Detroit Director of Planning and Development Maurice Cox spoke to a standing room only crowd at Clayborn Temple. His presentation, “Learning from Detroit: In Search of an Inclusive Comeback Story (with no easy answers)” showed parallels – and possiblities – between the Motor City and the Bluff City. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

The city’s description will be familiar to most Memphians: A metropolis situated on a river that is rich in musical and cultural contributions to the world – even as its leaders and citizens struggle with crippling poverty and blight. 

A description of the people will sound familiar too: A majority African American population that, despite largely being ridiculed and written off, is still proud of its tough, blue collar reputation.

You’re thinking of Memphis. But Maurice Cox is talking about Detroit – and how an inclusive and highly strategic revitalization plan is revving up the Motor City again.  – less than five years after the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history literally turned out the lights in huge swaths of the city.

And, as the City of Memphis continues to refine its “Memphis 3.0” vision for the future of the city, civic leaders brought Cox to Clayborn Temple on Aug. 27 to share a presentation he named “Learning from Detroit: In search of an Inclusive Comeback Story (with no easy answers).”

And if the title didn’t give it away, here’s Lesson No. 1: Staging a comeback that includes troubled neighborhoods and their residents will NOT be easy.

“If you came looking for a rah rah speech, uh, NO,” Cox said. “(Revitalizing a city) is really hard. And it can only be done with citizens at the forefront of that effort and professionals facilitating that work.”

A commitment from the city

When the housing market collapsed in 2008, it hollowed out the Detroit housing market, Cox said. The auto industry was at the edge of oblivion, and thousands lost their jobs, forcing many homeowners into foreclosure. Even city services like street lights went dark and response times to 911 calls were slow.

“New Orleans had Katrina,” Cox said. “Detroit had the Financial Crisis of 2008.”

Cox said that when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan came into office in 2014, he immediately set about getting street lights back on – and not just in prosperous neighborhoods, but even in blighted ones. Every light, every street, Cox said.

“That was important because it sent a message to every citizen – black, white, rich, poor, whatever,” Cox said. “And the message was this: Detroit is about to bounce back, and this city will not leave these neighborhoods behind.”

Case in point: When a developer wanted to renovate the Stone Soap building in Detroit, they were required to include in their plans a permanent home for Shakespeare in Detroit, a theatre company that bounces from venue to venue.

The city now requires that level of commitment from any developer seeking to build in the city, Cox said. “Sure, you can build that apartment building,” Cox said. “But there better be a line item in there for a service or resource that these neighborhoods need.”

Controlling the land helps too. The City of Detroit took ownership of more than 80,000 properties after the collapse, which enabled officials to “think big” about how to transform the city. It also gave them room to bulldoze more than 11,000 blighted buildings. At one point, Detroit was razing about 100 buildings a week.

“When you control the land, you control the future of your city,” Cox said.

“A riverfront for all”

As officials began to imagine the future of Detroit, Cox said, they realized there wasn’t a common public space that could be enjoyed by the entire city. In New York,  Central Park attracts diverse residents from throughout the city, which can help foster a larger sense of community.

Detroit officials are banking that a 5.5-mile stretch of land along the Detroit River can have the same effect. But unlike some cities that prioritize high-rise buildings on the waterfront, Detroit is reserving the riverfront for a promenade where kids can ride bikes, families can picnic and yoga instructors can stand on one leg.

“Everyone thought the riverfront was for sale,” Cox said. “But we wanted to create the unique experience of a wetlands park right in the heart of the city – a landscape people can’t find in their neighborhoods.”

But even more fundamentally than that, Detroit invested in roads and bike lanes that would make it easy for people from nearby neighborhoods to get to the riverfront park – before the park was complete.

“The first multimillion dollar project in the riverfront project wasn’t spent on the riverfront,” Cox said. “It was spent in the adjacent neighborhoods. That sent the signal that this is going to be a riverfront for all.”

The heart & soul(s) of a city

Cox noted that often, conversations around revitalizing cities has a way of pitting downtown development against what’s good for neighborhoods. But it’s a false choice, he said.

“The heart of the city is your downtown,” Cox said. “You only have one downtown and it belongs to everyone. So it makes sense that your downtown would get investment.

“But the soul of any recovery resides in its neighborhoods,” he continued. “And there are many souls in a city. If you don’t nourish the souls of your city, the heart will stop beating. It’s not one or the other.”

That’s why planners are taking extra care to preserve the personality of neighborhoods. Instead of new construction, some vacant lots will become fields of flowers. If there are artists in a community, city officials want to accentuate their work instead of driving them away. 

Being intentional about preserving the culture of a community is a top priority, Cox said, pointing to the cautionary tale of Washington D.C.

“People were so eager to get development that D.C. became one of those cities that gentrified its population out of the city,” Cox said. “We’re blessed to be about 10 years behind that. So we’re able to make sure that we don’t destroy what makes these neighborhoods special.”

But . . . will it work in Memphis?

Early in his presentation Cox proudly described Detroit as “Big. Black. And Beautiful” – references to the Motor City’s geographic footprint, architectural legacy and its 80 percent African-American population. Of course, there are differences, but with all of the similarities between the two tough-minded cities, the obvious question is: “Will it work in Memphis?”

Some leaders are optimistic.

Carol Coletta, president and CEO of the Riverfront Development Corp., is a longtime friend of Cox’s and has traveled to Detroit often. She’s wowed by Detroit’s riverfront, but thinks Memphis can do better. “We have a far superior river,” Coletta said. “But we do not have a superior riverfront, and that’s our opportunity. 

Coletta likes the idea of a promenade along the Mississippi bluff, one that extends South to Martin Luther King Park, “and use that to encourage re-investment in South Memphis. Connecting South Memphis to our riverfront could be a big move,” she said. But she really thinks Tom Lee Park is due for a makeover.

“That’s the money shot for Memphis, when you come down Riverside Drive,” she said. “We need to make Tom Lee Park the beautiful park it can be. That wouldn’t just be a park statement, but a big civic statement. It would telegraph our ambitions as a city.”

Dexter Washington, chief operating officer of the Memphis Housing Authority, appreciates the “neighborhoods first” approach.

“They’re not just focusing on building new homes, but on building back areas that were once occupied and can easily be occupied again,” Washington said. “I liked that they’ve created all this green space. That can really get neighborhoods looking like neighborhoods again.”

Roby S. Williams liked what he saw, but is skeptical about whether corporate and business leaders in Memphis will reach out to residents in a meaningful way.

“There was a level of constructive engagement of all the stakeholders in Detroit. That doesn’t happen here in Memphis,” said Williams, CEO of the Black Business Association of Memphis. “Too often, the only people in the room are white men, and many times they’re not even from Memphis.”

Williams believes any economic comeback in Memphis will require the chamber to go the extra mile to include the city’s people of color in the conversation.

“Everything rises or falls on leadership,” Williams said. “And not necessarily political leadership.”