By Tina Patterson
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan held a mandated community meeting Monday evening in District 5 at Sacred Heart Church on the city’s east side. The district is the largest in the city and home to the central business corridor of Downtown Detroit, the trendy and attractive Midtown region, and several affluent, historic neighborhoods.
On the other hand, the district also contains many neighborhoods suffering from blight and economic depression, which frequently seem left out of the celebrated recovery and are often located just blocks away from these developed, well to do areas.
In an upbeat tone, Duggan opened the first 30 minutes of the July 23 meeting with a PowerPoint presentation. He ran down a list of upcoming business developments to various regions in the district, proudly displayed renovations of city parks throughout the district, and promoted the city’s programs and efforts encouraging and supporting local entrepreneurs.
Yet noticeably absent on the mayor’s agenda was poverty. From his presentation, you would never know Detroit has the largest poverty rate of any major city in the nation.
Poverty was not, however, absent from the hearts and minds of the 200 plus residents in attendance.
Dozens of them lined up to ask questions of their mayor. They did not care so much about plans and park renovations Duggan presented. Instead, they made passionate pleas and demands about real quality of life issues they face on a daily basis.
For example, they questioned the definition of affordable housing in a city with low median income.
They demanded that water be declared as a human right, expressing their disgust at the water shutoffs to thousands of people, many of whom live in poverty and include vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly. The issue continues to be an ongoing public health outcry.
District 5 residents demanded an extension to a plan recently reached by settlement that allows residents facing foreclosure to buy back their homes from the city for $1,000. They argued that the deadline had a disproportionate effect on elderly and low-income neighbors, many of whom qualify for the program, but were having trouble securing the identification and payment needed to keep their homes. At the heart of their frustration was that the city wasn’t doing enough to publicize the settlement and the deadline for the affected homeowners to buy back their homes.
Residents additionally voiced their concerns about the safety of children in the neighborhoods. They expressed their disappointment with the failure of city services to pick up trash and debris from their lawns, when they routinely uphold their end of the bargain in the upkeep and maintenance of their homes.
The diverse crowd, including longtime Detroiters of 50-80 years, along with newer Detroiters, all demonstrated an infectious spirit of resilience and authenticity. Notably, the crowd constituted a multitude of occupations, from retired educators and city workers, to doctors, and bus drivers.
This spirited democracy in action once again disproved the myth of Detroiters as a lazy, unemployed, and uneducated population. Rather, it reaffirmed Detroiters as informed and responsible citizens who participate in robust civic engagement. They are a passionate and community-driven people, heavily invested their neighborhoods, and deeply concerned about the poverty and inequality ravaging their city.
Nonetheless, from the events that unfolded, it was obvious that there is an unmistakable disconnect between city hall and the everyday residents they are tasked to serve, who turn to their local government for answers to their issues. The accomplishments touted by the mayor were severely misaligned with the necessities of the residents, who readily and plainly expressed the commonplace and basic needs in their communities.
When Duggan did not have an administration official to turn residents to for answers, he practically had no answers to give. Although he serves as the chief executive of the largest city in the state of Michigan, the mayor at times appeared to defer his authority to state and federal law, rather than advocate for the needs laid out to him by his constituents.
To paraphrase what one resident in attendance stated: when residents show up to demand what they need, the city tells them they can’t do it.
From the meeting it is evident that the great comeback of the city will never be a true success until Detroit leaders act to improve the glaring needs of its citizens.
Tina Patterson is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, an independent non-partisan anti-poverty think tank based in Detroit.