Rebuilding from Strength as a Strategy to Safeguard Middle Neighborhoods in Detroit: A Philanthropic Perspective


Wendy Jackson, The Kresge Foundation

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Volume 11, Issue 1 | August 23, 2016

There is perhaps no other topic that evokes more passion about Detroit’s longterm
potential for revitalization than the future direction of its neighborhoods.
As beacons for those seeking an improved quality of life in a growing city, Detroit
neighborhoods were designed with early twentieth century prosperity in mind.
Detroit’s streets once featured block after block of well-constructed and well-kept brick,
single-family homes buttressed by thriving commercial corridors and stately tree-lined
boulevards. For Detroit, neighborhoods have always been a source of pride and a symbolic
gateway to middle-class opportunity. They provide the city its character and definition, but
more important, neighborhoods are the places where generations of Detroiters have placed
their bet on the future and made an investment for the long term.

For these reasons, the brutal erosion of neighborhood quality of life in Detroit exacerbated
by the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis has been particularly difficult to witness.
Between 2000 and 2010, more than 750,000 manufacturing jobs vanished from Michigan. In
the same decade, 241,000 mostly middle-income residents moved out of Detroit. Mortgage
and tax foreclosures combined to worsen physical decline and, as a result, no neighborhood
has been immune to the effects of the economic downturn. By late 2007, the telltale signs
of blight and vacancy were evident in a handful of Detroit neighborhoods, but by 2011,
mortgage foreclosure had touched one in every four habitable houses in the city, more than
63,000 of them. The devastation in the wake of the foreclosure crisis is almost unfathomable.
The city lost almost $500 million in tax revenue during the crisis.1

Even in Detroit’s strongest neighborhoods, the economic shock waves from structural
unemployment and the crash of the housing market left blocks riddled with blight and
burdened with a persistent public safety crisis. These combined effects have been devastating
to Detroit’s neighborhoods.

The rapidly deteriorating neighborhood conditions required an abrupt shift from the
optimism toward revitalizing distressed areas that had started to take root citywide a few years
earlier. Suddenly, public and private partners had to adopt a pragmatically defensive posture that required preserving the strength that remained in communities by deploying stabilization
strategies to keep pivotal neighborhoods on the cusp from tipping into decline.

It was at this critical juncture that the Kresge Foundation adopted its Reimagining Detroit
2020 program as the guiding vision for the foundation’s investments and work in Detroit.
Since then, we have partnered with local and national philanthropies in a series of investments
and initiatives that have stabilized and strengthened the city’s physical, economic,
and social fabric and increased the likelihood that Detroit will move on to a more positive
path for the future. Through this framework, Kresge began to develop a “complete neighborhoods”
strategy to foster environmental sustainability, increase economic opportunity,
and stabilize property values. The Foundation decided to invest primarily in middle-market
neighborhoods that had traditionally competed exceptionally well in holding and attracting
residents, but whose future was threatened by the economic damage of the 2000s.

The strategy, very simply, was to create a concentrated set of investments that were stacked
and aligned to: (1) retain and attract residents; (2) preserve market strength and the city’s tax
base wherever possible; and (3) build the capacity of neighborhood leaders and organizations
to address quality of life. These 2007–2012 investments in the acquisition and rehab
of vacant properties, environmentally conscious strategies for blight removal, neighborhood
beautification, and community engagement represented the first wave in what ultimately
became a much larger public-private agenda to revitalize Detroit neighborhoods. That larger
strategy was the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework.

The Foundation’s approach had as its core an understanding that scarce philanthropic
resources could be most effective where immediate intervention had the greatest likelihood
of preserving neighborhood stability and laying the groundwork to attract new investment.
Spurred on by Kresge CEO Rip Rapson, the Detroit Neighborhood Forum (DNF) became
the city’s primary philanthropic vehicle to understand and respond to the challenges facing
Detroit neighborhoods. The roughly 75-member forum is composed of foundations, corporate
funders, financial institutions, intermediaries, and key public officials. The DNF amplified
its leadership role when it hosted a 2008 meeting with the board of Living Cities to identify
effective long-term strategies for the revitalization of Detroit. It was during that meeting
when the underpinnings for the Woodward Corridor Initiative, Detroit Future City Strategic
Framework, and a host of other transformative initiatives were established. The DNF also
provided stability and continuity of focus for neighborhood efforts during the collapse of the
housing market and foreclosure crisis.

The investments in these middle neighborhoods had a twofold impact. They helped
many neighborhoods remain relatively stable by engaging residents until the Detroit Future
City Strategic Framework was complete, and they taught public and private partners valuable
lessons about what works to improve quality of opportunity within neighborhoods and how
to bring those innovations to scale when the environment is ready for action and investment.

The menu of interventions for these neighborhoods included:

  • Arts and culture: collaboration between the Skillman and Kresge foundations launched
    the Community+Public Arts: Detroit program, engaging local artists and youth in
    public arts projects to beautify and animate Detroit neighborhoods.
  • Blight remediation: Before launching the Detroit Blight Task Force in 2014 and
    expanding the citywide blight remediation strategy, the Kresge Foundation sponsored
    several pilot projects to develop key lessons about the best approaches for safe and environmentally
    secure demolition and deconstruction. These included the Community
    Property and Preservation Mini-Grants
    (now known as the SAFE mini-grant program)
    and administered by Michigan Community Resources, which engaged neighborhood
    leaders through funded activities to improve basic neighborhood safety, appearance,
    and quality of life by targeting security, maintenance, and beautification projects for
    vacant property. In addition, neighborhood vacant property planning engaged residents
    in a process to transform vacant land and property into uses that improve the
    quality of life in neighborhoods.
  • Environmental Stewardship: With support from the U.S. Environmental Protection
    Agency, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation,
    neighborhood green infrastructure projects became a tool for neighborhood
    stabilization and repurposing of vacant land.
  • Middle market acquisition and rehab: A collaboration between the Ford and Kresge
    foundations tested neighborhood stabilization strategies through a partnership of the
    Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation and Detroit Development Fund to
    acquire, renovate, and resell up to 500 vacant houses in five northwest Detroit neighborhoods.
    The Detroit Green and Healthy Homes Program also brought together 50
    partner organizations dedicated to creating green, healthy, and safe homes for children
    and families.
  • Neighborhood placemaking: Support from the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations
    launched efforts by the Project for Public Spaces to involve the community in imagining
    “lighter, quicker, cheaper” improvements to the streets and public spaces around
    two neighborhood farmers’ markets and identify the 10 destinations that could serve as
    focal points for neighborhood renewal.
  • Neighborhood small business development: This component strengthened small business
    development along key commercial corridors, including fostering neighborhood
    grocery stores and streetscape improvements.
  • Public safety initiatives: The AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program based at Wayne
    State University, Center for Urban Studies worked in several key neighborhoods. The
    program fosters collaboration between law enforcement and community residents to
    combine crime mapping and data analysis with greater neighborhood guardianship.

Although the interventions slowed the impact of foreclosures in a handful of Detroit
middle-market neighborhoods, they were more significant for their ability to tap the creative
energy of residents, particularly at a time when it was easy for them to lose confidence in
speedy neighborhood recovery. Detroiters will have to live with the effects of the housing
market collapse for a long time. These investments helped to strengthen community identity
and build resilience and social cohesion.

On January 9, 2013, Detroit reached an important milestone with the launch of Detroit
Future City Strategic Framework, a world-class, citywide strategic framework that delineates
a broad range of actionable and innovative tactics to improve core economic, physical, and
social conditions in Detroit. The framework builds much-needed citywide capacity for neighborhood
redevelopment and is reinforced by Kresge’s commitment to fully align all of its
Detroit investments over the next five years with the recommendations of framework plan.

And now we are at the moment to move forward. The Detroit Future City Strategic
Framework provides a tremendous opportunity to align our philanthropic support with an
innovative, effective, and comprehensive set of recommendations for neighborhood transformation.
As the city rationalizes its services and stabilizes its fiscal health, Detroit has
an opportunity to forge stronger public-private partnerships with local, federal, and state
government in support of neighborhood redevelopment.

1. Christine McDonald and Joel Kurth, “Foreclosures Fuel Detroit Blight, Cost the City $500 Million,” Detroit
News Special Report, June 24, 2015.

Wendy Lewis Jackson is interim co-managing director for the Detroit Program. She co-leads The Kresge
Foundation’s efforts to revitalize Detroit and to strengthen its social and economic fabric. Her work
supports organizations providing economic opportunity for low-income people and addresses the needs
of vulnerable children and families. Prior to joining Kresge in 2008, Wendy was a program director for
Children and Family Initiatives and executive director for education initiatives at the Grand Rapids
Community Foundation in Grand Rapids, Mich. She taught at Grand Valley State University in
Allendale, Mich., and has co-authored and assisted in the publication of several reports and publications
that address community needs and problem solving. Wendy is an American Marshall Memorial
Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States; the Association of Black Foundation Executives
named her an Emerging Leader in 2008. Wendy earned a bachelor’s degree in political science
and communications from the University of Michigan. She also holds a master’s degree in social work
from U-M, with a concentration in community organization and social policy and planning.