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10 Years of Change: A Detroit for us, by us

Khalil Ligon


Ten years ago, I celebrated some milestones that would impact my trajectory for the next decade. I won an award for my first land use plan and purchased my first home in Detroit. Where life and career have taken me since then has been equal parts fantastical and frustrating.
 
Long before I began studying urban planning at Wayne State University, growing up in Detroit afforded me a variety of life experiences that would influence my career path. Growing up near Detroit City Airport molded my first positive experiences of community. I hardly remember experiencing the blight and social disconnects so prevalent now. I can recall walking two blocks to school down densely populated, well-maintained, tree-lined streets and playing with friends outside until the street lights came on – a social and cultural cue that meant it was time to go inside. I knew the names of my neighbors from next door to blocks away. I could walk or ride a bike down East McNichols (better known as “6 Mile”) to see friends or get ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins on the other side of the airport.
 
In years to come, those comforts I enjoyed growing up would be disrupted seemingly overnight.
 
I remember returning home from my first year at Kalamazoo College to find 6 Mile closed. Homes of friends living along French Road were disappearing like steam vapor. Families were displaced by an impending airport expansion that never materialized. The visual contrast between my hometown and college town were stark.
 
Furious at the changes my neighborhood was experiencing, I set out to make sure the invasive practices that disrupted and destroyed our community would not happen again. At the time, I did not know that I was experiencing the result of urban planning and politics; I just knew I wanted to learn who had the power to make such decisions and why.
 
After graduating from K College, I returned home to work, spending 8 years in the for-profit sector. There I learned firsthand the dynamics of running a small, minority-owned business in Detroit. Later transitioning into the public and nonprofit sectors, I had the opportunity to begin working on issues like those that shaped my experiences growing up.
 
The Detroit of my youth changed drastically in a short period of time, and the shifting landscape of decaying neighborhoods was where I turned my focus during this new phase of my career. I began to question how we could care about bigger issues like equitable development, protecting our natural resources, and improving public health when we have not mastered the ability to care for each other. This was tantamount to the drastic changes happening in in the city.
 
I began to learn and appreciate the need for civic involvement. In order not to repeat the mistakes of planners and politicians that had impacted my life, I knew I had to equally value experiential and technical knowledge. The people that live in the neighborhoods are the ones who know them best. I believe engaging people in authentic, purposeful dialogue and action is the bedrock of community development. Without that, development is something that happens to people instead of for people. I strive for the latter in my work as a planner. Leading one of the city's foremost grassroots planning projects, the Lower Eastside Action Plan, and running for the City Council seat in my district were ways I endeavored to make a difference in my community. My goal will always be to create a better place to live.
 
When I moved into my home 12 years ago, people lived in the houses around me. Children went to the school across the street. For the past 7 years, those now abandoned homes and school have become neglected shells of ugliness that reflect shortsighted decisions beyond the control and influence of neighborhood stakeholders. I have note pads filled with dates and details of calls made to get the structures boarded up and demolished. Conversations with remaining neighbors reveal more unsuccessful efforts to access city resources dedicated toward blight removal.
 
Like many Detroiters, I’m frustrated that the existence of bombed-out looking schools, commercial corridors, and residential blocks – some of which are under public control – deface neighborhoods across the city and crush our community spirit. Despite municipal bankruptcy, Detroit is rich in social and cultural value that has not been fully capitalized upon to address the issues about which we keep writing, talking, and meeting. Although I am professionally and personally engaged in multiple sustainability, mobility, and environmental initiatives, these efforts have not yet become reality for me or my neighbors.
 
After 10 years of planning, I contend it's time to step away from the roundtable. It's time to move purposely toward building the future Detroit we have all been waiting for, already planned for, and very much deserve. That is going to require taking some risks and tapping into the wealth of resources, creativity, and talent present throughout the city.
 
Dilapidated school buildings and derelict properties left standing by egregious landowners or even the hundreds of pounds of litter collected from neighborhood streets and parks should not become distractions. Instead, they motivate me to inspire stewardship and accountability among those living in neighborhoods where these conditions persist. This is our city. How it looks and feels reflects our values on safety, cleanliness, and relationships. When we live next to people for years and never connect with them, it is difficult to mobilize when the time comes to act.
 
We must do better. We must hold each other accountable for creating a welcoming, compassionate city. We must cultivate communities where it is safe to go outside without fear of attack. We have to make it so we can go out without worrying that someone might try to burglarize our homes. Fostering a sense of safety begins with the community.
 
The key is not to become disillusioned by the inequities that persist despite the robust development happening in downtown and Midtown. As a planner, I fully understand the importance of having a vibrant core city. Having grown up in Detroit with a ghostly downtown, I am happy to see its progress in less than 10 years. However, as a resident and native daughter of this city, I am appalled that more attention has not been given to restore livability to all of Detroit’s neighborhoods. While some neighborhoods are clearly benefactors of well-mobilized community development corporations and vigilant block associations, many remain in abysmal conditions. The responsibility of neighborhood transformation has been unfairly laid upon residents in these areas, many without any technical or financial resources to implement any ideas, from the mundane to the most creative. What we are left with is a dizzying patchwork of landscapes that leave some inspired and others exhausted.
 
Planners should be responsible for encouraging people to dream beyond what they see, and more importantly, empowering and equipping them to make those dreams a reality. I have traveled across the globe, visiting places that showed me what was possible when creativity, vision, power and resources – human and financial ­– harmoniously converge. What I want now is to see ideas translated into the landscape, creating a quality of life that makes people proud to be Detroiters and quells the desire to search for better conditions elsewhere.
 
Growing up I often heard the saying, “It takes a village...”; I believe that applies to making Detroit better for everyone. Whether you are a business owner or employee, homeowner or renter, native or transplant, creating sustainable, livable conditions requires all hands on deck. We need a collective rallying call to begin implementing the ideas curated across this city, from the porches to city hall. The responsibility of making Detroit better belongs to us all. We need leaders who will step up and be less concerned with being popular and more interested in being effective. Making decisions for the common good requires a willingness to take risks, share resources, and make uncommon decisions. We need leaders that can spur collective action and support a culture of stewardship, responsibility and accountability. It is not about who gets the credit; the only thing that matters is what good we make happen.
 
I dare to dream of a Detroit with tree-lined streets and no abandoned structures; of people walking and biking through neighborhoods filled with parks, gardens and trails; of retail corridors transformed by homegrown entrepreneurs; of a comprehensive transportation system that takes you from your neighborhood to the rest of the region; of a place where we know and look out for our neighbors; of a place where we honor the people who have remained and endured while welcoming new people into the community. This is the city of my dreams. I challenge and encourage us all to make it a reality right here in our hometown.
 
Khalil Ligon is an urban planner who lives and works in Detroit. Her work on the Lower Eastside Action Plan has been recognized nationally for its innovative approach to transforming vacant parcels of land into community assets. Follow her on Twitter @khaliltea.

This reflection is the latest piece in Model D's "10 Years of Change" series celebrating our decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.
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