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Reinvigorating A Detroit Neighborhood, Block By Block

Originally published on Sun July 28, 2013 11:31 am

The debt-laden city of Detroit has been an incubator for new strategies in urban revitalization, including a downtown People Mover, casinos, urban farms, artist colonies and large scale down-sizing.

In the wake of the city's bankruptcy, many in the community are thinking small.

Just outside of downtown Detroit is a neighborhood called Midtown. Like many hip, urban neighborhoods, it's got hipsters on fixed geared bikes, yoga studios, boutiques for dogs.

And while urban neighborhoods in other cities have been redeveloping for a decade or more, things here are just now starting to take off.

Part of the reason is a woman who's often called the Mayor of Midtown.

Sue Mosey is president of Midtown Detroit Inc., a non-profit planning and economic development agency that works to encourage new business and housing and preserve the history of the neighborhood about two miles north of downtown.

"It's been an area that's experienced a lot of disinvestment over the last 60 years," Mosey says. "But over the last 10 to 20 years there's been a lot of reinvestment coming back into the neighborhood."

The neighborhood is anchored by Wayne State University — a large public university — and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It has two major health care systems, the Detroit Medical Center and the Henry Ford Hospital; and there's also the College of Creative Studies.

Walk around Midtown with Mosey, and you realize how large Detroit is. By square miles, it's one of the nation's biggest.

"In Detroit, because you had this very, very large footprint where all these assets were built, that really is something that has worked against us today when you're really trying to create dense urban fabric," Mosey says.

But as we walk, we see many many parts of Midtown showing signs of life.

"We have a whole set of small businesses over here, everything from small women's boutiques to small organic markets, and our big organic bakery is there for the neighborhood."

A Whole Foods opened a store in Midtown in June. Mosey says 26 more new businesses will open within the year. This is a key to Detroit's economic survival — or the survival of any city: Commercial real estate taxes can make up as much as 70 percent of the revenues for a city.

With Detroit, when the people left — and nearly a million have left the city — the businesses followed them.

Mosey has been working in this neighborhood for nearly for 26 years, and she says now, finally, things are turning around, with Mosey's organization working block-by-block to encourage development.

That strategy, even though it takes a long, long time, is one that could work in other parts of Detroit, Mosey says.

"Regardless of the bankruptcy and the finance thing — and it's not like that's really new news to people here — I mean, we've had a city that we've known has not been able to fund basic services for years," she says. "But I do think that for parts of the city, certain neighborhoods, and certainly this corridor and downtown, that there's definitely more optimism than ever."

Detroiters are increasingly looking at smaller projects to solve their economic woes, rather than the big developments that were favored 10 or 20 years ago.

"How can we just create a smaller, more efficient, better run, more interesting city, and bring back basic services for the residents who are here and want to be here," Mosey says. "It's a tall order, but it is the only order. I mean what other order are you going to have?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg, in for Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: From the debt-laden city of Detroit, comes the surprising sound of celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: The family of Henry Ford marked the 150th anniversary of his birth yesterday with music and dancing. More about that in a moment, but first, long after Henry Ford, the auto powerhouse, Detroit, began to decline. Over the years, there have been countless plans to revive the city. In many ways, Detroit has been an incubator for new strategies in urban revitalization. The list includes large downtown developments, casinos, urban farms, artist colonies, large-scale downsizing and on and on. Many of those ideas have failed or ended in mixed results. Over the years, Detroit has never lacked for bold, grand plans. In the wake of the city's bankruptcy, though, many in the community are thinking small. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from Detroit.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Just outside of downtown Detroit is a neighborhood called Midtown. It's like many hip, urban neighborhoods: the Short North in Columbus, Ukrainian Village in Chicago, Silver Lake in Los Angeles. It's got hipsters on fixed geared bikes, yoga studios, boutiques for dogs. And while the neighborhoods I've named have been redeveloping for a decade or more, things here are just now starting to take off. And part of the reason is because of a woman who's often called the Mayor of Midtown.

SUE MOSEY: My name is Sue Mosey and I'm president of Midtown Detroit Inc. And we're a non-profit planning and economic development agency that does a lot of different kinds of work in the neighborhood here. That's the neighborhood just north of the downtown.

GLINTON: The neighborhood North works in has a large public university, an arts college. It has two major health care systems, the big cultural institutions in Detroit. It's much of what any neighborhood needs to work.

MOSEY: It's been an area that's experienced a lot of disinvestment over the last 60 years. But over the last 10 to 20 years there's been a lot of reinvestment coming back into the neighborhood.

GLINTON: As I was driving here, you can see most of it. If we just go outside.

MOSEY: OK. So, basically, this block is a good example of what's going on in the neighborhood.

GLINTON: Sue Mosey talks fast and walks faster.

MOSEY: Those buses will run you over.

GLINTON: Which she needed to do in Midtown because the thing you realize when you walk in Detroit is that by square miles, it's one of the largest cities.

MOSEY: In Detroit, because you had this very, very large footprint where all these assets were built, that really is something that has worked against us today when you're trying to really create dense urban fabric.

GLINTON: But as you walk around, you see many parts of Midtown are showing signs of life.

MOSEY: This is just getting ready to launch. And then we have a whole set of small businesses over here, you know, everything from small women's boutiques to organic small locally owned markets, and our big organic bakery is there for the neighborhood.

GLINTON: Mosey says 26 more new businesses will open in Midtown within the year. This is a key to Detroit's economic survival - or the survival of any city: Commercial real estate taxes can make up as much as 70 percent of the revenues for a city. With Detroit, when all the people left - and nearly a million have left the city - the businesses followed them. Mosey has been working in this neighborhood for 26 years, and now finally, things are turning around. Mosey says the success that's been had here is because her organization has had to work block by block. That strategy, even though it takes a long, long time, is one that could work in Detroit.

MOSEY: Regardless of the bankruptcy and the finance thing - it's not like that's really new news to people here - I mean, we've had a city that we've known has not been able to fund basic services for years. I mean, I don't think anybody - like that's not new news. But I do think that for parts of the city, certain neighborhoods, and certainly this corridor and downtown, that there's definitely more optimism than ever.

GLINTON: When you talk to people in Detroit, they say things are different today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. There isn't this idea that one big plan or one big development is going to save the day.

MOSEY: How can we just create a smaller, more efficient, better run, more interesting city, and bring back, you know, basic services for the residents who are here and want to be here?

GLINTON: That's a tall order.

MOSEY: It's a tall order, but, I mean, it is the only order. I mean, what other order are you going to have?

GLINTON: Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.