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Beyond 'ruin porn'

"Beyond 'ruin porn'" Continued...

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

In suburban areas, for-profit Kumon centers charge between $85 and $115 a month per subject; Wellspring charges families $15. Even that stretches the budget of many parents in the Brightmoor area-and requires extensive Wellspring fundraising to pay Kumon royalties.

The payoffs for kids are big. Detroit public-school students scored dismally low on recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests, but Wellspring's Kumon students-90 percent of whom come from low-income families-are exceptions: "Kids who stick with us until eighth grade are doing 10th-grade math."

Over the years the Bandrowskis have tried various programs to develop deep relationships with the children who come to the center. "We've had pre-employment training, job coaching, mentoring, backpacking, and camping." Their paid and volunteer staff members disciple teenagers. Kids wind down after their tutoring sessions in the basement recreation room.

Living and working in the neighborhood over decades "gives a depth to relationships. There are no shortcuts. It takes time, it takes suffering and lots of heartache." Even though some of the kids stumble-they mention many pregnancies and a kid who went to prison (who calls Dan "Pops")-Cherie sums up their experience: "I'm very rich." Dan adds a caveat: "There's richness here, but it's not without suffering."

Detroit has other followers of Christ sprinkled through its neighborhoods. A mural at the CDC2 building depicts an urban street scene that features old people sitting on porches while children play in the street. Zechariah 8 inspired the image: "Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing."

Lisa Johanon says, "It's a beautiful picture of heaven, but I like it to be the picture of central Detroit. We will have a community that is safe enough for senior citizens to sit on their porches with their canes in hand. Kids can play on the street-and not be so burdened down with adult life and responsibilities."

Detroit basics

Detroit sits on a stretch of the Detroit River that runs east and west, so in a quirk of geography the city is north of Windsor, Ontario: Yes, here the United States is north of Canada. Detroit forms a sprawling semi-circle divided by roads that radiate out from downtown, which is located right on the river.

Detroit early in the 20th century, fueled by the growth of the automobile industry, was the fastest-growing city in the United States. Between 1910 and 1920 the population more than doubled, from 465,766 to nearly a million. Detroit reached its population peak of 1.9 million in 1950 and has been leaking people to the suburbs and beyond ever since. The next census will show about 800,000 people living within the city's 138.8 square miles.

That square mileage figure probably zipped by you, but it's significant: Detroit grew geographically during its boom years, annexing huge swaths of territory to the west and east, completely surrounding the smaller cities of Hamtramck and Highland Park. Detroit is now vaster than all of San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. Since Detroit grew along with the auto industry, it resembles a Western city much more than an Eastern one. Blessed with plentiful and relatively flat land, the city has had a more suburban feel, with many poor neighborhoods made up of single family homes with yards and trees.

A place to do business

It took Detroit's city council eight years to adopt its latest master plan, making it obsolete the day it was adopted, says Deborah Younger, executive director of Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). It planned for growth rather than downsizing, and only now are city officials beginning to talk openly about the need to "right size" the city. Right sizing acknowledges that the city has too few people, too much land, and too little money to provide services.

Trying to figure out how to downsize will require great wisdom among the many bureaucracies, both public and private, that wield power and allocate resources in a city that has decades of mismanagement and grudges either to nurse or overcome. As the city decides which neighborhoods are "winners" and which are "losers," residents will be looking to see what new mayor and (former basketball star) Dave Bing and the new city council will do. Bing's office plans to use data to come up with a viable land use plan, but will the data include what's happening in Brightmoor or central Detroit?

Meanwhile, business opportunities remain. For the past five years Mark Wallace, 32, has been managing and leasing commercial real estate in downtown Detroit, where he's lived for seven out of the past 10 years. He grew up in a small farming community an hour from the city, studied public policy at Princeton, became interested in poverty and inequality issues, and taught high school in Detroit for three years.

He's a Detroit booster who rides his bike all around the city: "I'd like to spend the rest of my working life in Detroit. . . . [There is] tremendous opportunity for people my age, which is absent in more mature markets like Chicago or New York." He says the city has to create an environment conducive to new business, "where the burden of taxes and physical plant upkeep is not so excessive that business can't locate here."

Wallace plays poker with Gideon Pfeffer, 29, a married father of one child who came to Detroit from New York in 2002 to set up a mortgage company and says, "The business community really embraces young talent because there's not a ton of it. . . . If you come up with a good idea and have a good business model, work hard, you can definitely succeed in the market."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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