Réna Bradley is thrilled to be back home in Detroit, but confesses that in many ways she is discovering the city for the first time. "I actually find myself being shown cool cafés or restaurants by people who moved here from California or New York."
Bradley grew up in Southfield, which she described as a "solidly middle-class" integrated community with African-Americans, Arab-Americans and whites. She attended high school at Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills. "My parents owned a chain of pharmacies and moved out of the city before I was born," she says. "I didn’t think about Detroit often."
"We would go into the city to visit my older sister and she would take me to Belle Isle," she remembers. "My parents love theater and they would take me to performances at the Fox Theater. Then we would head back to Southfield."
As she got older Bradley’s curiosity about the city next door began to grow, and after graduating from high school she vowed, "to be an architect and help revitalize Detroit."
She left for Howard University in Washington, D.C., and received her degree in 2007--a time when architecture jobs were notably scarce around Detroit. So she joined a D.C.-area firm, and spent four years helping design and build the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, among other projects.
"I loved living in the D.C. area," she says. "It's a beautiful city. All the art. All the culture." But her heart remained in Detroit. She kept close tabs on what was happening back home through planning journals and websites, charting progress on new developments like the downtown Campus Martius park.
Bradley also found hope for her hometown as she watched Washington neighborhoods bounce back from poverty, crime and despair. "I'm always hesitant to say what Detroit can learn from other places because you rebuild a city based on its own character and history," she says. "Still, when I was in college, I saw a lot of neighborhoods in DC that people said would never recover--and they did. It was slow at first, but one area would come back and then the momentum would spread."
"Where there’s hope and financial investment of the right kind," she adds, "progress can happen. You have to be patient, but it’s achievable."
What finally drew Bradley back to town was the Detroit Revitalization Fellows
program -- a Wayne State University
project (funded by Kresge Foundation
, Ford Foundation
, Hudson-Webber Foundation
, the Skillman Foundation
and Wayne State) that matches rising professionals in fields related to urban issues with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. Since September 2011, 29 fellows have been working in key positions throughout the city.
"It's great to be back," she says, "but it’s sad to see the decline, which is even creeping into Southfield where you see boarded up buildings. I think the suburbs must become aware of how much they need Detroit to thrive."
Bradley has landed on the front lines of fighting urban decay at the Detroit Land Bank Authority--a public-private partnership using government and foundation funds to help the city rehabilitate tax forfeited properties so families and businesses will move back to reclaim neighborhoods. She is involved in many aspects of the operation from project management to marketing.
As Bradley's supervisor Program Administrator Juanita Jones notes, "Her multiple skills set fits our work. Because she's good we have her reaching for dimensions of the work that might otherwise not be in the job description."
The Southfield-bred girl has taken to Detroit living in a big way. She rented a Corktown loft that was originally a warehouse for the Hudson Department Store. She's become a regular at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Eastern Market, House music performances and a Bible study group that meets at the Milano Bakery. “After Bible study, we'll go shopping in Eastern Market and then go see some Karaoke. One night I saw on old Alfred Hitchcock with a live orchestra at the DIA's Film Theater. Another night I met a glassblower and his wife, and they invited me up to the studio to see his work."
"The city has so many resources, not the least of which is its people," Bradley says. She knows that as the city continues to improve, and people become more aware of the range of experiences Detroit has to offer, its popularity will grow. "I'm not sure what the city will look like 10--15 years from now, but I am sure that there’ll be a lot more traffic," she predicts.
Jay Walljasper, author of
The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.