Detroit community groups work for city's new glory days

Bing, the new mayor, said during the campaign that he wants to reshape neighborhoods by asking residents of mostly empty parts of the city to move to areas with fewer vacant homes. Such a move would make providing city services, including police patrols, cheaper and more efficient.

Many neighborhoods already are blooming. In 2008, The Greening of Detroit supported 603 vacant lot, school and family gardens. This year, applications from individuals, community groups and schools quadrupled.

Besides soup kitchens, a food pantry that also distributes clothing and appliances, and a new bakery, the Capuchin friars give away 100,000 plants each year and operate Earthworks, an urban farm that last year grew 6,000 pounds of organic produce.

The city is working to attract new development and more diverse manufacturers. It is replacing old infrastructure such as roads and sewer and water lines in parts of downtown, where development is likely when the recession eases, Stella says. She believes the city can attract new employers to use auto industry facilities and workers to manufacture wind turbines, medical devices and other products.

"This is a difficult time, but we'll get through it," Stella says. "We always seem to."

Stepping up

People here are stepping up to help one another. Two years ago, Julie Kennedy-Carpenter created a website, Julie's List (julieslist.homestead.com), as a hobby. Now it's a popular resource for laid-off workers who need financial, medical and emergency help. There are links to groups that give away clothing and food and to low-cost car repair and credit counseling.

Kennedy-Carpenter, who works for a Detroit-area community action agency, wanted to help people who didn't know where to find assistance or were too proud to ask. "A lot of people don't realize there's so much help out there," she says. She has never advertised, but people are spreading the word, and the site has gotten 50,000 hits.

Kennedy-Carpenter has no doubt that Detroit will rebound. "We're survivors here," she says.

Chris Vitale also went online when he was laid off — temporarily, he hopes — by Chrysler. His website, FairImage.org, explores how U.S. trade and energy policies affect the auto industry.

Vitale meets regularly with about 10 laid-off auto industry workers and retirees and tries to spread the message that U.S.-made vehicles and American workers are not inferior to those in Japan and South Korea.

"A lot of my co-workers and friends, they're just feeling hopeless," Vitale says, and the website is a way to channel his frustration into something positive. He hasn't given up on Detroit or Chrysler, where he has worked for 15 years. "We can come back," he says.

Help also is coming from outside Detroit. Children's Health Fund, a national health care provider and advocacy group, last month launched Kids Can't Wait here. The program will spend about $1.5 million to offer free medical and dental services to Detroit children with a mobile clinic that will make weekly stops in depressed areas.

"Detroit is the epicenter of America's economic crisis," says Irwin Redlener, Children's Health Fund president and a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Still, he says, "There seems to be an inherent cultural optimism that I found very engaging and uplifting." The attitude here, he says, is "we're down, but we're going to get back on our feet."

That's what Doreen Benguche, 33, is doing. A mother of three, she decided to go back to school after she was laid off from her bank-teller job in January. She's in a "fast-track" basic skills program at Focus: Hope and will soon start IT courses there.

Tears fill her eyes as she describes how the heartbreak of being laid off led to hope. "I was disappointed and distraught, but I had to turn it into a positive outcome," she says. "I can see the road ahead now."

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