Detroit community groups work for city's new glory days

Some of Detroit's dwindling population remains loyal. Peggy Jones, 59, has lived here 32 years and won't leave, even though she has been out of work since she was laid off more than a year ago by a company that auctions vehicles to auto dealers.

Jones is enrolled in Operation Able, which teaches computer skills to displaced workers 40 and older. With a $650,000 annual budget, it trains about 150 people a year. Students get eight weeks of training, followed by four weeks of help with job searches. If they don't find jobs during that month — and these days, they often don't — the organization works with them until they do. The success rate is about 75%.

"A lot of our clients worked for companies that were dependent on the auto industry," McDougall says. "We see people now who are in a lot more difficult, sometimes almost desperate, straits." To prepare them for jobs in other fields, the program has increased its emphasis on customer-service skills and plans to add training in "green" office practices.

Jones says Operation Able restored her confidence. She has had a couple of job interviews already. Being out of work "has been really frustrating and mind-boggling, worrisome," says Jones, a widow. "My unemployment benefits are about to run out."

Andrew McCray, 59, a Detroit native and Operation Able client, drove trucks that delivered cars to dealers before being laid off. He's hopeful about his future — and the city's. "I really do believe that we have to hold on and believe that things are going to get better," he says.

Focus: Hope, which was founded a year after 1967 riots and works to improve civil and human rights, is retooling its education and community programs to respond to urgent needs.

With a $25 million annual budget, the organization distributes food commodities to 41,000 people every month; trains machinists and information technology specialists; rehabilitates neighborhoods; and offers youth arts programs and preschool education.

CEO William Jones Jr. says Focus: Hope plans to shorten its machinists program so students can get into the workforce faster, expand its hours so classes are more convenient and create after-school programs.

"We get to do more than read the paper, read all the doom and gloom," Jones says. "We work with people who are determined to better their situation."

McDougall says many people here "assumed that the car companies would always dominate the economy. … The future looks very different."

Changing cityscape

So will the city, says Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of The Greening of Detroit. Almost 30% of the city's 143 square miles is vacant, she says, and that number could grow to 60% in the next few years as more homes, businesses and factories disappear.

For two decades, The Greening of Detroit has been planting trees and gardens and cleaning up vacant property. Now the group is helping to lead discussions about a dramatically changed cityscape: allowing large swaths of the city to "naturalize" and become rural again, creating a natural corridor to give wildlife access to the Detroit River and encouraging urban farming.

Abandoned factories, Witt says, could be used to build wind turbines, solar cells and geothermal equipment. "This is no time for cowardice," she says. "We need to be brave, and we need to buy into a big vision collectively."

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