Motor City Mission

Motor City Mission

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Elevate Detroit staff members and volunteers serve area residents during one its CommuniD Barbecues last year at Detroit’s Robert Redmond Memorial Park.

Is Detroit coming or going?

The conventional wisdom is that the once-bustling Motor City is the epitome of a metropolis in decline, a remnant of a bygone industrial era. But for many of us who have decided to intentionally make Detroit our home, we choose to believe that the city has a future.

It’s in our nature, I guess. We love to root for the underdog, and Detroit is definitely that. As politicians, businesspeople, and sociologists ponder the city’s chances, it takes faith to see a bright future for a city that has lost so much of its luster. But over the last few years, the city’s been gaining notoriety as a business incubator (see Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright), a destination for good eats, and the slow (but steady) revival of America’s number one auto manufacturing center. It’s home to four professional sports teams, including the Lions who went from serving as the laughingstock of the National Football league to finishing with a 10-6 season and making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Most recently, Detroit was even rated as having one of America’s top ten best downtowns. Detroit’s full of previously unrecognized promise. It’s resilient, tenacious, and on the verge of exciting change.

VITAL SIGNS: An attractive waterfront, competitive sports teams, and fine restaurants give Detroiters reason for hope.

However, a lot is still broken. Detroit’s also been synonymous with present-day notions of urban crime, decay, and impoverishment. At the height of its powers in 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million residents and a thriving economy that helped drive the fortunes of the rest of the nation. Now, 60 years later, the population has dropped to just 700,000 and is in a desperate struggle to recapture its cultural and economical relevance.

Over the past few years, Detroit has become a case study in what ails American cities. In 2010, Time magazine set up a special outpost in the city for a year to chronicle the city’s challenges. And a new book, Detroit: A Biography, finds former Detroit News reporter Scott Martelle analyzing what led to the city’s current misfortunes. Though a sobering read, a strength of the book is that it doesn’t live in the past by romanticizing the bygone glories of the auto industry or the Motown era. Instead, Martelle drills deep into the troubling factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Endeavors like Time’s reporting project and Martelle’s book are important reminders of Detroit’s challenges and possibilities.

Detroit is a city begging for educational reform and financial restructuring. And though Michigan’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased over the past year, Metro Detroit’s rate remains higher than state and national averages at 9.2% as of April.

Still, we hope.

Let the Sonshine

With unemployment rounding out at over 50,000, Detroiters have begun exploring other employment options. Detroit residents have begun to reimagine how to create a more sustainable economy — one that isn’t dependent upon a single industry. Through the diversification of business endeavors, some see slow progress.

Historically, a bottom-up, micro-level approach to local economic development has proven to be the most effective. According to the World Bank in a recent report, “Local economic development is about local people working together to achieve sustainable economic growth that brings economic benefits and quality of life improvements for all in the community.”

THE ROAD AHEAD: Downtown Detroit as seen along Woodward Avenue. Strapped with the fallout of crime, poverty, and political corruption, city leaders are in a desperate search for answers. Meanwhile, a cadre of Christian visionaries hope to become part of the solution. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Newscom)

Some Detroit entrepreneurs have even begun to use their business ventures in order to combat joblessness in their individual communities. Take, for example, Café Sonshine, a local eatery in the New Center neighborhood which employs local residents and provides a community gathering space. Or examine Wayne State University’s Tech Town, an organization that trains and equips fledgling local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to foster a successful business.

Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs who are working to address poverty and stimulate the metropolitan Detroit area through local business. Though all significantly different from each other, these individuals share the same passion and enthusiasm to eradicate poverty, share the love of Christ through community, and see Detroit become healthy and whole.

Community Elevation

GO-GETTER: Elevate Detroit’s Mike Schmitt

Mike Schmitt, director and community architect at Elevate Detroit, has a very intentional vision for his corner of Detroit. He’s firmly planted himself in the geographical area called Cass Corridor. The neighborhood — a small grid of streets located in the Midtown district — has been coined by some as “the Jungle.” It’s a high crime area rife with prostitution, drug dealing, and a strong gang presence that dates back to the early twentieth century. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was even partially plotted in Cass Corridor by Detroit’s Purple Gang, associates of Al Capone.

“It’s entirely likely that the same people who may have smiled at you earlier in the day have been up all night making drug runs, selling crack and heroin,” said Schmitt. “Though there are more churches per capita in Detroit than in any other city, there’s an unfed hunger here for community and love.”

Four years ago, Schmitt started Elevate Detroit and a related outreach event called CommuniD BBQs. To date, Elevate Detroit now organizes five BBQs in four different cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Mount Clemens. Each week, people come from across the metro Detroit area to join in fellowship with people of different ethnicities and socio-economic positions. On these Saturdays, it’s a piece of God’s kingdom here on earth.

“I’ve tried to move away a couple of times now, but Detroit is my home. Once you see God moving in so many different ways, it’s impossible to leave,” he said.

SERVING THE WHOLE PERSON: Community residents wait in line for food and other resources during Elevate Detroit’s CommuniD Barbecue and mobile health clinic events.

Schmitt also is the primary visionary behind Dandelion’s Café, a new business and community outreach model in the heart of Cass Corridor. Though not officially off the ground yet, Schmitt and his team are in the process of raising capital and hope to get started soon. The hope is for Dandelion’s Café to serve the dual purpose of a coffee shop and concert venue in the building directly adjacent to the park at 2nd and Seldon in Detroit. Schmitt dreams of hosting open-mic nights, karaoke nights, local music nights, and even bring in national acts for concerts. Schmitt and his crew envision this venue becoming a center for community in the neighborhood and creating jobs for those who are in disadvantaged situations.

To complement this model, Schmitt hopes to purchase a nearby house or small apartment building for his previously homeless employees to live in with other residents — families, singles, and the elderly alike. He sees this partially as an antidote to the “No ID” problem. Without a permanent residence to reference on employment applications, it’s impossible for many transients to nail down a job. And without a source of income, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.

“I believe that by doing life together, we’ll create a support network for those who don’t have one,” said Schmitt. “The more that I came down to Detroit from my suburban home, the more I started to realize how much we all had in common and I wanted to do something to help cultivate a support network for those who didn’t have one.”

Harriet Tubman in Detroit

Similarly, Mark Wholihan of The Car Whisperers, LLC yearns for Detroit’s “second chance.” Wholihan began praying for a purpose from God immediately after he became a Christian. After praying for more than eight hours straight one day, he began to envision a new kind of auto repair service, an opportunity that would allow him to use his business to employ people in his community with a lack of resources.

VEHICLE FOR OUTREACH: In this ad for his auto shop, Mark Wholihan stands out in his red suit. He launched the business as a way to connect with people in his Detroit community while aiding the city’s restoration.

The Car Whisperers, LLC opened in February of last year in Livonia, Michigan. This mobile mechanic auto repair facility services western Wayne County. Because it’s largely connected to other cities through an infrastructure of highways, the city of Livonia is an ideal base of operations for any largely mobile organization. Additionally, with easy access to cities such as Farmington Hills, Detroit, Canton, and Allen Park, its socioeconomic range of customers is widely varied and diverse.

“When God put this business on my heart, I nicknamed it The Harriet Tubman Mission,” said Wholian. “Through using this business, I’m trusting God to help me bring people from slavery to freedom.”

Like Mike Schmitt, Wholihan envisions his auto repair service as a stepping stone to a larger organization designed to provide clients with total rehabilitation. In the case of The Car Whisperers, he has dreams of founding a residential long-term rehabilitation program in Detroit for people in need of holistic recovery. This projected program, called Second Chance at Life, will include a homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, job placement services and an education center. As they continue to develop the micro-economy that will help to fund such an endeavor, Wholihan and The Car Whisperers are partnering with the YWCA community centers in order to expand how they meet the needs of their community.

“Reducing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, crime, poverty and the return to previous lifestyles will make the program successful,” declares a blurb on the ministry’s website. “[It is our hope] to help Detroit and the surrounding communities to become a better, safer place for everyone.”

Repairer of Broken Walls

Like the Wholihan and Schmitt, Lisa Johanon and her non-profit ministry, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), are targeting poverty and joblessness in Detroit through a grassroots movement. Johanon lives and works several blocks north of the burgeoning New Center district in Detroit. Located adjacent to the Midtown neighborhood and about three miles north of downtown, New Center was developed in the 1920s as a business hub that could serve as a connecting point between downtown resources and outlying factories.  Today, New Center is slowly developing into a commercial and residential success. From the summer-long event series in New Center Park to the growing headquarters of the Henry Ford Health System, New Center is making its mark on the Greater Detroit area.

FRESH VISION: Lisa Johanon (right) and her daughter Emma. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)

But blocks away in the neighborhoods north of New Center where Johanon lives, it’s another story. Though only separated by some city streets and skyscrapers, this area hasn’t been able to grasp the same commercial success that its evolving counterpart has enjoyed. Rooted in a chronic, generational poverty, these residential neighborhoods have more than just economic obstacles to overcome. The community’s struggles with drug abuse and mental illness are visibly prominent. It’s been calculated that up to 72% of the households are single-parent families. Johanon said the amount of tragedy and injustice has led residents to ask God, “Why?”

“You can’t talk about Jesus when your neighbors are hungry and don’t have a job,” said Johanon. “Long term impact happens because someone is walking beside them.”

So, that’s what Johanon made plans to do. She moved to Detroit in 1987 after helping plant a church in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. During her first seven years in Detroit, Johanon established and oversaw the Urban Outreach division of Detroit Youth for Christ. From there, she went on to become the executive director of the CDC, which she co-founded more than 15 years ago. She’s been planted there ever since.

The CDC aims to be a well-rounded resource for the central Detroit area. They organize and administer educational programs, orchestrate employment training, and create opportunities to spur job growth in the area. With their outreach initiatives and organic structure, the CDC takes Isaiah 58:12 to heart — “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

“The CDC is the model for economic development in our community,” said Johanon. “Walmart isn’t going to come to our neighborhood, so we have to create the job opportunities ourselves.”

Of the three Detroiters highlighted, Johanon has the most business experience to date. The CDC has launched five businesses in their community — Peaches & Greens Produce Market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Café Sonshine, CDC Property Management, and Restoration Warehouse. Each business has a twofold goal — to meet the needs of its community members and simultaneously provide them with jobs.

ON THE MOVE: Lisa Johanon (far right) and her Central Detroit Christian Development Corporation team received a May 2010 visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was encouraged by CDC’s Peaches & Greens venture, which provides Detroit neighborhoods with access to low-cost fruits and vegetables through a produce truck and store which are clean and safe. Mrs. Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative targets the problem of childhood obesity, hailed the CDC’s efforts.

But it’s not just about providing community members with a sense of dignity that financial stability can bring. Johanon understands that there needs to be a holistic approach to the restoration of dignity – an approach that includes attention to a person’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.

“The CDC believes that education empowers our community to grow and thrive. Employment equips our community to sustain families. [And] economic development transforms our community,” said a source on their website.

It’s easiest to understand what the CDC aims to do by looking at individual stories. “When we hired people from the neighborhood to work for Higher Ground Landscaping, not a single one could pass a drug test. Now, we only have two who still fail,” said Johanon. “The minority has pressure to change their lifestyle. We want to show that we’re committed for the long term.”

And she’s right — it’s consistent commitment that’s going to change the DNA of Detroit. Each of the entrepreneurs featured in this piece have committed their time, experience, and vision to making their little corner of Detroit more sustainable. In essence, they’ve surrendered their lives to God and His mission for them. And this is something that no politician or urban developer will ever be able to replicate — God using ordinary people to bring about change and renewal. Ultimately, Detroit’s revival — and the resurgence of any ailing city — will start and end with these kind of committed efforts.

Democracy Usurped in Benton Harbor

Democracy Usurped in Benton Harbor

Democracy has been usurped in Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Last Friday, Maddow reported on attempts by a state-appointed emergency financial manager to sell the economically distressed city’s public radio station on eBay. She said the station was the last place for residents of the predominantly African American city to hear from elected officials who currently have no power to act.

The Facts and the Players

The story is not new. The New York Times Magazine took it up in December, offering an in-depth look at how the situation evolved. In that article, readers learn that Whirlpool has its headquarters in Benton Harbor and that an aggressive redevelopment plan was sidelined by the Great Recession in 2008.

The Times described the EMF, Joseph Harris, as “a 67-year-old African American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache,” and outlined his job and how he got it like this:

“He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor [Rick] Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.”

Maddow isn’t the only person with a national platform to address the situation. The Times reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Benton Harbor to Selma, circa 1965, “because of the disenfranchisement of its largely black electorate,” and that comedian Stephen Colbert “offered a mock tribute to Harris: ‘I say good for him, because the people of Benton Harbor brought this on themselves. . . . Benton Harbor’s elected officials are incompetent, therefore, by electing them, the voters are incompetent. So they should lose their democracy.'”

Harris isn’t bothered by the attention, according to The Times. “Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic governments, he is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator.” He has fired numerous city employees, merged the city’s police and fire departments, and prohibited elected officials from doing anything other than calling meetings to order, recording their minutes, and adjourning them.

Local Voices

The Rev. Antoine Headspeth: "I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a dictatorship."

UrbanFaith talked to three people who are deeply invested in the city. The Rev. Antoine D. Headspeth is senior pastor of Bethel Christian Restoration Center and a lifelong Benton Harbor resident. He said although times have been worse there — particularly when rioting took place in 2003 and when unemployment was at an all-time high in the 1980s — he’s never seen the kind of political instability that exists now.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s dictatorship at its worst in terms of taking the voice away from the people,” said Headspeth.

Because years of “financial irresponsibility” and “incompetence” took a heavy toll on the city, Headspeth believed bringing in the EMF was a good idea, but he didn’t expect Harris to wield unilateral power to the degree he has.

“He can buy and sell as he chooses. He promised that at the beginning of the 2012 year, there would be a balanced budget. That has not happened. He promised that we would have a surplus. That has not happened. And so, when you do things that seem more personal that don’t benefit the city, then I have a problem with that,” said Headspeth.

In particular Headspeth sees Harris’s attempt to sell the radio station license and its equipment on eBay as “a slap in the face of the people” that is motivated by a desire to “shut people down” who were critical of him and his actions.

“To me that is unfair and just not right,” said Headspeth.

Dawn Yarbrough: "Change comes when people are informed."

Dawn Yarbrough also grew up in Benton Harbor, where her father once served as mayor and where both her parents have served as city commissioners. Although she has lived in Milan, Italy, for many years, on visits home three years ago, Yarbrough took note of various programs for youth that she thought deserved attention, like the Boys and Girls Club and glassblowing and martial arts programs. She began videotaping positive aspects of city life.

“They were stories that needed to be told, because lots of people who live here don’t realize what’s going on. They don’t the see the good things, because when you’re involved in your everyday life, you just hear the big picture,” said Yarbrough.

The local PBS affiliate, WNIT, has agreed to air her eight-part video series, Harbor Lights TV, and she is currently fundraising to make that happen.

“The objective is actually to help effect change. Change comes when people are informed about what exists, when they know there are programs that can help them or their children, and when they are encouraged to come out and participate in those programs,” said Yarbrough.

She declined to discuss the city’s problems, other than to say, “It is clear that our city needs assistance. If I am sick, then I am going to find a good doctor and I’m going to go to him and do my part in working with him to get well. … I hope that both sides: the emergency financial manager as well as the people who need to … find a spirit of collaboration so that we can all do what is best for our city and our citizens.”

The Rev. Brian Bennett: "A lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically."

The Rev. Brian Bennett has lived in Benton Harbor since 2005. He is pastor of Overflow Church and executive director of the Overflow Christian Community Development Assocation. Bennett thinks the attention Benton Harbor is receiving is “well-deserved, given the historic nature of the transformation that’s happening.”

“There are very few places where the long-standing residents of the community have a voice any longer,” said Bennett. “I think large portions of the community that used to have a voice just no longer do, or the voice that they had has been compromised by being a part of the change. As a result, I think [the attempted radio station sale] is a striking metaphor.”

“The EMF was probably within his rights legally with the sweeping power he’s been given, but I don’t think that what he did was right. There is a difference,” he said. “Some of what is being felt here is, ‘Yes, there needs to be change, but how we’re getting there is happening with such audacity. The word that is coming to mind is velocity. It is happening so quickly.”

Bennett sees broken relationships as the heart of the problem in Benton Harbor and said the EMF’s actions are an example of that.

“When you look racially and economically at our area, a lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically,” he said. “Our ministry is focused on unifying and being a place for all people and building bridges. That’s happening, but it takes time.”

The ministry focus at Headspeth’s church is also community building. “We believe if we build a strong community, we’ll build a stronger church and ultimately we’ll build stronger people,” Headspeth said. “I know the hearts and the passion of the constituents of the city of Benton Harbor and the people are not going to bow out easily.”

What do you think?

Is it undemocratic for states to unilaterally exercise power over “failing” cities?