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Brunch with Bridge

Welcome to Brunch with Bridge!
Every Sunday, you'll find in this space one or more guest columns by interesting Michigan residents with something interesting to say about life in our state. We hope you'll find it a place to stop by regularly, read, and comment.

Now more than ever, say nice things about Detroit (because they’re true)

NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES: If you think Michigan’s largest city is defined by its fiscal troubles, you haven’t been there lately. At least not downtown. (Photo by Flickr user April Janowski; used under Creative Commons license)

NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES: If you think Michigan’s largest city is defined by its fiscal troubles, you haven’t been there lately. At least not downtown. (Photo by Flickr user April Janowski; used under Creative Commons license)

After weeks of press about Detroit’s bankruptcy, I am clearly not the only one who feels compelled to speak up, in response to the countless reports streaming in about Detroit, but not based on visiting and reporting from Detroit.

But I think I’ve got a different viewpoint.

The difference with my take on the story is that it is through the eyes of my 94-year-old friend, whom I will call Howard.

Howard is one of those people you feel honored and lucky to know and to be able to spend time with. He is 94, and has lived an extraordinary life filled with success in business, and a legacy of philanthropic generosity that has made a huge difference in the world both locally and in Michigan.

My afternoon was full of lessons I thought worthy of sharing with you.

A typical visit with Howard usually involves lunch in Ann Arbor, but this day was different. By the time our date came about, Detroit had filed for bankruptcy. So Howard and I decided to spend the afternoon driving around downtown Detroit – the last time he had been there was over 15 years ago – to see what was really going on.

To sum up Howard’s reaction: He was blown away. Seeing it through his eyes, it reaffirmed what I have been seeing on my many visits in recent years – a city that is working hard at transforming itself. It shows, and there is much to be excited about.

We saw the new Meijer and Whole Foods, and many other stores you would expect in any major urban area across the country. We drove by the beautiful Detroit riverfront, where people were riding bicycles, reading on benches, strolling with baby carriages, and laughing while their children enjoyed a ride on the merry-go-round. We circled Comerica Park and Ford Field and drove out to the Detroit Institute of Arts on Woodward Avenue, admiring the new beautiful lighting, sidewalks and storefronts along the way. Across from Compuware’s world headquarters, Campus Martius Park was filled with pedestrians, people lunching at tables under bright sun umbrellas, and we saw music stages there and at the riverfront for concerts.

Howard was awestruck and, simply put, he could not reconcile it with what he has been hearing and reading about Detroit. He admitted he had not been motivated to come downtown in recent years, given the stories he reads about the Motor City.

“If I had known how great it looked, I would have come!” he said.

If I had a nickel for every time Howard said “My gosh, I can’t believe how beautiful it looks” and “Detroit needs to get the word out about this…Detroit needs a new public relations campaign to tell the truth,” I could substantially contribute to Detroit’s comeback efforts.

Here is what I learned:

First, if you haven’t been to downtown Detroit, go. Don’t form your opinions by reading reports from people who haven’t even been there.

Second, join Howard in his new public relations campaign for Detroit. He plans to tell everyone he can about what he saw and that we all need to spread the word.

Howard plans to be part of the solution now, and so should we. Taking the lead from The Center for Michigan’s own project, which calls out distortions in Michigan’s political world, he plans to be his own “Detroit Truth Squad” with his friends. He isn’t the only one – this week the Detroit Free Press announced its plans to do the same.

And lastly, don’t wait so long to spend a day with a friend – especially a friend who has done a lot of living and has a lot of wise advice and observations to share. It is the best way to spend a day. We should all be inspired by my 94-year-old friend’s response to discovering the real Detroit.

Helen Taylor lives in Lansing, and is state director for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan and a Great Lakes Commissioner. Her favorite brunch dish is yogurt, fruit and nuts, although she’s been known to drive 75 miles for bacon. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

8 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Eunice Burns

    We had a family reunion in early July. My daughter planned a bus trip to Detroit. We saw the Eastern Market, Guardian Building (you can see Detroit and Canada from the top floors), ate at Coney Island, toured the Community Gardens and ended up at the DIA. I was so impressed by what we saw. And we had family from Minnesota, S. Dakota, Wisconsin. Indiana, Illinois, Utah and California. Now, as they go back, they can tell others what they saw and maybe change a few minds about the perception of Detroit.

    1. mike

      Billions of dollars have been poured into downtown Detroit in the past 30 years. I would hope that there is something tangible to show for all of that spending. Rather than waste time driving around the downtown area — or even the New Center area for that matter — to uncover the reason for Detroit’s bankruptcy, take a ride through what used to be the neighborhoods. Most of the residential areas in the city look like Germany at the end of World War II.

  2. Duane

    It is interesting that Ms. Taylor and her venerable host seemed to be thrilled by things they saw in Detroit and not about things people were doing to make Detroit an envious place to live and raise a family.

    The communities that I have seen and heard of being most successful are the ones where the people who make up the community (not just a few, but a significant part of that community) are doing for others each and every day. Maybe it is because you can’t see that simply driving through a town, Detroit. When have we heard of the people of Detroit reaching out to help those around them?
    There maybe things to see provide by a few people, there may be jobs added in downtown Detroit because the ego on a few (wealthy) can force their employees to work downtown by moving their businesses from the suburbs to Detroit.

    Belle Isle was beautiful and a place for families more than fifty years ago, a trip to downtown Detroit was a happy family event more than fifty years ago, kids could ride the bus to Briggs Stadium by themselves without fear fifty years ago, there was family pride in living in Detroit, there were neighborhoods where neighbors know the kids and watched out for them and took pride in their educations and the surroundings.
    Where are all the people that are willing to build and sustain their neighborhoods? Why aren’t they moving to Detroit? When do the people matter, when do the people of Detroit become committed to Detroit (not just a few but thousands), when do the people of Detroit stop looking to others to change things for them and start changing things themselves?
    If it is only things that make Detroit worth saying something nice about then why don’t they just tear down all the houses and build more things so Detroit becomes more impressive for the ‘drive by’ visitors.

    If Detroit is about what you can see through the window of a car, then you should have seen Detroit fifty years ago to compare it to today. You will find that it is more devastated than New Orleans after Katrina, and the only ‘storm’ they have experienced is themselves. The people in the neighborhoods of New Orleans have been working to recover, when will the people in the neighborhoods of Detroit begin working to recover?

    Why should I say anything ‘nice’ about the things of Detroit when I believe it is the people of the Detroit, of their community that make Detroit what it is not some pretty things. When we start hearing about how neighborhoods are changing and creating local places for families and neighbors to flourish making it a ‘nice’ place then should nice things be said about Detroit for it will about the Detroit that matters

  3. mike

    Billions of dollars were poured into downtown Detroit over the past 30 years. I would hope that there is some tangible evidence of all of that spending. If you are looking for the reasons for Detroit’s decline and slide into bankruptcy, don’t waste your time driving around downtown — or even the New Center area — take a ride through what used to be the neighborhoods. They look like Berlin at the end of World War II.

  4. Eunice Burns

    Duane, you are right in that we must not forget the people who are working hard. But, at the same time, let us talk about Detroit in an optimistic way; not the “poor Detroit” we get from the media every day. It really does no good to tear down anyone who has something good to say about our largest city. Rather, build on it and add the good things you see. Only then will we begin to turn around the poor perception talked about every day in the media.

    1. Duane

      I agree with you that we need to be optimistic, but that optimism must be about the future and the people in and around Detroit.

      It isn’t about talking about ‘poor Detroit’. It isn’t talking about what is good or poor, it is starting to talk about what is working, why it is working, and how it is being made to work. Right now it all the conversation is about feelings, about blame, about money. The reality is that the conversation needs about what Detroit or any town needs to be so the people want to live there and prosper.

      Was Ms. Taylor talking about feelings, about things, or about what Detroiters are doing? What we need to talk about is what ‘is today’, what it needs to be tomorrow, and about what and how to change things to achieve a better future.

      Does anyone even know what success in Detroit should look like? Has anyone look for that kind of success elsewhere, did the ask why that success happened, how it happened, and how Detroit and other town could apply that success in their town? Or is simply about feelings, and blame, and more money?

      All of the things Ms. Taylor mentions are true and appealing, but that was true of Belle Isle, of Cass Tech, W. Grand Boulevard, of many other places in Detroit’s history. But it also belies the rest of the City and what path it is on.

      1. Eunice Burns

        Oh, for a visionary and a true inspired and inspiring leader. Someone more and more people are willing to follow, to branch out and give real support to. And fewer nay-sayers!

        1. Duane


          It only needs a handful of people that are willing to ask the questions and truly listen to the answers, and from those answers describe for others what they heard. Once people hear what the community wants/needs to create a community that people and families want to live and grow in they will begin to form small groups that can/will begin to do the things that will create that community.

          The problem is what we are hearing has nothing to do with creating that community, it is all about individual self interest. Once people hear what the community can be and some ideas of what it will take, what they can do, the right things will begin to happen.

          All people need is some small but understood examples of success. Pick any three of four blocks in Detroit and if the neighbors came together to make that a place were the wanted to live and others learned how they did it then others would do it too.

          Leadership isn’t about some magic vision, it is about asking the right questions, listening to those who want it to happen and who are those who can make it happen, and then articulating what is heard so all can see how they fit into the future/the changes.

          So much in Detroit is people telling others what to do and how to do it. No one is asking why some would want to live there, asking what a successful community looks like, asling how people should act to make a community. No one is listening to others. No one is trying to describe what they should be hearing.

          What Detroit and any town needs is some one who is willing to truly listen (not hear only what they expect to hear), some one that is willing to ask the questions (even though they will be vilified for asking hard questions), some one who will be willing to describe what they hear (even though they will be denigrated for over simplifying and not understanding reality).

          Detriot and any town needs a ‘leader’ that who’s ego is smaller then the future of the town they want to live in. And they are willing to be held accountable along with all those who get involve with building that future.

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