Opinion: Bankruptcy, the beginning of another opportunity

The sun came up right on time on July 18.  

This must have been a complete shock to those that screamed in horror as the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy at 4 p.m. the day before. Every form of media exploded with large bold headlines proclaiming doom. Twitter and Facebook poured apocalyptic links across screens all over Detroit. This is it. The end.

I didn’t move to Detroit to fix it, and I knew that it was broken. Seriously. Whether you have lived here your whole life, moved here 20 years ago, or just moved here recently, you had to know that you were moving to or living in a city that wasn’t functioning properly. You may have bought a $500 house. You may have lived in a cheap, giant, hip loft. You may have been given money for rent or a down payment on a house by your employer. Pretty cool stuff, but not the sign of a properly functioning city.

Some of us, especially myself, have embraced the opportunities afforded by this dysfunction. Art Parks, Le Nain Rouge, Ponyride and even starting a Municipal Recycling Program- all of these opportunities are only possible because of the dysfunction that exists in the City of Detroit. 

We may have found the "fun" in Dysfunction, but this is not sustainable. A dragon party or art park or coffee shop or hockey arena isn’t going to save Detroit. Filling Midtown and downtown with new residents as the neighborhoods empty isn’t going to save Detroit. The decades of decline with mountains of debt and aging infrastructure is an anchor that will drag us down no matter how fast we swim.

I have worked on many projects, with many great people, over the last few years that identified certain problems in the city and worked to create a plan to fix them. Recycle Here was created to address the lack of a recycling option in the City of Detroit. I have worked on food access issues, land use issues and blight issues. I ran for a seat on City Council and worked on youth programs with the Detroit Public Schools. I believe I have made an impact and created a bit of change for the better. There are many like me, and many that have done it better than me. 

I moved downtown in 1998 and to the Cass Corridor in 2001. I can honestly say that Detroit has gotten a little better each day that I have lived here. These areas have received investment from the public and private sectors and are anchored by institutions. The same cannot be said for the neighborhoods. These residents have seen a long, slow decline in their quality of life for 40 years. Each and every day is a little worse. Another abandoned house, another closed business, another overgrown park. There is only one Detroit and there has to be service delivery and investment throughout the city, and not just in certain areas.

Now, bankruptcy is here. Crying about it now is similar to blaming your teacher for the F on your test. The silver lining to this bankruptcy filing is that for the first time that I am aware of, there seems to be an actual plan that we will follow. What we have done in the past did not work. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This is something different, and it just might work.

But what does this mean for us? What are we going to do now that Detroit has filed for bankruptcy? We are going to keep doing what we have been doing that has made Detroit a better place to live. The things that we have been doing to make our street, our block, our neighborhood better. From cleaning up parks and planting gardens and talking to neighbors to supporting small businesses to making art parks to having dragon parties. I know the Greening of Detroit will still be planting trees and Eastern Market will still be selling produce and Recycle Here will still be weird. Your old neighbor will still need help shoveling snow and that lady across the street can always use your extra tomatoes. 

The City of Detroit is much more than elected officials and a budget. Detroit is about the people and relationships and connections and energy that happen as we learn to live together. We have found a way to survive and even thrive in dysfunction. That is the Detroit Spirit, and it will not go away because of the bankruptcy process.  

Matthew Naimi is founder of Recycle Here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.