Khalilah Burt Gaston: Detroit Declaration is about action

For better or worse, Detroit, like all other cities, is a unique conglomeration of historical events, modern challenges and future aspirations that are woven together to form a tapestry depicting what the city was, is and can possibly be.

Long before the $17 billion dollar governmental bailout of the Big Three, Detroit was in trouble. Decades of suburban flight, disinvestment and racial tension, created a funhouse image of Detroit as a post-industrial city. Once again, the international community has taken notice, but this time Detroit's pulse is often characterized as faint or even nonexistent. Labeled "America's Greatest Urban Disaster," "Notown," or "Ground Zero," our reality is painfully obvious: more blight, vacant land and unemployment with even fewer residents, fewer governmental resources and less private investment. However, true Detroiters, steadfast, resilient and hardworking, believe their futures and the future of their city are inextricably linked. Detroiters know another chapter in their city's history is yet to be written.

In mid-January, a group of Detroiters launched the Detroit Declaration as a bold attempt to give voice to this hopefulness in our city's future and the growing tide of consensus about what our city must do differently to thrive. The premise was simple: Detroiters must seize both this unprecedented opportunity and staggering challenge to remake ourselves and our city. The Declaration outlined 12 principles for building a prosperous city and presented policy recommendations for land use, cultural arts and transportation. The document resonated with Detroiters, both near and far, inspiring them to declare their love for the Motor City while acknowledging that things must change. In just a few weeks, the Declaration has garnered over 20,000 website hits, 8,000 Facebook supporters and 2,000 signatures.

The stats suggest that these principles hit a nerve with people from all walks of life. However, the inspirational high of any launch is always accompanied with the sobering question of "What's next?" As I ponder this question myself, I consider again Detroit's history and the reasons for my involvement in the Detroit Declaration. Our plans are to move past the confines of "a click of the mouse" to real-time engagement. Assuredly, the Detroit Declaration is not merely about going viral.

The most recent years of my professional career have been spent tackling issues related to vacant property, blight and abandoned buildings. Consequently, my involvement in the Detroit Declaration was initially based on an opportunity to help elevate the level of discussion regarding land use and to highlight its relationship to other pressing issues such as crime, public safety, transportation and even the future of the Detroit Public Schools. After all, a large portion of urban planning is dedicated to technical practice with a focus on discreet, tangible outcomes: master plans, zoning regulations, infrastructure projects and new buildings. But as I ponder the future of Detroit, my interest and thoughts lead me to consider the power of true consensus building and the delicate dilemmas of Detroit's history.

Just as storied as the rise of the automotive industry is Detroit's struggle with authentic, productive and beneficial race relations. More bluntly, events such as the trials of Ossian and Henry Sweet, the 1943 and 1967 riots, and the Malice Green tragedy were painful. Detroit is currently over 80% African-American and our region is consistently one of the nation's most segregated. At the same time, our city is increasingly becoming home to more Latino, African, Arab and Asian immigrants. The question is not whether the residual and generational effects of the painful events of the last century will manifest as we address our city's structural deficiencies. Rather, the question is to what extent will we work to overcome our historical and interpersonal challenges by cultivating trust, understanding and mutual respect along the way.

In reality, we often shun difficult but necessary conversations regarding issues of equity and opportunity, especially as they relate to the future of our American cities. But as John Austin, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated at a recent panel discussion sponsored by TIME Inc. and Brookings: "The opportunity to create Detroit's next economy should be accessible to all people, working class and middle class people." Undoubtedly, the vision for Detroit should be accessible for everyone. This is why I have remained committed to the work of the Detroit Declaration. The Declaration was drafted by a coalition of individuals who share a common vision for the city's future, but the movement belongs to all who sign it and are willing to advocate for its principles.

Over the past several weeks, the drafters have realized the need for dialogue regarding these issues and contemplated how to best incorporate them into the next phase of our work. In short, we are learning how to "be" the Detroit Declaration. We are learning that an attempt to create a more prosperous Detroit means examining our presumptions and motives, engaging in authentic conversation with each other, creating intentional opportunities to discuss difficult topics and reaffirming our commonalities, not our differences. We are learning the price and the power of true consensus building. And in a global marketplace, Detroiters need to understand that we must all work together if we hope to succeed and thrive as a competitive region.

I believe this process must continue and become systemic, not just for us, but for all those engaged in meaningful work throughout metro-Detroit. As the Detroit Declaration states, "To return to prosperity we must seize this unprecedented opportunity to remake ourselves and our city in a fundamental way. We must have the vision to not only honor Detroit on its own terms today, but work towards what Detroit can become tomorrow. We must recognize that Detroit and its surrounding communities need each other and share a common destiny."

Detroiters, the opportunity is upon us not only to rebuild the bricks and mortar of Detroit, but also to remake the hearts and souls of those of who love Detroit.

Visit to sign the Detroit Declaration. Posters are also available for pick up at the Bureau of Urban Living, located at 460 W. Canfield Street in Detroit, from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Khalilah Burt Gaston, one of the drafters of the Detroit Declaration, is an urban planner and vacant land strategist. She currently manages economic and real estate development projects for the Michigan Land Bank Fast Authority. In her spare time, she enjoys planning for her two new projects, a vegetable garden and her upcoming blog, WriteOn! Detroit.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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