Detroit: a city of devastation on the path to revitalization


JSC gets schooled in the Motor City

It was 10 p.m. in Greektown, Detroit. I was looking good with a bow tie and suit jacket, and our group of 13 had just finished dinner at a fancy greek restaurant. As we stood outside enjoying the ambiance of Detroit at night a gentleman, who looked like he had a little too much to drink, came up to our group, pointed me out, and said, “I wanna be like that guy, dressed up, pimpin out all these women.” After I started to laugh he came over and gave me a ‘bro hug.’

After nearly a week spent in Detroit, I knew this trip was more than tearing down blight and making food boxes, it was a discovery of one of America’s most beautiful cities. At the end of this trip I discovered that this is my city.

Inspired by Charlie LeDuff’s “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” students applied early in the year to go on a service trip to Detroit. This eventually ended up with a group composed of nine women, two of whom were juniors, and myself. This is the first kind of trip that the first year experience office has attempted, and in order to prepare for the five days we spent months planning and preparing. Accompanying and mentoring us were, Margo Warden, director of first-year experience, Greg Stefanski, executive director of Laraway Youth and Family Services, and Barbara Flathers, assistant to the dean of students.

So on Sunday, April 6, I told my girlfriend not to worry and started out on the 16-hour car ride to Detroit. I donned my pink snuggie and got in the van. We left school at 4 a.m. listening to the likes of Macy Gray, and soon enough two JSC vans arrived around 8 p.m. at the Detroit police department.

After double parking in front of two cop cars we were led in the police department by Officer Dale Dorsey who cooked us dinner that night and explained to us information about the city and answered any questions we had. Driving into Detroit for the first time I expected it to be abandoned and empty, without a single car on the road. This isn’t what I saw. The roads were busy and, while the sidewalks were empty, the city was busy. Big billboards were everywhere, most for injury lawyers, and others giving information about gambling addiction.

For $20.00 per person a night we stayed at a church that rents out bedrooms to groups like ours, and we all passed out when we got there. In the morning we went back to the police department and officer Dorsey greeted us with doughnuts and coffee. Officers came in to talk to us and explained what their job entailed around the city. Dorsey explained that the greatest weapon that he had is his tongue. With it, he said he could diffuse situations and help people. Another officer said that his was his pen due to the effect he could have on someones life when he writes his report. The officers explained that Detroit, despite all the negativity about it, was like every city, in that to be safe, you need to use common sense. Every single person there said that he loved his job here and the ability to help his community.

Dorsey led us from the station to the Ford Model T museum where our group learned about the history behind the motor industry in Detroit and the enormous impact that Ford had on the city. Afterwards we traveled to Core-City, an organization that makes food boxes for people around Detroit. We met Lillie Skinner, community outreach director at core city, who chastised Dorsey for us being late and having the food she made for us go cold. She explained to us the process of preparing the food boxes and treated us to an incredible lunch of fried chicken, minestrone soup, and egg rolls. Afterward she answered our questions, and in response to one about Charlie LeDuff, gave a spectacular demonstration of LeDuff’s walk and swagger. As we came to learn the rest of the week, Detroit isn’t the horrible city shown, but one of beauty that’s coming back.

After lunch we went and joined a group of from Americorp to clean up the rubble and trash around two burned down buildings. As we cleaned we found a bag of around a hundred bullets, burned and charred dolls, and at one point I found a picture of a family of four, and a wallet sized cut out of a young boy. Dorsey said that this building had been abandoned for about five years and the trash had been sitting there since.

After the river cleanup we made a trip to the river dividing Detroit and Canada and went into the 75 story GM building, as well as a quick run around some of the city.

The next day we started out folding plastic bags for the Detroit Gleaners so they could be shipped for people to put food in, followed by a trip to the Heidelberg Project, a two-block-long art project that showcased toys and other objects put together in an artistic fashion. Most striking was a baby doll on a crucifix and paintings of clocks in a burned down building.

Inspired by Lillie’s work, we went back Core-City and helped make 75 food boxes and passed them out to people. Many members of the group said being blessed and thanked by those receiving the boxes was the most gratifying experience of the entire trip. We ended the day by visiting the Motor City Motown Museum.

Wednesday, the group started by visiting Pony Ride, a business that rents space to business starting up at a lower price. Veronica Scott, who created the empowerment plan, a method in which women make coats for the homeless who themselves are homeless in order to lift themselves out of poverty has her business located here. She told us her story and afterwards we helped clean up an area for the workers. The rest of the day was spent visiting Quicken Loans, who is helping revitalize down town Detroit, and touring the city. Closing off we cooked and ate dinner with a former Detroit judge who explained the racial tide that put Detroit where it is now.

Our last day we cleaned up a blighted house with the Motor City Blight Busters, a group that works to either tear down or reuse abandoned houses around the city. After we finished two little kids in the house next it said they now had a place to play. We ended by dressing up and going out for Greek food.

When we drove along the streets of Detroit we saw houses in ruins, 10-story buildings with every single window smashed, and incredible graffiti. Yet, looking back all I can see now is opportunity. With the white flight of the 60’s, crash of the motor industry, and city corruption, Detroit’s in a rough spot right now, any city would be, but what Detroit has is people that are resilient, that believe in the city and are going to be there to watch it bloom again. The reason nearly every member of the group wants to go back is because we see this. We want to go back to help one of the greatest cities in America bounce back. To me, this was a life changing trip, I’ve never felt so inspired and motivated to help and work with the community. At the end Detroit no longer felt like a city on the cusp of despair, but rather a city on the path to revitalization and hope.