New visioning strategies hatched via mayor's Detroit Works Project

At 29, Joe Rashid already has a wife, an '05 Ford Focus, a job with Southwest Solutions, a home in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood and a passion for the civic process in Detroit. He attended all five of the recent Detroit Strategic Forums and spoke up at each one on behalf of his family. He's an engaged kind of citizen.  

"I have a big passion to see the city reborn. All of us have an opportunity to reinvigorate the population. I'm watching people of all ages and neighborhoods come out of their shells and demand more from their city," he says.

Rashid was one of 4,000 people who spoke up, sent emails, letters and faxes or spoke up at Mayor Dave Bing's Detroit Works Project, an ambitious community engagement project held in five locations in early fall.

"Engagement" is the key word here. The recent public forums stressed commitment to engaging all Detroiters -- political and entrepreneurial leadership, investors -- in building a foundation for a strong future for the city.

"We were ecstatic by the participation, the energy, the excitement," said Karla Henderson, Detroit's group executive of planning and facilities who spent seven months planning the forums and found the turnout exceeded her wildest dreams. One of her next steps involves circles of engagement that invite feisty urban dwellers to come forward with their hopes, visions and aspirations at smaller group sessions.

People came from every sector of the city with every conceivable kind of concern witnessing social democracy in action.

Patient facilitators ran microphones all over the packed meeting room to give people voices to speak. Some voiced frustration over code enforcement violations such as illegal dumping and brazen street walkers. They wanted the mayor to stop mortgage companies from foreclosing on homes and stop the utilities from shutting off power. Some clamored to demolish homes while others sought a chance to buy homes cheap and restore them. Young voices stood up to say they would inherit the city and needed a voice at any land use discussion.

Dan Lijana, spokesperson for Mayor Bing says "creative energy came from the young folks who attended the meetings, who tell us what is happening in the city and why they want to be here."

Working the Works Project

The courting began in early spring when the mayor's appointees from 18 city departments and other agencies met regularly to decide how citizens could become involved in reshaping the 140-square mile city.

How could people fall in love with Detroit all over again? How could the city sustain its parks, libraries, museums, transit system and street lights? How would it attract new jobs? How does it respond to quality of life issues, such as demolishing 3,000 vacant buildings in 2010 and 10,000 over the next four years?

In addition to Detroit department heads, the team tapped advisory task force chairs: Bishop Charles Ellis III who hosted the first and most raucous forum at his church, Greater Grace Temple; Philip Cooley, owner of Slow's Bar BQ, Lydia Gutierrez, owner of Hacienda Mexican Foods, Alice Thompson, director of Black Family Development and Heaster Wheeler, executive director of the NAACP. They would help counsel civic leaders in ways to take action to improve current conditions and built the city anew.

How could the city attract entrepreneurs, artists and other creative potentials and bolster its median income above the current $29,000?

"Some of the things people told us felt a little painful to hear but we needed to listen, it made the process so much better," Henderson says. People vented concerns about police brutality, trash strewn lots, illegal dumping and downed street lights. Land use questions -- especially the notion of downsizing or rightsizing some neighborhoods drew heated opinions, and the congealing of opinions will hopefully lead to shared solutions.
"Quality of life issues engage people, they have something to say," says Vince Keenan, a Corktown resident and director of Publius, an online voter information service. Asked why so many people turn out at the forums and so few at the voting polls, he says city dwellers are actively engaged in how the city will move forward. They want a chance to have they say so. We are living history."

He stood back from the crowd assembled at the American Serbian Hall on Detroit's East Side and smiled broadly. "This is true civic engagement. I can't ever remember when this many people came together to help rebuild our city. We can bring voters back into the process through programs like this."  

How will it unfold?

Henderson envisions at least 40 meetings in kitchens, church halls and university auditoriums to forge new plans.

"The energy and excitement is contagious. We'll go out to the neighborhoods and address the topics people want. We are reassessing how we communicate so we can reach as many people as possible," she says.

Speakers at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in early summer gave hands-on advice in organizing and engaging citizens, according to Rashid. He helped organize a clean-up of Riverside Park under the Ambassador Bridge so more residents of Hubbard Farms and Woodbridge would take advantage of a park within walking distance of their homes.

About a thousand people came out to celebrate Slow's BQ's fifth anniversary and corn hole championship in early October at Roosevelt Park in Corktown. Participants raised funds for playground equipment to create fun in a long-neglected city park in the shadow of the old Michigan Central Station. Instead of avoiding blight, city enthusiasts incorporate dilapidated businesses into tomorrow's dreams.

The larger question of land use is the most challenging issue facing Mayor Bing. According to Rich Homberg, president and general manager of Detroit Public Television there are always potholes along the road to understanding. He organized television crews at all five strategic forums to listen to the voices of people who stood up to be counted. The aim is to capture as many voices as possible and post their comments on, in coming weeks and months.

"I was impressed by all the new voices standing up at these Forums and commenting in various media outlets. I'm seeing a new resilience taking hold, a sense that we can solve these issues together," Homberg says. His challenge, and that of the organizers, is to find the right way to cover the conversations to keep the populace engaged.

Henderson, the chief planner for the city, agrees. "It is clear people want things to change and they want to be part of it. We've had to adapt a thick skin to hear the frustrations but it doesn't deter us. Detroit has a long history of folks promising to do something but not following through. We expect to move forward as we rebuild trust."

Maureen McDonald is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Full house at Charles H. Wright Museum for Detroit Works Project

Detroit community intently listens to planning propositions made by the Mayor's Office

Volunteers ran microphones to attendees at the Detroit Works Project to help facilitate dialogue

Mayor Bing speaks on building towards a vision for the future of Detroit

Detroit residents speak out

Hand written lists of concerns and suggestions made by Detroit residents

Mayor Bing listens while Detroit residents express their ideas on how to change the future of the city.
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