Reading Visits Detroit

Editor's Note: Tom Woiwode is the latest addition to the Mode Shift editorial family. He'll be blogging weekly in 'Musings of a Streetwalker,' sharing his perspectives on land use, community development, advocacy issues and more.

The New York Times carried an article recently about Detroit (yes, another one). As is so often the case with stories about Detroit that appear in the national media, this one too, included the requisite references to wholesale abandonment, severe financial challenges, dramatic population loss, and so many other things that seem almost required in any stories about the city.

Although this story did offer a slight variation on the theme—it referenced many of the community-led activities taking place in the city—it still painted a bleak picture.

This is not to deny, or even to minimize, any of the challenges that exist. They’re there, and they’re real, and they’re tough. But let me offer you a different perspective. Let me tell you about Reading.

Not long ago, Kevin Murphy, the president of the Berks County Community Foundation and a long-standing friend, attended a conference in Detroit (Berks County is northwest of Philadelphia; Reading its largest city and the county seat).IMG_1716

The conference included site visits, and he had an opportunity to see first-hand a couple of exciting initiatives in Detroit’s neighborhoods. Intrigued by what he saw and how it might apply to Reading, he called and scheduled a Reading visit to Detroit.

The response to his announcement of a tour of Detroit was overwhelming. Virtually everyone in a leadership role in Reading and Berks County was on the bus (and yes, it was a bus)—the mayor of Reading, City Council chair, county board chair, president of a small college, president of a local family foundation. Nineteen in all, and they were excited to be coming to Detroit.

One of the remarkable stories taking place in Detroit is the influx of talent—young professionals who’ve come to Detroit to contribute to its revival.

To highlight that, one of the Fellows who have come to town to assist on the many unique opportunities in the city volunteered to help. Her participation provided an opportunity to showcase the extraordinary contributions the various Fellows are making (more about the different Fellows programs in a future story).

The visit took place in November, and it was quite a showcase—a discussion about the importance of a vibrant commercial district at the welcome dinner at Slow’s, discussion about an engaged community in Brightmoor, showcasing active community development in Midtown, discussion about food as an anchor strategy in a visit to the Eastern Market, a walk to see the next stage of the Dequindre Cut, an opportunity to learn about the extraordinary process and product that is Detroit Works, a conversation with city and DEGC leadership, and a wonderful close to a busy day with dinner and music at historic Cliff Bell’s.

IMG_1763And for those who had the energy, a stop at Lafayette Green to talk urban gardening and a walk along the wonderfully transformative riverfront. A very active, and by all accounts very well received, adventure.

It didn’t end there.

Other communities have heard about the “Reading adventure” and are lining up for their own tour. Two are planned for this spring.

But this story isn’t about a field trip. And it isn’t about our friends from Reading. It’s about the many exciting things taking place in the city, often drowned out by the noise of the challenges the city faces.

A nationally recognized planning process (Detroit Future City (nee Detroit Works)), a national model for community development (Midtown), one of the most innovative and animated food-related strategies anywhere (Eastern Market), infrastructure development that has been described as “world class community assets” (Detroit RiverFront and Dequindre Cut).

For all the challenges confronting the city and its residents, there are great things happening. This is an exciting time to be in Detroit.

And people around the country are sitting up and taking notice.

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