Facing Bankruptcy Unknowns, Detroiters Take Revitalization Into Their Own Hands

This report aired on PBS NewsHour on August 9, 2013.

A lack of basic social services and abandoned blocks are just a few of the side effects Detroit citizens face due to their city’s financial woes. But in some neighborhoods, Motor City residents are taking revitalization efforts into their own hands. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the resilience of the people who call Detroit home.

Producer: Saskia de Melker
Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Sam Weber
Editor: Judith Wolff
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, from Detroit, the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy, a look at what life is like for citizens of a city that for decades has been withering around them and some recent efforts to reverse the decline.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Wow, this is bad. So all these yards are like this?

RICK PIORNACK: All these yards, we have probably four vacant homes all in this condition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is your neighborhood.

RICK PIORNACK: This is my neighborhood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What happened to Rick Piornack’s neighborhood is just the most visual reminder of what’s happened to Detroit. But for Piornack, it’s one that hits close to home.

Compared to what it was like when you were a kid, this has got to be pretty sad to see.

RICK PIORNACK: Very sad, very sad.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Piornack spent more than 30 years fighting fires across this city. Now retired and on a fixed income, he and his wife, Brenda, are staying put in the home they have lived in for more than four decades despite the eroding houses around them.

RICK PIORNACK: This is our little bit of heaven.

WOMAN: Yes. We sit here and watch the sun go down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Piornack is feeling Detroit’s financial woes in other ways, too. He’s just one of nearly 30,000 current and retired city workers who expect to see cuts to their pensions and health care benefits as the city tries to dig itself out of financial ruin. Detroit can’t pay its bills, and is looking to cut an estimated $18 billion of debt, according to city officials.

RICK PIORNACK: I feel very let down. My father was a police officer in the city. I have been a fireman in the city. My son is a fireman in the city. I feel like I have really been let down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just weeks ago, Detroit became the largest municipality ever to file for bankruptcy. There are many unknowns as the city attempts a restructuring plan.

Stephen Henderson, editorial editor at the Detroit Free Press, grew up here and is intimately aware of the city’s fighting spirit, but says bankruptcy may be the city’s toughest challenge yet.

STEPHEN HENDERSON, Detroit Free Press: There’s not much difference between most places in Detroit and post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s not as shocking because it happened over a long period of time, but it’s just as devastating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Detroit’s decline from an industrial powerhouse into a financial ruin has been slow and long. At its height in the 1950s, Detroit boasted more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Now that number is less than 30,000.

That 90 percent decrease has left huge holes, like the ones in Piornack’s neighborhood, all across the city. There are at least 60,000 parcels of vacant land. Blighted houses are a frequent reminder of just how deep Detroit’s problems are. The city’s population peaked at 1.8 million, but now is down to about 700,000. That means a much smaller tax base for a city that is trying to provide all the same services.

Forty percent of the city’s streetlights don’t work for lack of repair crews. The average response time for the Detroit Police Department to a 911 call is 58 minutes. And buses are constantly late if they come at all, making it hard for residents like Ivory Drake to make it to work and keep his job.

IVORY DRAKE: It used to be I could get on the bus and be anywhere, and be — have to sit and wait an hour before I could start work. But now, if you don’t get out early enough, or two hours before you have to be to work, you’re late.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The city has promised that reinvestment in these key services will be the silver lining of the bankruptcy. The city’s recently appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, says they hope to reinvest $1.25 billion in service upgrades and infrastructure.

Here’s Orr in a conversation with NewsHour’s Ray Suarez in July.

KEVYN ORR, Detroit Emergency Financial Manager: What Detroiters should expect is that services are going to get better. We’re already focusing on lighting, blight, police services, health, safety and welfare concerns.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Detroiters like Kim and Ivory Drake are still skeptical about whether the bankruptcy process means the city can improve their East Detroit neighborhood.

KIM DRAKE: I bet if you come back…

IVORY DRAKE: Next year.

KIM DRAKE: … next year…

IVORY DRAKE: My lights will still be out.

KIM DRAKE: It will probably still be looking the same. You will probably still have them houses over there that’s vacant, the one right next to me, the one right down the corner. It’s not going to help at all.

STEPHEN HENDERSON: I think the legitimate cynicism people have is that bankruptcy will just be about making a bare-bones, bare minimum city financially solvent, with spartan services, and not that many people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some communities are beyond waiting for the city to turn things around. They have taken matters into their own hands.

Every day, residents in this northwest corner of Detroit are rolling up their sleeves and using whatever tools they can get their hands on, even pickup trucks, to tear down vacant houses. They’re transforming urban wastelands into gardens and boarded-up storefronts into murals. We dropped by a busy meeting in the community of Brightmoor, where residents like Jody Scarlett discuss neighborhood needs and then delegate the resources necessary to tackle them.

JODY SCARLETT: If you ask the city for something, it’s just bureaucracy, just wait — it’s like a hurry up and wait and wait and wait, and nothing ever gets done. The community group helps us to get things done that the city just doesn’t provide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Community action has been fueled by private and nonprofit investment. Just weeks ago, these 14 blocks in Brightmoor were full of 84 tons of debris, overgrown weeds, and rotting trash. Now the land has been cleared. It’s a $500,000 privately funded project that local nonprofits hope to see replicated around the city.

Terrance Gore lives in this cluster of blocks. Gore started out just picking up trash. Now he works full-time driving a tractor to combat the blight that surrounds him in Brightmoor. He used to call the neighborhood the Moor, because he could not see anything bright about it.

TERRANCE GORE: You’re talking about just every day smell — it stinks from the trash people dump. And now just to wake up, you can smell fresh air. You can look, and it’s like, it’s — I’m amazed. It’s a good feeling. It’s like I can’t really explain how that feels every day just to wake up to a cleaner neighborhood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He is hopeful that the bankruptcy is a chance to reset the deck for the whole city and that it will only bolster his neighborhood’s efforts.

TERRANCE GORE: I’m just seeing this as just a start. If we can get this done while going through bankruptcy, what can we get done when we’re financially stable? A whole lot more than this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It won’t be easy; 40 percent of Brightmoor’s families live below the poverty line, and in a single decade the neighborhood’s population dropped by 35 percent. Even those who are working to better this community are cautiously optimistic.

JODY SCARLETT: I’m hopeful that it will get better, but at times, I just want to just get out. At times, I just want to leave my house behind and go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Reviving neighborhoods is critical, but so are jobs. And that’s where new industries closer to the city center might make a difference. Many are high-tech startups, but Shinola is bringing manufacturing back to the Motor City. It’s making craft bicycles, watches, and fine leather goods.

Business has taken off. And in terms of the city’s bankruptcy filing, CEO Steve Bock says the company knew what it was getting into.

STEVE BOCK, Shinola: We knew that when we came to Detroit several years ago that there were financial challenges, that there were challenges in the city. Had we made a decision today after the bankruptcy had been declared, we would have made exactly the same decision.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shinola assembly line leader Willie Holley has even more ambitions for the future.

So what’s your best-case scenario two years from now, five years from now? What do you see happening?

WILLIE HOLLEY, Shinola: I see us expanding, especially, like, on our other wing, trying to make leather goods and journals and things of that nature, and just having like a huge work force, sort of, that can compete even with the big three. So, I mean, I want — it would be nice if Shinola was in lights next to GM near the Renaissance building or something like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right now, that seems like a far-off dream. But other investments and young people coming to the city may make that dream possible.

STEPHEN HENDERSON: I think, in general, Detroiters are so used to bad news, and they are so used to things not really breaking our way, and they’re used to getting up the next morning and going, well, I can’t stop. I have got to keep going. I have got to keep — keep trying.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That resilience might turn out to be the city’s greatest asset that not even a bankruptcy can liquidate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, will other cities follow in Detroit’s footsteps? You can take a second look at our health of cities conversation. That’s on our home page.