This Issue
 
detroit-is-dying

People love to make sweeping proclamations about Detroit. Depending on whom you listen to, Detroit is in ruins, or Detroit is back. Detroit is the worst city in America, or Detroit is the new Brooklyn. Detroit is a hip town, or Detroit is a ghost town.

WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

I feel like (the city) is coming back. I see more people out there volunteering for things. You have more people getting involved. It’ll be back in a couple more years. I know that for a fact.
Adaptation and resilience are two keys to success for a sustainable future. We have to adapt to climate change. And we have to pick ourselves back up and be successful despite the challenges. Those are two qualities that the people of Detroit have more of than anybody else in this country. We have been adapting for decades.

– Emile Lauzzana, director of energy and sustainability for the Detroit Public Schools

I think in order to develop an area that has so many significant financial challenges, you’re going to need to be very, very careful about where money is spent. And when you spend money on sustainable areas, often you see a payback.

– Peggy Brennan, co-founder of the Green Garage, a Detroit co-working space for “triple bottom line” businesses that focus on environmental and social measures, in addition to profit

As Detroit rebounds from its lowest lows, some see the opportunity to make sustainable building practices key to the city’s rebuilding efforts. But can a place built on the back of the internal combustion engine really become a hotbed of green development?

 

With 139 square miles of land and a population of around 700,000 people (down drastically from its peak of nearly 2 million in 1950, but still enough to keep the city ranked ahead of Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.), Detroit is large enough to accommodate whatever story angle outside observers are interested in mapping onto it. A photographer sent to snap pictures of blight will see nothing but abandoned buildings. A reporter sent to cover urban agriculture will see nothing but community gardens and farmers’ markets.

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And so, when people start whispering in your ear about how Detroit is poised to become a model city for sustainable development, it’s easy to be a little skeptical at first—to think that maybe this is just another angle. Detroit is, after all, a city with ample surface parking downtown but meager mass transit options; a city that still, in 2014, doesn’t have curbside recycling for all of its residents; a city that greets visitors on their drive into town with a giant Uniroyal tire by the side of the freeway, backgrounded by smokestacks belching into the sky.

 

But Detroit is also a place where open space is plentiful and land is cheap; a place where a scarcity of resources makes the idea of reusing materials and saving on energy costs particularly attractive; and a place where residents—who’ve spent years reading about how the decline of the auto industry sealed their own doom as well—are eager to prove that there’s life in Detroit after the assembly line.

 

“I think it’s real,” says Jeff Gaines, chairman of the board of directors for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Detroit Regional Chapter, of Detroit’s projected green boom. “I think what you’re seeing is that the younger folks are demanding it and some of the more savvy folks are seeing the benefits. To me, sustainable development is really smart development. If we are going to try and get the city back on its feet, I think we want to do it in an intelligent way. We’re talking about doing things in a much more lean manner and on a much smaller scale than we’ve done them before.”

 

On an official level, the city’s 350-page urban planning document, “Detroit Future City,” calls for improved public transit, increased density and walkability, better lighting efficiency, the creation of landscapes that actively clean the air and water, and other green features. And a number of building projects in the city and region have been awarded Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification, including Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield, Habitat for Humanity in Pontiac, and Strategic Energy Solutions in Berkley.

 

But much of the buzz in Detroit surrounds the work of small groups, individuals, and organizations outside of City Hall: activists in the city’s neighborhoods working on small solar projects and community gardens, business investments that are bringing people back to downtown, and an influx of young social entrepreneurs who consider sustainability an important part of their bottom line.

 

“We have finally reached a point where we have an open blueprint,” says Gaines. “Before, we always had all sorts of encumbrances in the way. There was always a reason why we couldn’t do this or why we shouldn’t do this. We’re at a point now where we can really start to re-map where we want to go. If we want to recycle, if we want to put in mass transit, we probably have a better shot of doing it now than we ever have.”

 

“While other cities may be further along than Detroit in implementing sustainable building practices our projects tend to have a ‘green boutique’ feel to them that might not translate elsewhere,” says Jacob Corvidae, a former member of the regional chapter board and the interim executive director of a nonprofit group focused on sustainable development. “Our feeling is that when we have sustainability solutions that work in Detroit, anybody can use them,” he says.

 

In other words: If it works in Detroit, it can work anywhere.

detroit-cartoon-lg
community-activism

“How much more do you want to see?” asks Reverend Joan C. Ross, driving past block after block of blighted homes in Detroit’s North End. “I hate showing people this stuff. They go back and this is what they write about. They don’t write about all the great ideas coming out of Detroit. They write about this.”

Ross, whose close-cropped hair is dyed to match her stylish red eyeglass frames, came to Detroit 30 years ago to become a McDonald’s franchisee. She later co-owned a local nightclub and only went to school to become a minister in 1999. She preaches in a nondenominational service at an Episcopal church each Sunday and she’s an outspoken advocate for the North End, her language veering toward the unprintable when she talks about outsiders’ perceptions of her neighborhood.

 

She’s also a fierce defender of the city’s image, and she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be party to yet another article focusing solely on blight.

 

Volunteers work on the upkeep of the property.

Volunteers work on the upkeep of the property.

In truth, no one needs a tour guide to find bombed-out buildings in Detroit. They’re everywhere, a fact that has been painstakingly documented in slideshow after Internet slideshow. (This phenomenon has been derisively dubbed “ruin porn,” and it reached its peak sometime around 2009, when VICE published an article titled “Something, Something, Something Detroit.” The story took lazy journalists to task for parachuting into the city and depicting its decrepitude while ignoring any signs of progress or stability.)

 

What’s shocking isn’t so much the boarded-up homes, or the homes that have been left open without boards, or the ones where all the windows are broken, or the ones that have no windows at all, or the ones covered in graffiti, or the ones whose porches have completely collapsed, or the ones resembling dumpsters with trash spewing out into their yards. You’ve seen these. You’re prepared for these. No, what’s shocking are the houses next to them—the ones with a fresh coat of paint, flower boxes on the windowsills, or kids’ bikes leaning against a fence. The ones cropped out of the “ruin porn” photos.

 

Many people talk about the city being a “blank slate” or “fresh canvas” on which Detroiters can create anything they want. But driving through the North End, it’s clear that there’s no such thing as a blank slate. There’s only what’s here. These homes are just a few miles from downtown, right off Woodward Avenue—the city’s “spine”—and unlike some farther-flung neighborhoods, the North End has not turned into an urban prairie. Plenty of people remain, people who never left no matter how bad things got, people still trying to make a go of it in Detroit even as the world around them literally falls apart.

 

Standing among these still-making-a-go-of-it homes is 250 Alger Street, a rambling six-bedroom house on one of the neighborhood’s better blocks (at around 2,500 square feet, the structure is actually on the smallish side for the North End, once a seat of African-American wealth in the city). Ross, until recently, was executive director of a group called the Greater Woodward Community Development Corporation, which bought the house in 2010 and rehabbed the property using green techniques.

 

Although this “project house,” as Ross calls it, is certainly in better shape than many of the surrounding homes, a visitor wouldn’t necessarily guess at first blush that this is a “home of the future.” The kitchen is decades beyond dated, and some of the bedrooms’ lusterless hardwood floors are splattered with paint. But visitors can catch a glimpse of the cutting-edge in the home’s systems and also in its story.

 

The house had been abandoned and pillaged before Ross’s former group snagged it for $5,000, and it was redone using repurposed materials. The trim work comes from other abandoned houses, including two reclaimed piano legs that adorn the passageway between the living room and dining room. A greywater system collects water from the bathroom sink and uses it to flush the toilet. Outside, there are solar panels on the roof and when rain falls, some is captured for irrigation and much of the rest is harnessed by rain gardens to help keep water out of storm drains.

 

Ross works to transform the perception of her town from blight to hope.

Ross works to transform the perception of her town from blight to hope.

“Green is our future,” Ross says. “So if we’re going to look toward the future, we have to start teaching. It has to start with something simple that people can see. They can walk around this house, they can see a solar panel and they can begin to see into the future. They never thought about climate issues. They never thought about a rain garden as a way of protecting the Great Lakes water basin and not overloading the storm drains. They never saw that. But if they walk through a project house and see this stuff in action, then it brings the future closer to them, today.”

 

Funded by a grant from the Kresge Foundation, the Greater Woodward Community Development Corporation trains people—most of them unemployed, some of them homeless—in the ways of sustainable development. Trainees are compensated with stipends or in the form of “sweat rent” (free lodging at the project house) and work in one of five teams. One team does blight remediation, one rehabs properties, one works on solar projects, one deconstructs old homes to keep usable materials out of landfills, and one restores wood windows to help conserve energy and lower heating bills.

 

In addition to the project house, the organization has installed solar panels at a local farmers’ market (the panels power the fans in the market’s hoop house). Ross also plans to work with another group to install solar-powered lawn lights in the neighborhood to help supplement the city’s notoriously spotty street lighting system. The achievements are impressive. But, in a neighborhood with more than its share of problems, ranging from crime to chronically underperforming schools to substandard city services, why the emphasis on going green?

 

Ross says she sees practical benefits to sustainable practices—the potential to improve the quality of life and cut costs for people in the neighborhood. Urban agriculture isn’t a fad or a hobby here; it’s a reliable way for people without access to good grocery stores to get fresh produce. Solar panels and window repairs won’t just save the environment, they’ll also save people money on their energy bills. And, Ross hopes, the trained workers will eventually use their acquired skills to open their own small businesses.

 

“One of the guys on the team told me his only hope was to see Detroit in his rearview mirror,” Ross recalls. “That’s how bad it was for him. And when we started the program, he felt there was some hope, that there was a future.”

 

William “Bud” Eley, who stands 6’10” and played professional basketball overseas for a number of years, works on the organization’s blight remediation team. “To me, green is the number one thing,” he says. “It’s cleaning up. What better place to start cleaning up than your own community?

 

“People come outside and thank us a lot,” Eley continues. “You give kids something to do, someplace to play.” His cousin, Sophia Eley, says the group’s work has had a noticeable impact. “When I left [the city] in 2005, it looked terrible,” she says. “When I came back, you could tell somebody had made a change.”

 

For Ross, getting people involved in the community is even more important than the blight team’s work boarding up vacant homes or mowing untamed lawns. “We try to empower people to get their voice back,” she says. “They have a right and a responsibility to this community. Whatever it is, it is what it is because of them too.”

 

“Yeah, we cut down the grass,” Ross adds. “But if you don’t change people’s outlook, if you don’t change their perspective, then cutting down the grass means nothing. It’ll just grow back.”

downtown-development

Standing 10 stories above Campus Martius Park—the downtown hub from which several of Detroit’s main thoroughfares spoke off in different directions—Bruce Schwartz points around the circle, identifying which buildings are owned by Bedrock Real Estate Services. Bedrock is the real estate arm of the Rock Ventures “Family of Companies,” of which Quicken Loans is the flagship.

He points to the 25-story circa 1930 First National Building, the 26-story One Woodward, Chase Tower, Chrysler House (formerly the Dime Building), and finally 1001 Woodward. The company doesn’t own every building downtown; it only seems that way.

 

“There was a skyscraper sale going on!” announces Schwartz, a compact and energetic man with peppery stubble and black, plastic-framed eyeglasses whose lenses darken when they’re exposed to sunlight. He wears a plaid scarf, a colorful lanyard, and a black pork pie hat—his trademark, which has somehow made its way, in silhouette form, onto Quicken’s branded mortgage documents.

 

The culture at Quicken is playful and creative. Gilbert’s hope is to recreate Detroit into a technology powerhouse.

The culture at Quicken is playful and creative. Gilbert’s hope is to recreate Detroit into a technology powerhouse.

Although Schwartz gives tours of the company’s downtown properties, he’s not an ordinary tour guide. His business card identifies his nebulous-but-important-sounding title as “Detroit Relocation Ambassador.” Even in the workaday world of home lending offices, he’s the life of the party, unable to walk more than a few feet without stopping to greet somebody with an enthusiastic, “What’s up, my man?” This kinglike confidence is owed, in part perhaps, to the identity of the first friend Schwartz made when he moved to Detroit as a child: Quicken founder and chairman Dan Gilbert.

 

Schwartz gazes down at Campus Martius from a social media command center set up in a room designed to look like half of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers home court. And, although hip and unique office spaces are practically mandatory for Gilbert’s companies, this is more than just a whimsical touch: Gilbert owns the Cavaliers. (Nationally, he’s probably best known for the scathing missive he posted online hours after superstar LeBron James announced he was leaving the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. In the note, Gilbert called James “heartless,” “selfish,” and “disloyal” and made a less-than-prophetic all-caps guarantee that the Cavs would win a title before James did.)

 

The Rock Ventures Family of Companies is an eclectic bunch of more than 100 companies, each of which seems to have less to do with the business of making home loans than the last. In addition to the Cavs (plus a couple of minor league sports teams), the family includes Northcentral University, an Arizona-based for-profit school; Protect America, a home security firm; Wedit, a service that lends digital cameras to marrying couples and offers editing services on the photos snapped by their guests; Rockbot, a social jukebox app for restaurants and bars; and several racetracks and casinos.

 

Bruce Schwartz dons a pork pie hat and is known as the “Detroit Relocation Ambassador.”

Bruce Schwartz dons a pork pie hat and is known as the “Detroit Relocation Ambassador.”

In 2010, Gilbert began moving his employees from the suburbs to downtown and started buying up real estate with the aim of turning the once-desolate city center into a thrumming high-tech hub. The pace and scope of this project have been breathtaking. In four years, he’s gobbled up more than 40 properties, investing around $1.3 billion in the process. And he’s not done buying yet.

 

“We’re actively still pursuing properties,” says Scott Collins, project director at Bedrock. “We really are in a mode where we need more assets to be able to offer our clientele. It’s a great problem to have.”

 

Bedrock is largely quiet about its efforts around sustainable development, and hasn’t yet pursued LEED for any of the buildings it’s redeveloped in Detroit. But, simply by virtue of how much property he owns, Gilbert will have a large say in how much green building happens (or doesn’t happen) downtown.

 

The corporate culture of Rock Ventures is centered around 20 or so “isms”—pithy little sayings ranging from the commonsensical (“Every second counts”) to the inscrutable (“We eat our own dog food”). The one that Collins, trim and perpetually smiling, repeats over and over again when discussing sustainability is perhaps the most basic: “Do the right thing.”

 

“We’re about doing the right thing and not necessarily needing something to hang on the wall to say we’re doing the right thing,” Collins says, pointing to high-efficiency systems the company has installed as it renovates buildings, such as variable refrigerant flow heating and cooling systems. Bedrock is also saving energy—and money—by using “smart” monitoring systems, which give the company the ability to control energy use remotely via mobile devices.

 

Collins also argues, not unreasonably, that the company deserves some credit simply for redeveloping so many buildings rather than letting them rot. “Instead of tearing some of them down and starting over, we’re reusing them,” he says. “We’ve purchased some that have sat idle for 20, 30 years. Literally, I go into buildings where I’m climbing over rubble to see what the facility even looks like, and then we turn it into a Class A office space that is full of tenants and full of life. It’s unbelievable.”

 

When sustainable practices run up against one of the company’s other priorities, sustainability doesn’t always win. A prime example is the company’s practice of intentionally leaving its skyscrapers well lit at night. “Believe it or not, it just generates a feeling of life and of business. It says, ‘Hey, we’re back,’ ” Collins asserts. “To walk down Woodward Avenue at night and to have lights on around you is an invigorating feeling. Even if it flies in the face of energy savings, it’s the shot in the arm that the city needs.”

 

Although Gilbert has not gone after LEED-certification in his downtown office buildings, he does employ sustainable practices in the rehabilitation process.

Although Gilbert has not gone after LEED-certification in his downtown office buildings, he does employ sustainable practices in the rehabilitation process.

USGBC’s Jeff Gaines is largely deferential when discussing Gilbert. “Could he be doing things a little bit more efficiently, could he be doing things a little bit more sustainably? Probably,” Gaines allows. “I think he could. But we’ve had so many people come through here, take a look, and then walk away. And he’s stuck it out. He hasn’t just stuck it out on one project; He’s stuck it out on dozens and dozens of projects with more to come. You can’t argue with that, when so many people have ducked and said, ‘That’s too much for us.’ ”

 

Many of Bedrock’s buildings that had been vacant or close to it for years are now nearly 100 percent occupied. The company has more than 12,000 of its own employees working downtown and says it has recruited more than 100 other tenants. The spaces Bedrock has created are gleaming and undeniably funky. In the basement of the Chrysler House, former bank vaults are now conference rooms, their enormous locks left in place. Outside one of these rooms, a life-size statue of a horse wears a yellow-and-red striped scarf and stands next to a portrait of Abe Lincoln wearing kaleidoscopic sunglasses.

 

“We have approached [Gilbert],” Gaines says. “His comment to us was, he’s moving very fast. If we can keep up with him, he’s interested. But if we can’t, we need to move out of his way. I think we have to make the compelling argument that we’re not going to slow you down, but we’re going to help you out in the long term.”

 

Bedrock officials themselves describe the company as having very little patience for delays or red tape. As Collins points out, “I’ve been involved with jobs that are LEED certified, and they have a timing component that is not conducive to the speed at which we work.”

 

On the tour, Schwartz shows off Chase Tower, once a “brown bank building” with drab carpeting and fixtures. The interior is now open, airy, and filled with pops of color. One floor is filled with a sea of loan officers chatting busily into their headsets, their desks adorned with cardboard cutouts of their faces (the wall decal and graphics company Fathead is another of Gilbert’s properties).

 

Schwartz points out a single strip of mock ceiling tiles lining the exterior of the expansive room, a concession to regulators who insisted that Bedrock preserve at least the appearance of the building’s old drop ceiling in order to qualify for historical preservation tax credits. It’s clear that Schwartz views this as an eye roll-inducing level of bureaucracy, and it seems unlikely that the company will agree any time soon to subject itself to paperwork and inspections that aren’t absolutely mandatory.

 

“We know what we want, and we want to do ‘green’ stuff,” Schwartz says, making quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “But at the same time, we’re not waiting around for others to make decisions on what the rules are. We’re going forward.”

accidental-environmentalist

Phillip Cooley is an accidental environmentalist. He and his partners weren’t green, he says, when they set out to open Slows Bar-B-Q, a restaurant in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. “I didn’t even know what deconstruction was,” he says. “We started studying it afterwards. But we went dumpster diving for the material that we had already thrown out because we didn’t have the money for new material. That’s why all of Slows is made from reclaimed material—once we started milling it, we started realizing its beauty.”

The restaurant opened in 2005 and was startlingly successful, eventually garnering a New York Times write-up and other press coverage. The articles focused not so much on the food (which most people agree is very good) but on the fact that someone had invested in Detroit—directly across from the dilapidated Michigan Central Station, no less, perhaps the biggest “ruin porn star” in the whole city—and it actually worked. It also didn’t hurt, certainly, that Cooley was young (he’s still only 36) and photogenic (no reporter can resist mentioning his former career as a male model in Europe).

 

Cooley tries to use locally sourced meats and environmentally friendly to-go containers; however, he tried out waterless urinals but gave up on the experiment when people complained about the smell. At a second Slows location, he wanted to use geothermal energy but the costs turned out to be prohibitive.

 

In 2011 Cooley created Ponyride, a co-working space for businesses and nonprofits. much of the building material to rehab the warehouse is recycled. The tenants who participate in community outreach programs can reduce their rent.

In 2011 Cooley created Ponyride, a co-working space for businesses and nonprofits. much of the building material to rehab the warehouse is recycled. The tenants who participate in community outreach programs can reduce their rent.

Unsatisfied with staying in his own corner, the entrepreneur serves on the boards of a number of local organizations and has also organized special dinners at abandoned buildings, turning the symbols of Detroit’s decay—for a night, at least—into social hotspots.

 

If Dan Gilbert has helped make Detroit a more profitable place to do business, and if Joan Ross has helped make it more livable and affordable, then Cooley has done his part to make the city hip again.

 

After two and a half hectic years of managing Slows, Cooley hired a new general manager and turned his attention to other projects, mostly centered around his newfound do-it-yourself environmentalism. He’s helped organize the revitalization of Roosevelt Park, which sits between Slows and the abandoned train station, and for a time he worked with other entrepreneurs individually, helping with architectural drawings and carpentry.

 

In 2011, Cooley bought a 30,000-square-foot warehouse for $100,000 and turned it into a co-working space called Ponyride, where businesses and nonprofits that agree to participate in community outreach and education programs pay cut-rate rents. Cooley worked with other entrepreneurs to refurbish the warehouse using reclaimed materials, elevating it from merely industrial to industrial chic. The wood floor of the basement dance studio, for example, came out of a local high school.

 

one business at Ponyride is a metalsmithing shop that refurbishes old sewing machines for the nonprofit organization that makes sleeping bag coats for the homeless.

one business at Ponyride is a metalsmithing shop that refurbishes old sewing machines for the nonprofit organization that makes sleeping bag coats for the homeless.

“I love the idea of collaborating, and I love the ideas of participation and partnership,” Cooley says. Ponyride now houses (among other things) a couple of small clothing companies, a metalsmith shop, and a company called Beard Balm, whose website warns that its products “may cause excessive beard.”

 

Nine seamstresses work busily in a Ponyride studio on the day that their employer, nonprofit organization The Empowerment Plan, wins the Diane Von Furstenberg People’s Voice Award, which comes with a $50,000 prize.

 

The Empowerment Plan only makes one product, a coat that turns into a sleeping bag. Founder Veronika Scott invented the coat for a college design project and her group gives them out to homeless people free of charge. On warm days, wearers can roll up the coat and, with a couple of snaps, transform it into a sort of sling bag to carry their possessions. Each coat costs about $100 to produce, with operations funded by grants and donors (among them Dan Gilbert, who gave $250,000 after meeting Scott at a charity event).

 

When Scott first brought the coat to a homeless shelter, a woman told her, “Lady, your coat is great, but we don’t need coats; we need jobs,” and so The Empowerment Plan now hires all of its seamstresses out of shelters, starting them out at $10 an hour for training.

 

“This is something that they can count on—full-time work,” says Julie Benac, the organization’s cheery and bespectacled director of production. “Within six months, they’re usually in housing.”

 

The group also holds classes for the women, teaching them computer skills and how to write a résumé. “If they want to stay with us, great, but we want nothing more than for them to go on to a better job,” says Benac.

 

Although The Empowerment Plan’s focus is on social justice—rather than on sustainability—Benac says that the organization’s shoestring nature demands thrift and encourages collaborative work. Around a year ago, someone at General Motors called and was looking to get rid of a bunch of leftover fluffy material from inside car doors. Scott repurposed the fluff as insulation in the coats’ liners. Carhartt donates the coat’s rugged outer material but at one time also donated old sewing machines. They had odd bits of metal soldered onto them, making them difficult to use, so Ponyride’s metalsmith shop refurbished them. “It’s been the most amazing collaboration,” Benac says. “You have all these unrelated businesses that seem to have nothing to do with each other but you find ways to work together.”

 

This sort of interconnectedness is central to Cooley’s vision for sustainability. He points out that Henry Ford, by paying his autoworkers (an at-the-time astounding) $5 per day, helped to create a stable middle class that could afford to buy his cars. In the same way, Cooley says his own business stands to benefit from being surrounded by a thriving neighborhood. “For us, the long-term sustainability of our business is about the long-term health and sustainability of our community,” he says. “I think that’s why we reinvest into the community and give back. We don’t want to be a business that’s here for one year, two years, five years, ten years. We want to be here for a long time.”

the-new-narrative

There’s too much going on in Detroit for a single story to contain it all. Cooley isn’t the only person to start a co-working space with a sustainable focus, just as Gilbert isn’t the only businessperson investing in downtown and Ross isn’t the only community activist working on green projects. The three of them represent three very different segments and yet each one is vital to the city’s recovery.

It’s an open question, though, whether these different groups will ultimately be able to work together, or if their competing priorities and interests will result in losers as well as winners in the years ahead.

 

Some have dubbed Dan Gilbert’s huddle of downtown buildings “Gilbertville,” and although the term is usually used as a descriptor, it’s difficult not to hear echoes of “Pottersville,” the dystopian alternate reality from It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a slumlord reigns over an entire town after scooping up all the property when it was cheap.

 

Gilbert is not building slums. He’s largely been lauded for making real investments and jumpstarting commerce downtown rather than sitting on property and leaving it undeveloped. Even Cooley—hardly a poster child for deep-pocketed developers—calls him a “hero.”

 

But Ross is more skeptical. In particular, she speaks with bitterness about the M-1, a planned 3.3-mile rail line that will run from downtown out to Grand Boulevard but won’t reach out into the city’s farther-flung neighborhoods, most of which are poor, predominantly black, and starved for good transit options.

 

Particularly riling, Ross says, is the fact that a maintenance station for the line is planned in the North End but residents won’t be able to board at the station. “You’re not serving my community but you’re impacting my community,” she says and then jokes, “It only moves at 11 miles an hour so just slow it down and we’ll jump on.”

 

In an email, M-1 spokesperson Sommer Woods says that North End residents will be able to access the line via other stops in the neighborhood, and that one of the stations is only two and a half blocks from the maintenance station. “The streetcar will connect downtown to the North End,” she says.

 

Despite the current bumper crop of cheap real estate, Ross also fears the specter of gentrification, worrying that the people who stayed in Detroit even at the city’s nadir may eventually be pushed out of their homes—or, at least, that they will miss out on most of the benefits of the city’s recovery. “We’ve been through the worst of times in Detroit, and we ought to be able to be here in its rebirth,” she says.

 

While Detroit’s population is more than 80 percent black, the people here are largely white, with a median age hovering around 30. It raises the question of whether the benefits of Bedrock’s investments are reaching the people who’ve lived in the city for decades or if they’re largely flowing to suburbanites and transplants.

 

Perhaps it’s not a fair question. It’s not Gilbert’s job to find employment for every former autoworker in town, any more than it’s his job to lead the charge for a green building boom in the city.

 

Race is a current running through virtually every conversation about Detroit—a city whose history is littered with phrases like “white flight” and “race riot.” Talking to people here, one gets the feeling that—even in a green revolution—the most important colors might be black and white.

 

Consider the use of the phrase “urban pioneer,” sometimes applied to Cooley (although he doesn’t use it himself) and other social entrepreneurs. It may seem, at first, to be an innocuous celebration of people who are willing to live and work in Detroit at a time when some people are still scared to even drive into the city. But really, it’s a loaded term, seeming to suggest that the (mostly black) people who were in the city before Cooley don’t really count.

 

Ponyride communications manager Christianne Sims, who is black and a lifelong Detroiter, says she and her friends sometimes mock what they call a “Hipsterpher Columbus” mentality in some young (mostly white) outsiders who think they can come into the city and “save” the natives.

I think we’re on the verge of uniting all these separate people who are doing sustainable things into one. The challenge is getting everybody to work together. We’re talking about a huge city. But if we can get everybody working together, i think there’d be no stopping us.

– Yolanda Eley, member of the Greater Woodward Community Development Corporation’s blight remediation team

“I was just at a PR event yesterday, and everybody said, ‘Detroit is a blank slate.’ It almost had this Manifest Destiny type tone behind it,” Sims says. “Like, ‘Oh, I can come to Detroit and do what I need to do.’ There was almost a takeover sound in the voice. No one has that same tone when it comes to doing things in other cities.”

 

For any differences or disagreements or competing visions for the city’s future, most Detroiters seem to be able to agree on at least one thing. They’re ready for a new narrative to emerge, for the bold proclamations about the city—if people insist on making them—to at least start trending toward the positive. “The media doesn’t focus on this side of the story,” Schwartz says about the rapid redevelopment of downtown. “They focus on the ruins. The ruins are an old story.”

 

“Oftentimes people write the story slanted, that we’re not doing anything,” Ross says. “And it’s always slanted that someone from the outside has to come in. We have a lot of skills, a lot of talent, but a lot of times, it’s the resources we lack to get the job done.”

 

Cooley says it’s fair for outsiders to present the challenges faced by the city, but that the story shouldn’t stop there. “We do have struggles,” he says. “And we have to be honest about them so we can move past them together. At the same time, just dwelling on the same thing we already know about, over and over again, that’s not journalism. That’s sensationalism.”

 

Detroit still has a long way to go. If the city is to become the green building Mecca that some are predicting, then the work that’s happening now will be only the beginning. But what’s put onto paper won’t matter nearly as much, ultimately, as what’s put into practice.

 

What comes next will be decided by Detroiters: the ones who invest their money, the ones who rally their communities, the ones who pick up hammers and saws, the ones who lobby for mass transit and alternative energy, the ones who plant zucchini and peppers in their backyards, the ones who recycle, the ones who design energy-efficient buildings, the ones who spend an hour and a half on the bus each way to get to their jobs, and the ones who look at a vacant property and see potential instead of a problem.

 

Outsiders won’t write the ending to this story. They will.