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Signs Of A Possible Renaissance In Detroit

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Maybe, just maybe, Detroit's hit bottom and started to bounce back. The city is still a third the size it used to be. Crime and poverty and unemployment continue to be major problems.

But the wheels seem to be turning again. Detroit's carmakers are making money. A few companies have moved in downtown. After disastrous drops, home values ticked up a bit. And you can't help but notice that after years as a doormat, Detroit's Lions are undefeated in the National Football League, and the Tigers are in the Major League Baseball playoffs.

Have you lived or worked in Detroit? If so, what are you seeing? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the bike ride of your life. You can email us your story now. The address again, talk@npr.org. If you tune in to hear our conversation about bankrupt cities, we'll get to that another day. And before we turn to the Motor City, we should acknowledge that Milwaukee's Brewers are also in the baseball playoffs. Just up the road, the Packers are also undefeated, and yes, Milwaukee has hard times too, but not like Detroit.

Mickey Maynard spent years there covering the auto industry. She's currently senior editor at Changing Gears, a public radio project that looks at re-inventing the industrial Midwest, and joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And Mickey, always nice to have you back on the program.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: It's a pleasure, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: Also with us is Jerome Vaughn, news director at WDET, our member station in Detroit. The Motor City is his hometown. And nice to have you with us.

JEROME VAUGHN: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And Jerome, today's Tigers game starts in, what, about an hour and 10 minutes. What are you doing there at the station?

VAUGHN: Well, we are, as most public radio stations are, fundraising, but we've got TVs on in the background.

CONAN: How are things in Detroit today? Has the mood improved?

VAUGHN: Very much. You know, people are excited about the sports teams. The Tigers are in the championships series. Even though they're down 3-1, there's a lot of optimism still. The fact that the Lions are 5-0 is just stunning for most people and has given people an exuberance we haven't seen in a long while.

CONAN: But those are momentary things. This can all end if Justin Verlander doesn't have it this afternoon and something comes apart on Sunday afternoon. The mood in the city, is there a feeling that maybe the bottom has been reached?

VAUGHN: I think so. I mean, I think people have been dealing with a number of issues -the economy, the auto industry being down, foreclosures - for quite some time. And they've been working with those issues and finding ways to dealing with those issues over the past several years.

What's been going on lately, you know, we talk about the sports teams, but there's some light, some, you know, bits of hope that have shown themselves in recent months, and I think people are really grasping on to those. Maybe grasping's not the right phrase.

But you know, they have faith in the city, that the city is going to come back again, as we have seen over the past, you know, 100, 150 years. There are swings up, there are swings down. But right now I think people are feeling like we've got some places to go. We can make this a better city.

CONAN: Mickey Maynard, I think it was Mayor Dave Bing - speaking of sports, of course himself a former NBA star with the Pistons - but I think he said everybody who's left has left already. We can't go anywhere but up.

MAYNARD: Well, I think that's true, and I think the election of Mayor Dave Bing is part of this recent progression and sort of the improvement of Detroit's image. And also, you know, I think Jerome would probably agree with me that Detroiters have always been very proud of their city.

But over maybe the last decade or so, it's been a defensive pride, that you all don't understand what we have here. Well, I think the nation is starting to understand that there is something to be said about Detroit, that there are things in the city besides the sports teams that are worth re-examining and worth supporting.

CONAN: And among them, all right, a much smaller auto industry but an auto industry that's in the black.

MAYNARD: That's exactly right. I think until the bailouts and the bankruptcies at General Motors and Chrysler, that the auto industry was sort of perpetuating itself by kicking the can down the road. You would - if sales went down, you did incentives. You didn't look at the lineup. If the Japanese were buying - if people were buying more Japanese cars, you'd say, well, they're trading unfairly, their currency is wrongly valued, instead of looking at what about those cars are people actually attracted to.

I think what's happened is the bailouts and the bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler and the problems at Ford forced everybody to take a good hard look at themselves in the light of international competition, in the light of what American buyers were doing, and I think that people swallowed hard and learned lessons and have come out of this with an auto industry that will survive.

CONAN: And it is important to say an auto industry that has just figured out how to reach labor peace with the UAW without too many problems.

MAYNARD: Well, there is sort of a question mark over that because under the bailout requirements, the workers at General Motors and Chrysler can't strike; workers at Ford still can strike, and we're starting to hear that big locals at Ford Motor Company are turning down or voting against the recent contract agreements.

So we may see the Ford workers reject the agreement. It may be a very difficult sell at Chrysler too. So I wouldn't start predicting labor happiness. You know, there has to be labor peace because they can't go on strike at two companies, but that's a big question mark at the moment.

CONAN: We're talking about the auto industry, but Jerome Vaughn, in recent days, recent weeks anyway, Quicken Loans; Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Michigan; and DTE Energy have moved into operations downtown.

VAUGHN: Yeah, it's been really quite a great thing to see. Some of the companies have had offices in the suburbs. They've decided to make a commitment to the city, to bring some of those workers back downtown. Some of the organizations have built new buildings downtown, where those workers are going to be housed.

And so that's an infusion of cash into the downtown area when it comes to where those workers eat lunch, where they go shopping during their lunch breaks and in many cases helping residential areas downtown. A number of areas of the downtown, midtown area, are doing quite well, residentially speaking.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who live or work in Detroit or used to, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Detroit, an illusion or at least the start of a recovery. We'll start with Tara(ph), Tara with us from Tacoma, Washington.

TARA: Yes, good morning. First, may I say that I was born in the great city of New York - New York - Detroit. I now live in Tacoma, Washington. I had to leave Detroit due to family illnesses and so forth and come to Seattle when I was 34 years old. I'm now going to be 70 this coming year, and I'm going home.

CONAN: To Detroit?

TARA: Oh yes, sir, and my opinion regarding all of the talk about poor Detroit, I think Detroit was just the first of the true signal of what's happening to every city now. When I left Detroit in 1981, I felt like a rat leaving a sinking ship in those days because the economy in Detroit was the one - the first one to go.

And now the country is beginning to see itself in the position that they've given to Detroit as this image, as you mentioned. Detroit is showing that it's one of the first that's going to be able to come back. And having the teams put hope into the people's hearts is so wonderful. It's not - I think the only thing it's indicative of, is the reason why I've wanted to go home since I came to this beautiful Northwest, was the heart.

That's something that can't really be explained. These people have had it, still have it, and I miss it. And I'm going home as soon as I can swing it.

CONAN: All right, a happy homecoming to you.

TARA: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Mickey Maynard, people in Youngstown or Cleveland might argue that, well, maybe they were first rather than Detroit, but it is not an uncommon problem with a lot of cities, cities that you're now(ph) covering with Changing Gears.

MAYNARD: That's right. One of the things about Detroit that people need to remember is that the shrinking of Detroit has been going on for over half of a century. Detroit peaked in 1950 at about two million people. In the '20s it was the equivalent of a Gold Rush town. People went to Detroit from all around the world, literally, because they could get jobs there.

So the decline started in 1950. It really accelerated in the '90s and in the last decade. And where I think Detroit is now, it's about 750,000 people. With the auto industry, that the size that it is now, that you can sustain a city of about 750,000 people. And now possibly the city can grow. Things can fill in.

You know, Detroit is this vast, vast city, and a lot of it never got developed after World War II because people who came back from the war didn't want to go back to the city. They wanted to live in the suburbs like every other American city, like what was Milwaukee and Chicago and Cleveland and other places.

But now there's an opportunity for Detroit to shrink to the size that's manageable and then start to grow a little bit from that size.

CONAN: Let me read this, Jerome Vaughn, to you, this from Dave Bing, writing in Bloomberg Business Week: Detroit was built over time for two million people, and we now have an infrastructure we can't support. We can't service the same landscape with a third of the people. We don't have the taxes. We can't pay for buses all over the city. We have to reform the pensions and fix the schools. We don't have the density in certain communities to create safety.

The mayor goes on to say a lot of nice things about his city, but those problems aren't going away.

VAUGHN: That's right. One of the things that Mayor Bing has started to do to address some of these issues is try to come up with a plan to support neighborhoods that are in good shape, keep them in good shape, and try to find a way to make some transition for neighborhoods that are distressed.

There are infrastructure issues, you know, public safety, garbage, public lighting, public transportation that the city is trying to find some new solutions to deal with those. At the same time, the tax base has been shrinking, as Mickey was saying, down to 750,000 or so residents. With a large number of those residents in poverty, there's not the same tax base that the region has.

And so those are some issues that the city is going to have to continue to have look at and deal with. But I think one of the things that has been really strong, and Mayor Bing has tapped into, is that there is a lot of pride in neighborhoods. There's a lot of pride in living in Detroit. In many of the neighborhoods it's the city residents who are taking care of things and working to make them better. And he really is trying to tap into that, that energy, that determination, to keep the city strong.

CONAN: We're talking about the uptick in Detroit. Have you lived or worked in the Motor City? If so, what are you seeing? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. More with Mickey Maynard and Jerome Vauhgn of WDET in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. During the Super Bowl earlier this year, many people were surprised by a new car ad.


UNDENTIFIED MAN: When it comes to luxury, it's as much about where it's from as who it's for. Now we're from America, but this isn't New York City or the Windy City or Sin City, and we're certainly no one's Emerald City.

CONAN: The slogan for that Emmy Award-winning commercial: Imported from Detroit. The car business is smaller than it used to be, but at least it's back in the black. Is Detroit coming back? If you lived or worked in the Motor City, what are you seeing? Give us your story, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also go to our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION and join the conversation that way.

Our guests are Micheline Maynard, senior editor at Changing Gears, a public radio project that looks at reinventing the Industrial Midwest, a partnership of Michigan Radio, WBEZ Chicago and Idea Stream in Cleveland. Also with us, Jerome Vaughn, a Detroit native and news director at NPR member station WDET in Detroit.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to Naful(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Grand Rapids.

NAFUL: Yeah, you pronounced it correctly.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NAFUL: So I'm a recent graduate from the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. So that's my connection to the east side of the state. And I actually am not a believer in this recovery - the sustainability of this recovery, mainly because of the potential for budgets and budget financing to become a bigger issue going forward.

As growth declines further, which is going on, the federal government can finance its deficits fine, because they can print money. States and local governments do not have that advantage, and I think that's going to be the biggest damper in going forward in Michigan's economy.

You read Mayor Bing's - David Bing's great letter about how, you know, social safety nets are really at risk when these tax rates are falling. I think that's going to become a much bigger deal than it's already been, and that not only derails the recovery, but I think we're headed for a lot darker times than we've had so far.

CONAN: Jerome Vaughn, not just bus routes and garbage routes and that sort of thing through a city that is too big for its population, frankly, but also the overhang of pensions.

VAUGHN: Oh quite a lot to deal with there. The city government, some parts of county governments, have had to learn how to balance the need to fund those pensions of workers, many who are already retired, at the same time that property tax income continues to drop, year after year, month after month.

And so we're seeing layoffs of police officers and firefighters, many governmental agencies looking at moving away from pensions and towards 401(k)s and 403(b)s to help government employees retire. It's a big issue and one that has not been solved yet.

And I think, overall, as we look down the road, I think it is, you know, maybe rose-colored glasses to say everything's perfect now, and everything's going to be perfect. I think what this gives the city is an opportunity to find some new solutions, to look at some solutions that have been implemented elsewhere to make things work in Detroit.

CONAN: Let's go next to Candace(ph), Candace with us from Detroit.

CANDACE: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very good, thanks.

CANDACE: Thank you. I just wanted to say that one of the things I find so encouraging about the city is that we have so many young, motivated people moving into the city. And one of the things that a friend of mine who moved here from law school said is that he feels like if he would have went to D.C. or New York or an Atlanta or Chicago, so much of that system is already put in place, and so many people are already there. Instead of - he was able to come to Detroit and sort of make a way in a city that's here, of course, and established but also is climbing in so many new industries and ways.

So I think that that's really exciting to see so many young people moving into the city and encouraged by what they say and knowing that we will definitely be a greater city in the years to come.

CONAN: Mickey Maynard, I wanted to ask you about that. One of the most difficult things for places like Detroit to deal with during that population decline was that so many of those people leaving were young people looking for opportunities elsewhere, and it looks like at least some young people are moving back for opportunities like big, cheap loft spaces.

MAYNARD: Well, that's a good point. And I love what Candace was saying because I really have a sense that, you know, as a historian, I'm looking at this and thinking this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake an American city.

I think Dave Bing looks at it that way. I think Roy Roberts(ph), who is the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, a former General Motors executive, is looking at it that way.

Folks are urban pioneers. There was a recent sort of promotional tour of Detroit that was put on, and part of it included a bike ride around the city of Detroit. Now, honestly, when I was growing up, you would not ride your bike around the city of Detroit. But now there is enough not critical mass yet but I would call it pockets of prosperity.

There are enough places when you take your friends to Detroit that you don't only show them, you know, the empty buildings, you show them what we call ruin porn, you show them southwest Detroit, where...

CONAN: Ruin porn.

MAYNARD: Yes, exactly, that's what we call those pictures that you see: Oh, look at this wonderful, empty theater. We call that ruin porn. But you can take folks to southwest Detroit. We were there on the night of the Eminem-JayZ concert, and people were out. They were walking around. They were having ice cream. They were eating outside. Families were in the parks.

You can take people to the midtown area, where Jerome's office is, and that's around Wayne State University. There's a ton of activity. Up Michigan Avenue, we were surprised to hear that the adult entertainment business is really rocking and rolling on a Saturday night on Michigan Avenue going towards Dearborn. We didn't know that that was active.

But there are things that you can now point to about the city that shows that there is a renaissance going on. Now, it is not Chicago. It is not even as much as I think is going on in Cleveland, but there is something there rather than nothing there.

CONAN: Candace, thanks so much.

CANDACE: No problem, thank you.

CONAN: An email from Michelle(ph) in Detroit: I've lived in Detroit in 2000 after living in Boston. I grew up in this area and was so sad when I returned, but it is changing. There are small cottage industries all over and hangouts that someone who didn't live here would not know about it.

The city is being run over with community gardens. Eastern Market was open one night per week over the summer where in the past it was a Saturday-only proposition. Avalon Bakery is an anchor for several alternative cottage industries. Whole Foods is building a new store near downtown. There's just too much to tell here. Oh, and don't let me forget Slows Bar-B-Q. It's awesome. I couldn't get out of the city yesterday because of traffic jams, the first I've encountered here.

Well, I guess even the smallest of renaissances has its prices. Let's go next to Betsy(ph), Betsy with us from Dearborn.

BETSY: Hi, I don't want to have my fellow Detroiters jump on me. I grew up where my dad had a business in Detroit, and I remember as a little girl going to the Hudson's building, seeing Santa Claus and the LEGO displays, eating at Charlie's Chicken and Luigi's restaurant.

The streets were so crowded, it reminded me of Chicago. Then the crime got so bad, my dad's business moved, and as a mom who is raising three children with her husband, I just don't think Detroit is a place to raise children. There are not a lot of businesses. There's no shopping district down there. Everything closes very early, and if you're going to be walking, you can't walk from, let's say, the DSO to the DIA without fearing for your safety.

And I think that that's a real problem. If you want the city to be viable, you have to bring in families who value education and culture. You have to have intact, nuclear families, and I think that is a huge, big problem because I speak for many people who live in a lot of the suburbs who are afraid to go down there with their children, especially in the evening.

CONAN: Jerome Vaughn, has she got a point?

VAUGHN: I'd say no. I mean, I'll be blunt about it. I think downtown Detroit is one of the safest areas in the city. You look at the crime statistics, and it is very safe downtown.

BETSY: Do you live in Detroit?

VAUGHN: I do live in Detroit, and I raise - my wife and I raise our eight children in Detroit. So I don't have qualms about the city as a whole. Now, you know, different people have different thresholds of what they're comfortable with, and I understand that.

There are certain neighborhoods that are more comfortable for my family than maybe for you and your family, but there are some great neighborhoods in the city of Detroit where crime is not a large problem, where there are opportunities to get a great education, where community is very important.

I'll talk just for a minute about my neighborhood. I live in North Rosedale Park, wonderful old homes, built in the 1920s and '30s. It's an interracial community where people of all different cultures get together. We have a neighborhood baseball league, a neighborhood soccer league, where I coach every Saturday morning. And there is a real sense of community.

When there needs to be trees planted in the community, we do that. The neighbors get together and do that. So I mean, it is - there are great areas like that. Not every area of the city is like that, I'll grant you that.

BETSY: No, but what about the downtown area? What does it - do you go to the DIA? Do you go to the DSO? And I agree, there's even a puppet theater that is absolutely fabulous. It's fantastic. And we go there with our children. But when you're talking about walking from place to place - you go to Ann Arbor, we have people of every single color, every single religion, it's safe. You feel safe. There's a sense of security. I don't care if you're white, if you're black, if you're purple, if you're yellow. You go to Detroit and you don't feel that.

My parents, who are in the 70s, went to a (unintelligible) Red Wing game, had the tickets since the Wings played at the Olympia. Driving a minivan, their window smashed in the car, all the windows along the street. They called the cops - nope, you know what, it's a waste of time calling us because nothing is going to get done. It happens all the time. If you're talking about a community, of course, there are communities - and I'm sure that community is a good community. But when you go downtown, if you're going to bring somebody, especially from a different country, they're going to say, this is it?

CONAN: I think there may be - and again, the statistic will back Jerome up. There is a difference between perception, sometimes, and reality. And, of course, I'm sure what you said happened - to your parents, happened, but - and I'm sorry for that. But there's a difference between feeling comfortable and actually being safe. But anyway, Betsy thanks for the call.

MAYNARD: Can I jump in on that, Neal, please?

CONAN: Go ahead, Mickey.

MAYNARD: Well, first of all, I was born in Ann Arbor. I have a home there. My mom, my godmother, live there. I take them to Tiger games all the time. We were at a Tiger game a couple of weeks ago and went - after the game, there's a ton of traffic, which is probably why the earlier caller got stuck in traffic because Tigers played yesterday. But we got a little detoured. We were trying to head back to the freeway and we ended up in the Cass Corridor, which Jerome will tell you, is maybe not the prettiest place in Detroit.

But my mother and my godmother looked out the windows and they said, it's good for us to see this. We want to understand what is going on in Detroit. We want to tell our friends that you can come down and go to a game. You can be safe going down to a game. Yes, there are abandoned buildings in Detroit. Yes, Detroit needs some improvement. But we will tell our friends, come down, see the Tigers, go to the museum, go down to the riverfront. We would encourage our friends to come down here.

CONAN: Mickey Maynard, senior editor of Changing Gears. Also with us is Jerome Vaughn, news director at NPR member station WDET in Detroit. We're talking about that city today and other cities like it, as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Steve, and Steve also calling us from Detroit.

STEVE: Hey, Neal, how's it going?

CONAN: All right. Go ahead, please.

STEVE: Pardon?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEVE: Oh, what did you want to ask me, I mean?

CONAN: Well, what do you see? You live in Detroit. Do you think the city is coming back? Or is this an illusion?

STEVE: I mean, I think it's like - there's more than one side to that coin, you know? Like, there are really great things happening downtown and in midtown, and even in the north end now. There's a lot of really cool, like, arts and culture and music stuff going on. I've seen a lot of kids move to Detroit from the suburbs to pursue, you know, arts and music. Like, there's plenty of, like, industrial real estate that's up for rent, great opportunities for people who have studio spaces and, you know, just go wild and create, you know, and that's great. (Unintelligible) but...

CONAN: I'm waiting for the but...


STEVE: But there are, I mean, there are still problems, but, I mean, it's the industrialization, you know? It's like it's just a slow road back to a different type of economy that's not, you know, solely based on automotive manufacturing.

CONAN: Yeah, I understand that. Well, Steve, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

STEVE: Hey, no problem.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mike, who's writing from the Bay Area: I'm an entrepreneur with two MRI businesses in the Bay Area and I'm looking for opportunities in Detroit. That city has good bones and a great Midwestern housing stock. Fifteen of its - percent of the new cars I see in San Francisco are American. That is an important sign. And, Mickey Maynard, any indication that people outside the area are beginning to invest again.

MAYNARD: Well, I would certainly encourage him to get in touch with the folks at Tech Town, which is part - it's - I don't know if it's part of Wayne State University, but it's right next to Wayne State University, and they are kind of an incubator for entrepreneurs. We've done a story on them on Changing Gears. And you know, I would say that people have told me, and if I had money, I would be in Detroit, I would be buying factories, I would be looking at these neighborhoods now.

As a caveat, I have a friend, Luke Song, the owner of Mr. Song Millinery, who operated for years. He did Aretha's hat for the inauguration. He operated on Woodward Avenue for years with his parents. And about a year or so ago, they - the city wanted to double his taxes, and so he moved out of the city and went to Southfield. So you can't have successful business people who suddenly get a tax bill that's double what it was the year before. So there are still issues that do face businesses that open in Detroit. And I would hate for people to be moving in to the city and then set up, be successful and all of a sudden get a surprise in the mail.

CONAN: Here's an email to that point from Matt in Dearborn: As a 31-yeard-old music lover, I've lived in the Detroit suburbs my entire life. Growing up , people told us to be scared of downtown. As I grew older, I, of course, rebelled and spend much of my time in the city. My friends and I fell in love with the concrete and wild scenarios we found there. We loved finding different clubs, bars and gutted homes repurposed for concerts. The city I originally fell in love with is changing rapidly.

Sports team owners are buying up land, parking and traffic rules are enforced, and we're actually beginning to get priced out of town. So I wonder, Jerome Vaughn, this revival - people beginning to have faith that this is going to be something. Yes, of course, all the problems we've talked about, they are there too. They're not going away, but that this revival is going to be able to sustain?

VAUGHN: I think it depends on people like the one you just talked about that, you know, are you going to have a commitment to commune to an area that may not be perfect? Are you going to have a commitment to making a home here or working to improve this industrial site? I think that's what it really comes down to. You know, you think about other cities, you know, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, every square inch of those cities isn't perfect. There are areas of those cities which are great and fabulous and people are being priced out of, and there are areas of those cities where there's room for investment because there's been disinvestment. I think the area of disinvestment is much larger in Detroit. There are couple of neighborhoods, I'm thinking Midtown right now, where, you know, the occupancy rate in Midtown, one these burgeoning neighborhoods, is, you know, well over 90 percent. Next door, there are some great areas that aren't full and someone may want to take an investment in them, take a chance. I think that's what it's really going to come down to.

CONAN: Jerome Vaughn, thanks very much for your time today.

VAUGHN: You're welcome.

CONAN: And as much as it galls a Yankee fan to say it, go Tigers.

MAYNARD: Go Tigers.

CONAN: Jerome Vaughn. Go Tigers. Mickey Maynard is with Changing Gears, Jerome Vaughn with us from WDET, our member station in Detroit. Thanks to you both. Coming up next, the ride of your life - cyclists. Call us and tell us about the one ride you will never forget: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.