Posted November 13th 2011 at 4:31 pm by
in Equity Summit in Detroit

Detroit: America's past, present, and future – A reflection

It’s early morning in Somerville, sun streaming in the windows through the front porch of my apartment, big shiny blue recycling bins dotting the streetscape. It’s quiet and the street is empty, but there is comfort in knowing that I am tightly surrounded by hundreds, actually tens of thousands, of neighbors in every direction for at least a couple miles and that folks will soon come trotting by with their dogs.  This is a place and a moment where I feel grateful, where my problems seem small.

Detroit Tiger mural. Photo by Christina Ruhfel

Last night I flew in from Detroit, and my heart is aching from holding back too many tears for too many hours. In the Motor City, I saw too many vacant buildings and too many vacant lots spread out over too much area. Sure, I’d seen Detroit in photos and in the movies, read the books and articles; this is a famous case study in the academy of urban planning. But it is different to be there and really see, feel, and interact with the place and its people. In Detroit, you get a vision of America’s past, present, and future all tied up in knots, and it hurts the softer ones among us – those of us who’ve spent most of our time in the rich coastal cities.

I was there for the PolicyLink Equity Summit, a gathering for progressive leaders devoted to building an inclusive America. Detroit was an appropriate setting for this gathering, because here is where people are working the hardest to recover from the biggest tumble from the top, where audacity and bold imagination are the necessity of rebirth. In Detroit, the summit found not only inspiration but grounding. We spent hours upon hours sitting in the Marriott conference rooms. Talking about crisis, the Occupy movement, the cry for change, and the need for action – taking in stories, data, maps, songs, strategies, and manifestos – our ideas falling all over the place, emotions running high and low. Sometimes I felt I was in the activists’ megachurch and I’d be catching the spirit; other times, I’d feel unworthy, confused, trapped, and purposeless.

Touring the HVAC and Cogen Lab, which are part of the Corporate College at Wayne County Community College

With 2,500 attendees, this summit was a convergence. Most folks flew in for a night or two, but my coworker talked me into coming for four days, so I got a bit of a wider view of the city. I spent the first day on a tour bus, hopping from workforce training sites to R&D labs to community colleges. We met folks dedicated to building the next economy in Detroit, one that will be based on local micro-entrepreneurship and clean energy. We did speed-tours of Goodwill, Focus:Hope, Techtown, NextEnergy, and the Corporate College. All their programs sounded great in soundbites, but it was hard to absorb over such a compressed time. I did, however, get a taste of the “fight” that lives in Detroiters. Church of the Messiah’s Reverend Barry Randolph describes it best in the film Lemonade Detroit:

“Detroit is a tough city not for the reasons that people think – in terms of crime and things like that. They always equate that to toughness. No, Detroit is tough because you can’t kill Detroit.”

We got a preview of Lemonade Detroit on the second day of the summit. Below, watch the trailer for this documentary in progress.  The film lifts up stories of resilience and offers an excellent view into the Detroit of today and tomorrow.

Post by Amy Stitely.

9 responses to “Detroit: America's past, present, and future – A reflection”

  1. Alexa Mills says:

    It makes me want to move to Detroit.

  2. Aditi says:

    Wow – so great to see people giving what they can to a City. It also makes me want to go to Detroit.

  3. James says:

    The sounds are really the first striking difference aren’t they? When I came back to Boston after my first Detroit trip, I was shocked at just how loud the area around my office was from traffic, pedestrians, construction, street musicians, and all the other sounds a healthy city makes.

    Would love to hear more reflections about your trip.

  4. Amy Stitely says:

    James, I think I’ll probably write one more reflective blog post to share with “the world” and then we should pick up the conversation in person. I think you are in Somerville. Would love to catch up.

    Aditi and Alexa, I’m really glad I went, but it came with an emotional pricetag. But so does reality, I guess.

    PS – I just became a micro-invester in this film. You can too!

  5. Patricia Molina says:

    Nice reflection Amy, thanks. It really captures the spirit of the Summit and the city. It´s been great sharing the Detroit first-time-experience with you!

  6. Amy says:

    Patricia, thanks for being my co-pilot. Glad we stayed the extra time.

  7. Christina says:

    Great reflection Amy! It was wonderful spending time in the D with you.

  8. Amy says:

    Christina, thanks for helping to keep it all in perspective while we were there together and giving us local insights. You can view the full 17-minute short of “Lemonade Detroit” here:

  9. Christina says:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this Amy. My two favorite quotes from the film:

    “You have to have more faith than fear” and

    “Too many times we focus on the negative” Hear! Hear!