The Detroit Works Project: Who decides, who benefits, and the way forward in Corktown

By Jeff DeBruyn

A cloud of money hangs over my Detroit neighborhood.When and where exactly it will rain is anyone’s guess.

The Detroit Works Project can pour resources into some areas of the city to cultivate a high quality of life, while withdrawing resources from others to save money.

In Corktown, a strategic locale for new development according to the city’s Master Plan Neighborhoods map, Detroit is faced with fundamental questions: will the foundation-supported DWP apply community development best practices in the areas targeted for reinvestment? How open, transparent, and accountable will this process be? And, will the city really leave people behind in abandoned neighborhoods, as Mayor Bing’s administration has suggested?

The corner at Michigan and Trumbull, where the Tigers used to play, is Corktown’s heart and soul. In 2008, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin won a federal $3.8 million earmark awarded to the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy (OTSC) for preservation and redevelopment of a public park and related business activities. Levin’s office stated in 2009 that the earmark should “benefit persons of low- and moderate income” and could be used for restoration and economic development.

It continues to sit vacant while citizens maintain it. This corner, this community, and this situation need sunlight. The potential for something amazing, equitable development, is within reach, as Corktown residents have demonstrated. But the fate of the Corner, and Corktown at large, is up for grabs.

Four years later, the money cloud still hangs over the Corner. Why? For one, the OTSC never had control of the Corner. That responsibility lies with the The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), a quasi-governmental agency that serves the interests of the business community.

A proposal has been submitted to, and approved by, the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  In a January letter, State Sen. Morris W. Hood III asked Mayor Bing to support the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy plan for youth programs and a park — which he called a “one-of-a-kind attraction [that] would help fuel Detroit’s recovery.” Hood said a failure to support the project risked the loss of the earmark.

Further, as the earmark language illustrates, the money, in addition to the process could be spent equitably throughout the community, including in North Corktown, which sits north of I-75 and the Corner development.

The community and the city have two different versions of Corktown’s boundaries, and there is speculation that decision-makers want to keep the money in sections south of I-75. Community-based groups like the Corktown Residents Council (of which this author is  past President) are taking lessons from the failures of past “Urban Renewal” policies, which devastated Black Bottom, Poletown, and North Corktown.

The CRC created its own Neighborhood Profile to counter DWP’s false descriptions of North Corktown, which the city renamed “Jeffries” and designated as “distressed.” The CRC has sought to re-connect a Corktown community divided by the highway through extensive community engagement efforts and initiatives focusing on quality of life and beautification.

A public art project called Monumental Kitty beautified a blighted area while reconnecting the severed halves of the neighborhood. The intent was to re-activate the pedestrian overpass by making it safer, more walkable, and more attractive using public art.

“They want us gone. It means they want us gone, dumbass,” said Pookie in response to a guest at Manna Meal Community Kitchen when asked the meaning of the word gentrification.

“When you’re old, people don’t listen to you. And when you’re poor, I know people don’t listen to you,” said Angie Johnson about the changes in her North Corktown community. These are among the responses of people who stay in the neighborhood surrounding old Tigers stadium.

As Detroiters lose their franchise and contemplate the loss of services at the hands of the DWP, new communities being built could engage in a participatory budgeting process, and it could start at the Corner. Last spring a group (including this author) submitted a proposal to the Senator’s office to do just that.

Former Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams was right when he said leaders must first establish public trust by telling the truth and fulfilling promises when making difficult changes. The actions of the Bing Administration are not laying the proper foundation for Detroiters to buy into the DWP. Unfortunately, the land at Michigan and Trumbull sits vacant, and the $3.8 million unspent.

These are the pitfalls of reinvestment strategies that don’t integrate the community, and they have far-reaching implications as Detroit Works proceeds with its plans in Corktown.