Beyond Bankruptcy: The resilience of Detroit

Our heads spinning after six whirlwind days of visits and neighborhood tours, we left the city feeling as if we’d barely scratched the surface.

On Thursday, July 18th, 2013, the City of Detroit made U.S. history with the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country to date. Approximately $18 billion in size, it dwarfed the second-largest, Jefferson County, Alabama, by a factor of four. “There is no road map for Detroit’s recovery,” declared the New York Times. Reductions in city services, cuts in benefits and pensions for public sector workers, and reduced borrowing capacity are sure to follow.

Yet a closer look at the recent experience of the city reveals a much more hopeful reality. For examples, the Atlantic Cities news website offers a wealth of stories of Detroit’s triumphs and travails, from profiles of artists and entrepreneurs to the ongoing saga of the city’s fiscal crisis. Model D Media is a treasure trove of start-up, nonprofit and neighborhood success stories. The Huffington Post recently released a photo essay entitled simply, “Detroit Is Not Dead.”


Santa Rosa Provisions
Young food entrepreneurs prepare for an afternoon of pop-up retail sales at Astro Coffee in Detroit’s Corktown district.

These two conflicting narratives of Detroit – one of decline, the other of renewal – set the stage for Ecotrust’s research on that iconic American city as part of our Magic Canoe project. With help from an extensive network of contacts through Context Partners, the Kresge and Hudson-Webber Foundations, and our own Board of Directors and Advisory Council, Sam Beebe and I traveled to Detroit in June 2012.

In Detroit, we were hosted graciously by Ponyride, a community of artisans and activists in the city’s Corktown district. We visited with an extensive network of truly inspirational urban leaders, including Ponyride’s Philip Cooley and Kate Bordine, community organizer Kirk Mayes of Brightmoor Alliance, urban agriculturist Patrick Crouch of Earthworks Urban Farm, food systems entrepreneur Gary Wozniak of RecoveryPark, artist and muralist Chazz Miller, architect and planner Dan Pitera of Detroit Works Project, serial entrepreneur and designer Margarita Barry, writer and educator Shaka Senghor, community organizer Anthony Benavides of Clark Park Coalition, Tom and Peggy Brennan of business incubator Green Garage, and community development financiers John Schoeniger and Ray Waters of Detroit Development Fund. Our heads spinning after six whirlwind days of visits and neighborhood tours, we left the city feeling as if we’d barely scratched the surface.


Shaka Senghor
Writer, educator and mentor Shaka Senghor develops and leads youth programs for healing and personal transformation. Photo by Sam Beebe

After our trip, founder Spencer Beebe mentioned us in a blog post for the Magic Canoe project; we wrote our own blog post and gave a presentation at Ecotrust. The E3 Network generously offered some funding for me to write a scholarly working paper based on our experiences in the city. The result, entitled “The Resilience of Detroit,” is now available for download from the E3 Network website.

The paper provides an exploratory study of recent developments in the City of Detroit, from the perspective of resilience theory. Drawing on the adaptive cycle theory of C.S. Holling, I suggest that Detroit is moving through a phase in which underemployed people and resources may be recombined to increase the city’s resilience and productive diversity in the aftermath of long-term decline. To make this case, I draw on existing economic, historical, and journalistic studies of the Detroit metropolitan region, along with interviews we conducted on the trip.

I conclude in the paper that social equity, economic diversity, civic engagement and sustainable land use including urban agriculture, community gardens and open space, all stand to play vital roles in Detroit’s revival. A look back at Detroit’s past reveals that over-reliance on the automobile industry caused it to be vulnerable to business cycles and overseas competition. At the same time, racial discrimination in residential districts and workplaces brought about deep and persistent poverty and chronic unemployment in African American communities. These two destructive forces created a perfect storm, the effects of which we’re still seeing in the city today.

Our visit to present-day Detroit led Sam and I to be cautiously hopeful. We saw coalitions being slowly built across race and class lines, and new strategies that transcend old divisions. In short, we saw resilience in action. The creativity, persistence, community spirit and entrepreneurial energy of Detroiters from all backgrounds inspired us to view the city as ripe for revival, rather than down for the count, as some have portrayed it.

We hope that all who read this paper will come away with a new perspective on the City of Detroit, a desire to learn more, and a sense of the importance of the quest to build equitable, resilient cities in the 21st century.