Raising city kids: Model D Speaker Series in review

Five years ago, when Model D first began to chronicle stories about the movement to rebuild Detroit, the first challenge was attracting anybody to join the adventure (and hey, all are still welcome). But so much has been built and re-built in these last five years. The Detroit Riverwalk. The Westin Book Cadillac. Thriving districts like Southwest Detroit and Midtown. And a generation of pioneers who first left the suburbs, or other cities, to begin their own Detroit experiment have aged. Along with long-term residents, they pose a new question: how we intend to raise the next generation of Detroiters?

At Sunday's Speaker Series event, Model D, along with WDET, addressed the needs of families within an urban framework. The setting? One of Detroit's kid-friendliest locations, the Boll Family YMCA located downtown. The panel? Hosted by Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, it consisted of a mix of lifelong Detroiters and transplants; some parents, and some former city kids themselves. Once and again, it was said: Detroit cannot write its next chapters solely on the backs of hipsters, young professionals and empty-nesters. Detroit needs families to survive.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion centered around education. Francis Grunow, who delivered the introduction, talked about his experience at Detroit Public Schools in the 1980s and 1990s, where he discovered a love for music and historic architecture that took him to Columbia University. "There are others like me who just happen to be products of Detroit Public Schools. And I think that's an important message," Grunow said.

The discussion moved to what a city kid learns outside of school. "The person I am today was entirely shaped by my experiences as a kid living in the city," said Austin Black II, founder and broker of City Living Detroit. "My passion for cities, my passion for architecture, all came from the curiosity I had as a kid growing up in the city and downtown."

The life a city kid lives can be richer than those experienced in the suburbs, argued Andy Linn, co-owner of City Bird and a native of the city's Barry subdivision: "Biking from our house from Belle Isle and taking classes, finding deer tracks. Going to the parks and museums and symphonies every week," he said. "It's so accessible that it becomes such a part of your life -- the city can really be yours." And while all agreed Detroit has much work to do, activists like Sharlonda Buckman, executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, are out there in the trenches -- connecting with parents to find the best resources for raising a family with safety and concern. "I know for me, raising the two kids that I have, it's just a very different landscape than it was when I was a child," she said. "Part of it, I know, comes from just being a parent. But some of it is based on the stark realities of where we are today." And all agreed rebuilding the city's parks for families must be a huge focus of any urban planning projects in Detroit.

Yet the variety of experiences for both parents and former city kids offered the most salient argument for city living. Public or private school, condo or historic home, green lawns or high-rises: those choices may be the city's greatest draw for families who don't want homogeneity. As Kresge Foundation program officer Benjy Kennedy knows, for every squeal-inducing People Mover ride, there's trying to explain to a three-year-old why the Michigan Central Station has no trains. "There's so many layers of complexity that are really challenging when you're in a city that really is in the midst of rebirth or decay, depending on how you want to look at it," he says. Raising kids in the city sure has its challenges. But the breadth of experiences a city kid can live pretty much guarantee the journey will be colorful, and worth the work.

Other discussion focused on a some resources available to parents, Excellent Schools Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. Follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

To top it off, Henderson and panelist Nichole Christian were interviewed after the event on the Craig Fahle Show. Listen to it here.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here


City Fun on the RiverWalk

Free Press writer, Stephen Henderson, moderates the discussion on raising children in the city of Detroit

A diverse panel discuss their experience growing up in the city of Detroit

Metro Detroiters fill the auditorium seats at the Bolls YMCA's on Sunday for a discussion on raising children in the city