyond the maze of shapes, past the ring of smiling faces, up to the very top of the mural. The two words found there, she says, provide the best
possible blueprint for Detroit’s future as it moves beyond bankruptcy: Children First.
The mural is one of thousands of projects and investments that have grown out of the Skillman Foundation’s work in six Detroit neighborhoods, of which Cody Rouge is one.
Campbell, the executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, says that as investment and development momentum in the city have mostly fixated on adult issues and the greater downtown area, she has witnessed Skillman give life to the mural’s mantra in each of its six target neighborhoods (see map on pages 34–35).
Investments in the Cody Rouge neighborhood, in particular, she says, prove that everyone in Detroit
benefits when children come first.
“Seven years ago, when we started this work, people didn’t know whether to stay or to go,” Campbell says. “Now, there is a real sense of neighborhood pride growing because people can see systems going into place. There are safe school routes, cleaner streets, physical things that show Skillman isn’t playing when it says it wants this neighborhood to be a good place for children to grow and feel safe. We’re a model that can work for all of Detroit.”
Tale of two Detroits
Open a newspaper or turn on the evening news and chances are you will hear two narratives about Detroit: one about excitement growing downtown, newcomers arriving, and development happening; the other on decay and bankruptcy, blight and danger, showcasing a city on its knees. Typically, this bleaker narrative focuses on the neighborhoods.
The people in the first Detroit are labeled New Detroiters. They’re portrayed as young, mostly white, privileged, educated, innovative, and connected. The people in the second Detroit are longtime re idents, labeled Old Detroit or Legacy Detroit. They’re portrayed as mostly older, African-American, low-income, and disenfranchised.
The truth is messier and more nuanced. Neither are monolithic. Neither should be labelled good or bad. There are real positive changes happening both downtown and in neighborhoods, there is real work that still needs to happen, and there are real tensions arising.
There are unanswered questions, too. How do we stop being two Detroits and become one Detroit? How does Detroit’s comeback post-bankruptcy include everyone? Where do children fit in? And maybe most important of all, can one united, stronger Detroit emerge – one that works for people of all income brackets and races, and one that especially works for the children and families who have suffered through the city’s malaise?
Why does this moment carry so much weight? It’s the convergence of many factors that make it so potent with possibility, from a continued and growing stream of investment into the city, to population shifts, political climate changes, and those renewed tensions over race and class.
“As a life-long Detroiter, I can’t recall a time when so many things in the city were changing,” said Lizabeth Ardisana, Skillman Foundation Board Chair. “This is really a special moment when the city has a chance to redefine itself.” Detroit entered bankruptcy in September 2013 and emerged from it in late 2014. In November 2013, the city voters elected Mike Duggan. His approval ratings have been remarkably high, as he spent his first year making headway on a variety of hot-button issues – streetlights, busing, and blight. The downtown and Midtown areas of the city have continued to see major investment and are now bustling with new businesses opening, rents rising, and newcomers arriving. The names Dan Gilbert and Sue Mosey are household names
throughout the region.
In the neighborhoods where Skillman works, the reactions to the swiftly changing environment in the city have been a mix of incredulity and hope, said Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, a resident-led organization working to improve the Osborn neighborhood for children. “At first with the bankruptcy, you didn’t know where it was going to go,” Jones said. “We were all on pins and needles. But soon at the community level in Osborn, you saw things moving. Homes were being torn down that had been sitting there for a number of years. Parks that (the residents) took care of fully, the pocket parks, the grass was being cut (by the city). At a community level, you appreciate the city being proactive.”
Other changes have made a real impact in the neighborhoods. For the first time, Detroit voters elected a City Council by district in 2013, instead of using all at-large seats. This meant neighborhoods finally had an elected official directly responsible for serving the needs of their residents and children. The city also reorganized within the mayor’s office, with Duggan assigning managers to each
neighborhood, representatives who would be on-the-ground in the neighborhoods talking to residents and hearing about their concerns.
That was a major shift.
“At one point, you felt as if you were out there by yourself,” Jones said. “With the new administration and with the district managers in the community, it makes you feel very connected.”
With all those positive changes, Jones said, it is time to alter the Two Detroits narrative. It’s time to see that neighborhoods are part of Detroit, that two Detroits are not sustainable. It’s time to insist that the future Detroit must be an Our Detroit, one that works for all. And a narrative that reinforces the truth — that neighborhoods are, in many ways, already working and are ready for more investment.
“One of the best things Skillman has ever done is the Good Neighborhoods Initiative,” Jones said, “because these neighborhoods are now organized and becoming the landing spot for other community development investment. We need to make sure everyone realizes that and sees these areas that have emerged because of Skillman GNI.”
Says Angelina Palacios, a 17-year-old from Southwest Detroit, “If you asked me before I got involved with the Congress of Communities,” the neighborhood resident-led organization working for kids in that
neighborhood, “I would have been like, ‘Oh no, this place is going to be terrible. It’s going to be burned down and all the Mexicans living here will be gone away to the suburbs.’ But I hadn’t realized how many initiatives are happening in Southwest. People are actually trying. And that pushes me to try.
“I believe, in five years, with the right amount of money, with the right amount of patience and people coming together, we can be beautiful again,” she said. “We are beautiful now, but we can be beautiful to everyone else… We’re proud to say this is where we live.”
Onward and Upward
In Cody Rouge, signs of that progress are everywhere, giving a glimpse of a future neighborhood that’s even
more hospitable to children and families than it is now.
At least three formerly vacant school buildings are now occupied. Campbell’s office has also partnered with smaller nonprofits to create community center hubs similar to what is offered at Don Bosco Hall. The efforts are part of what Campbell calls Cody Rouge’s ERA plan: Engage, Retain and Attract.
“I’ve lived or worked in this neighborhood since 1975,” says the Rev. Lester Jordan, pastor of New Greater Bethlehem Temple, “but I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud.”
Through support from Skillman, the church’s after-school program, Weaver Arts Academy, worked with 25 neighborhood youth to design and install the Children First mural on Elmira Street. “You’ve got the groundwork for a good future here.”
That’s a common refrain. At a community meeting in September, more than 300 Cody Rouge residents gathered to hear updates on the neighborhood’s progress, and when asked whether they think the
neighborhood will be a better place to raise children in five years, 67 percent answered in the positive, saying they think it will be either somewhat or much better.
When Jimmie Knight moved back to the neighborhood seven years ago, he doubted he’d ever hear the word “good” used again to describe Cody Rouge. He bought a house a few doors down from his ailing mother
and soon discovered that she, along with other seniors, was learning to live with something more than illness.
“The old people were afraid,” said Knight, who is an assistant coach for the Cody High School varsity football team. “They wouldn’t even come out to sit on the porch like they used to. I’m talking about people who’ve lived here 40 and 50 years afraid in their own neighborhood.”
Blight is one big cause of fear, and while all neighborhoods struggle to ease the spread of it, Cody Rouge has been hit particularly hard since the Foundation’s neighborhood work began in 2006. Between 2009 and 2014, the neighborhood saw a 255 percent rise in the number of blighted properties.
As organizations, many with Skillman support, have worked to clean up the blocks around the Cody High School campus and to spur blight improvements in other areas, Knight says some of the fear has also receded.
Since 2007, schools in the six Skillman-supported neighborhoods have seen graduation rates improve faster than the rest of Detroit.
“A lot of prayers are being answered over here,” Knight said. “You got people coming out again; neighbors watching like they used to.”
Neighborhood patrols have also stepped up their game, ensuring more kids feel safe walking to and from school. Brothers on Patrol, a resident-led safety unit, has increased its patrols and recorded a 40 percent drop in incidents between 2011 and 2012.
At Don Bosco Hall, the increase in opportunities for youth to find quality after-school programming is easy to spot – youth-created murals cover the walls, a huge Ferris wheel constructed in a robotics class rises nearly to the ceiling, and kids pop between classrooms featuring a variety of enrichment programs. In 2010 in Cody Rouge, there was a comprehensive range of high-quality youth activities for 45 percent of youth, and in 2012 there was a comprehensive range of high-quality youth activities for 56 percent of youth. “I think Don Bosco is very important, especially for youth and kids,” said high school senior Ashley Studstill, a member of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance Youth Council. “It’s somewhere you can go and feel important. They teach you a lot of different things here – art, music, business classes, poetry. And it’s all in one building where you can come and learn for free.”
Signs of change in the neighborhood are nowhere more dramatic than in the halls of Cody’s three small high schools and out on the school’s brand-new 90,000-square-foot football field. The school’s team, the Comets, had gone without a home field for eight years. While vandalism and turf decay destroyed the previous field, Campbell and Knight credit broad community partnerships for providing the new $650,000 field.
Life Remodeled mobilized thousands of volunteers, with a Skillman investment of $200,000, to spend one week in August doing a massive cleanup in the Cody Rouge neighborhood and its schools.
To Knight, whose twin daughters attend the school, his players’ results in the classroom best tell the story of the neighborhood’s transformation.
When the current coaching staff took over seven years ago, it was inundated with reports of poor grades and gang activity. Today, 94 percent of the players graduate on time, he said. Sixty-three percent receive college scholarships from Division 2 and Division 3 schools.
“Being a coach and working in (Medicine and Community Health Academy) at Cody, I see the attitudes changing,” Knight said. “I see it with the players and with parents like myself. I won’t lie; before
I didn’t want my daughters going to Cody. I didn’t think it was safe enough. But I’m glad they’re here, and they can be a part of what’s happening to bring this community back.”
Like Knight, Campbell is another Cody Rouge native who came home after college to help revitalize her neighborhood, where more than 13,000 children live. “When I was growing up,” she said, “this was a great community. Housing stock was full. You could walk to school; it felt good to be a kid here.”
Now, she said, that feeling is returning. As change swirls through the city, residents in neighborhoods like Campbell’s are taking action to ensure they don’t miss out on the momentum, a momentum that is gaining urgency and, hopefully, leading to a more unified Detroit – an Our Detroit – that works for kids.
“We’re on a mission to change the conversation that children have,” Campbell said. “Everything we do is about giving citizens resources to be part of a safer, better community. At the end of the day, when you make neighborhoods better for children, you make the whole city better for everyone.”
- Nichole Christian is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer. Krista Jahnke is a Skillman Foundation senior communications officer.