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Reviving Detroit

Much of the talk in Detroit, lately, has centered on how to save a city enduring some of the most extreme effects of the economic crisis. One interesting part of that conversation is a plan to basically shrink Detroit, a sprawling city of some 140 square miles built for nearly 2 million people (officials expect the U.S. Census to show a city of barely 800,000). The details are being shaped. But it will mean demolishing thousands of abandoned buildings and somehow encouraging – or, some fear, forcing – residents of Detroit's many sparsely populated blocks to move to more viable neighborhoods, especially near the city's center. Vast stretches of Detroit may become farmland.

Meanwhile, there's a series of proposals to reform education -- one of the keys to Detroit's potential revival. One plan would close dozens of aging public schools and open several new campuses, in partnership with local universities. Then, an unusual coalition of philanthropic, business and political leaders has pledged to recruit top principals and teachers from across the country to work in Detroit's best-performing schools – potentially creating a robust marketplace of public, charter and independent schools that could attract the middle-class families this city desperately needs.

There are so many overlapping plans, proposals and declarations, it's tempting to become exhausted and skeptical about how much of it is simply boosterism. But the efforts, in total, signal that Detroit is at a crucial moment. And there is one key risk: too much short-term thinking about what it will take to revive Detroit.

Shortly after arriving in Detroit, I asked the mayor, Dave Bing, to outline his vision for what Detroit will look like in a generation. He told me: “We can't think long-term right now, because the immediate problem we're dealing with is a shortage of cash.” If Detroit doesn't resolve a budget deficit of at least $300 million, he continued, “Someone else will come in here and try to make those decisions for the city.” He has a point.

It's foolish to think of Detroit's future in terms of a single year, or decade. Detroit is in a position to become a model for what an American city should look like in 50 years, and beyond. In thinking about how to make Detroit – and, certainly, other cities – work in the so-called new economy, we must constantly ask: Who's ultimately leading the turnaround, and what do their plans mean for current average citizens?

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