Feeling Good in Detroit

They've elected a new mayor in Detroit, which, in other circumstances, might be a big deal, but since Detroit is under the thumb of a state-appointed emergency manager (who promptly--and probably unconstitutionally--took away all authority from every elected city official), the new mayor, Mike Duggan, will likely be mayor in name only. He'll be invited to be in the first car in Detroit's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and, as the city's Goodwill Embassador, he'll be entrusted with handing out city souvenirs, but when it comes to having a say in day-to-day operations, or putting his signature to important papers, forget it. It'll be a new day when, and only when, the electeds are able to get their offices back.

Detroit is in a mess, as everyone knows--and as I've written about here and here and here. They're the largest city in the nation to ever declare bankruptcy. The reasons are complicated and there is enough blame to go around, but none of it goes to the citizens of that city working tirelessly to keep it alive despite obstacles almost impossible to rise above.

Every few years we hear about a coming renaissance in Detroit. We watch as a few take tiny baby steps but nothing seems to come of it. Not enough to make a real difference. Until now.

A bright light shines in the midst of the darkness in Detroit and, with any luck, it'll be the light that guides them out of the fog. A group called Detroit Venture Partners is buying up properties all over town--including in the high rent districts--with not just a promise, but proof-positive that a renaissance doesn't have to be a pipe dream. Headed by Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, the group sponsors start-up companies, some which are already pitching their ideas via DVP's website.

On of their companies, Detroit Labs, just moved into a larger building and have big plans for their venture. They design IOS and Android apps for companies like GM, Domino's Pizza and Biggby's Coffee.

But it isn't just business that will make the difference. It's the people who see value in every citizen, including those who are down and out. Because so many of these groups are working behind the scenes to bring some aid, some hope, some dignity, it's only every now and then that we hear about a happening that is actually good news.

It happened again the other day.

A coalition of unlikely partners teamed up to buy an old apartment building in a neighborhood with few redeeming qualities, and renovated it--not to make a profit, but to give the homeless a place to live. They're moving them in, even as we speak.

A real estate developer, a Detroit Free Press columnist-turned-famous-author, and a congregation in a cozy, rather wealthy village miles away from the city--they're all part of the project, along with Cass Community Social Services and other heroes, sung and unsung.

They're doing it. They're furnishing 45 apartments and readying them for occupants. And when it's finished, there will be another one, and another one, and so on.

But get this: I may have a connection, too. The building they renovated and just opened is at Elmhurst and Woodrow Wilson. I may well have lived in that same building when I was a baby. My mom and dad are no longer here to verify, but I remember Mom telling me we lived in an apartment building on Woodrow Wilson, and my foggy memory is trying to tell me it was on or near Elmhurst.

We lived a block away from Woodrow Wilson--on Highland--when I was in my early teens, and no matter how many times we passed that particular building, my mother couldn't resist telling me one again that we had lived there when I was a baby.. Since I was a teenager at the time, I either couldn't or wouldn't show much interest, so now that I would like some real confirmation, it's lost to me forever.

apartment building woodrow wilson elmhurst Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press

I can't say for sure it's the same apartment building, but I would love to believe it is. Because nobody would have been happier about what has happened to it than that sainted lady, my mother.

NOTE: Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, Season 2 finale takes place in Detroit and airs on CNN tonight, November 10, at 9 PM ET/PT. I'll be watching!

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