Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Tom Habitz, Jr.

Tom Habitz, Jr. hears it all the time.  

He was out in the suburbs officiating a basketball game, for instance, and the question came up: "Where do you live?" He said, "Detroit" and there was a long pause, followed by "Why?"

"You still get that a lot," he sighs. "Unfortunately, this attitude holds back progress in the city, but I think you’re seeing it less and less."

But Habitz understands why people ask why. He grew up in Northville, a suburb west of the city and confesses, "I was definitely afraid of Detroit at one point, and you know a lot of folks are still afflicted by it. Growing up, about all I did in the city was go to Tiger games. Not the Thanksgiving parade, or the riverfront, or the Guardian Building."

He remembers the first time he drove into Detroit on his own, and turned off the freeway at the wrong exit. "I was really uncomfortable, and almost turned around to go back home. That fear and dismissive attitude was ingrained in a lot of us."

But midway through college at the University of Michigan, where he studied economics, Habitz remembers becoming intrigued by the city, which he says happens to a lot of young people who grew up in the suburbs.

"A buddy and I volunteered in a project called Motor City Makeover on the West Side, doing things like picking up trash. I had the chance to talk to people there and experience a slice of everyday life, and realized that this was a place worth caring about," he says. "After that, I went through a period of obsession with Detroit, studying the history and culture. By the time I graduated, I knew I was going to move there.”

Habitz not only took up residence in Detroit, he made the city a focus of his graduate work at Wayne State University. His Masters essay in the urban planning department was called "Economic Impact of the Community Economic Development Industry in Detroit." He now works as an urban planner for the Henry Ford Health System (HFHS).

Many people wonder why a medical institution needs an urban planner. Habitz says that with 10,000 employees on and near its main campus in Detroit’s New Center, HFHS has a big stake in Detroit’s revitalization. And the organization can play a big role in making it happen. 

That, in a nutshell, describes the "Anchor Institution" strategy that foundations, businesses and civic organizations are using to jumpstart Detroit’s economic revival. Large employers with substantial investments in the city--such as HFHS, Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center in Midtown--work together to maximize results in terms of economic development, job growth and public safety.

"Henry Ford Health System itself is a leader in Detroit’s revival," Habitz says. "We want to be the one of the premier economic drivers of Detroit."  

Habitz manages community and economic development planning for a $500 million expansion of HFHS’s Detroit facilities, which will include new housing and commercial development on a 300-acre site in the northern area of Midtown. He points out that when private, public and nonprofit investment is factored in, this amounts to a $1 billion project. The goal is not just to construct a larger medical campus, but to stimulate neighborhood reinvestment.  

"Attracting talent is very important in our field and young people today are attracted to an urban setting that is walkable and authentic," he says. "And what’s more authentic than the city of Detroit? Yet when people are recruited here, many get the impression they belong in Birmingham or Troy." 

Habitz believes this project will encourage more young professionals to become a part of the vital urban culture he sees flourishing in Detroit. "I've seen dramatic changes since moving here," he says. "The Riverwalk and Campus Martius. The historic rehabs. All the hard work to make the area feel safe and clean. Downtown has really had a turning point."

"Now we need to make that happen in the neighborhoods," he adds. To help move toward that goal Habitz became a Detroit Revitalization Fellow at a program run by Wayne State University, with funding by Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation and the Skillman Foundation. The program matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. In September 2011, he and 28 other Fellows from around the country started work at 25 organizations ranging from community organizations to business networks to the Mayor’s office.

Habitz says he’s here to stay, and two years ago bought a house in Hamtramck. He sees it as a good model for other Detroit neighborhoods. "I consider it the most walkable community in the state of Michigan."

Once overwhelmingly Polish, Hamtramck has grown diverse with substantial numbers of African-Americans, Bengalis, Arabs, Bosnians and young people of all backgrounds moving in. It hosts some of the city’s hipper music clubs, which is where you’ll find Habitz many Friday nights. He's a fan of Planet ant, a small professional theater company, and has become involved in the historic preservation of a baseball stadium that once hosted Negro League baseball games in Hamtramck. Saturday morning look for him at nearby Eastern Market.

He’s very involved with Zion Lutheran Church in Southwest Detroit, and volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers and the Greening of Detroit. Those childhood days at Tiger Stadium also made him an avid baseball fan, and throughout the summer he umpires many games and coaches 11- and 12-year olds on a city league team. 

Habitz is more than proud to tell people that he works, lives and plays in the middle of the city. 

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.
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