"Detroit has so much grit. A toughness, a resolve, an entrepreneurial spirit. It still is what America is supposed to be," declares Matteo Passalacqua.
A no-nonsense guy who worked his way through graduate school in urban studies by driving trucks cross-country, he doesn’t let his love for the city blind him to its stark problems. "No city has gone through what Detroit has gone through. There’s no comparison to any other city. We have to be who we are."
"But that leaves the door wide open to do new things," Passalacqua says.
He grew up in Royal Oak hearing his Sicilian father’s and grandfather’s stories about running the family produce stand at Eastern Market. Even before getting his drivers license, he took a series of jobs back in the city working in auto body shops.
"My parents always exposed us to Detroit, going to events and museums," he says. "And we always took the streets to get there, not the freeway, so we could see the city. It was a hobby of mine to read all I could about Detroit and its history."
After earning a psychology/neuroscience degree from Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids, he headed straight to Detroit, focusing on economic development, transportation planning and community development in the Urban Studies department at Wayne State. Facing a tight job market when he graduated in 2010, he moved to Flint for an AmeriCorps post at the Center for Community Progress working with the Genesee County Land Bank, which gained national attention for its innovative strategies for developing vacant urban land.
In Flint, 39 percent of all real estate parcels were either vacant or abandoned last year--a figure even higher than that of Detroit. "Our goal was to streamline the acquisition process to incentivize redevelopment," Passalacqua says. His focus was researching best practices among other land banks around the country and searching for businesses willing to put vacant land to good use.
He wound up as a consultant to other land banks around the country and was invited to be part of a symposium at Harvard on the subject. That’s where he heard about the Detroit Revitalization Fellowship
program--his ticket back to the city. The program--run by Wayne State University
with funding by Kresge Foundation
, Ford Foundation
, Hudson-Webber Foundation
, Skillman Foundation
and Wayne State University--matches rising professionals in fields related to urban issues with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts.
Passalacqua is now a real estate manager and developer for the Vanguard Community Development Corporation, created by the Second Ebenezer Church to revive the North End and other Detroit neighborhoods. Scott Alan Davis, Vanguard’s Executive Director, says, "Matteo had the skill set we needed, combining self-starting talents with a basic entrepreneurial mindset. In Flint, he’d already had some experiences and insights similar to what he faces here."
"The North End has some beautiful old houses, which we rehab into single family and multi-family cooperative housing," Passalacqua says. He’s also working on bringing a grocery store to the area, and pursuing projects for mixed-use developments and work/live spaces for young entrepreneurs.
"I think the neighborhood can capture some of the pent-up demand for city living that the Midtown area can’t fulfill all on its own," he adds. "That means I want high quality projects that fit in with the neighborhood, not just putting up anything so you can cut a ribbon."
He believes the North End, with its great stock of single-family houses, will become the kind of neighborhood that attracts young families. "We’re starting to realize that we’ve got something different here. Let's see what we can make happen with this vast array of vacant land. It won’t happen overnight, but in the next 10 years things are going to look different."
"One of the things that made Detroit great, and could make it great again is single family and row housing," he says, conjuring a back-to-the-future vision of mid-rise buildings with shops and apartments rising along arterial streets like Jefferson, Woodward, Grand Avenue and Michigan Avenue, surrounded by leafy neighborhoods of stand alone homes. Streetcars and rapid-transit buses ply the streets, and a network of bike parkways criss-cross the city. A pulsing downtown full of skyscrapers is lit up in neon, reminiscent of Toyko or Times Square.
"You can be downtown when you want to be exuberant," he says, "and then you can go home to the peace and quiet of your neighborhood."
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.