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A City with Potential or Seizing the Day

You gotta love Detroit's love/hate relationship with itself. Sometimes, this city is like an introverted teenager, staring in the mirror and asking, “Am I pretty? What do you think of me?”

So it was with interest that I listened to author, educator and philanthropic leader Judith Rodin, who spoke Wednesday to an overflowing crowd at Wayne State University's Forum on Urban Issues.

After her keynote speech on “Reinventing American Cities for the 21st Century,” an audience member asked Rodin the equivalent of “Do you think Detroit can make it?”

Rodin replied with an unequivocal, “Yes.” Then she added: “I wouldn't be here otherwise.”

There you have it, Detroit. Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, likes you. She really, really likes you. And now it's time to stop whining, stop hiding behind our warts and get busy.

She said some other things, too.

HERE'S THE GOOD STUFF: “The potential here is really enormous for transformation in Detroit.”

THERE'S MORE: “I am deeply interested in the story being written in Detroit.”

AND THIS: “There's an abundance here” in terms of people, business leaders and charitable foundations. “The foundations are collaborating in ways that are unprecedented.”

THIS TOO: Because of Detroit's economic crisis, “Everybody is paying attention now. So if you don't believe in yourself, no one will.”

Ahem. Let's back up. Please let me introduce Dr. Rodin a little more formally. She has been president of the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation since 2005. She was head of Penn (where she was the first woman to serve as the president of an Ivy League institution) for a decade before that. That is where she took part in the university's massive undertaking to bolster the crumbling city surrounding that educational institution.

She also is author of the University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (The City in the Twenty-First Century). So she knows her stuff.

Cities, Rodin explained, are where people have migrated over the past few decades, and it is where we will continue to live for pretty much the rest of time. The Brookings Institute calls them “mega regions,” and there are about 50 or so of them. Basically, we need to care about these places, focus on ways to keep them healthy and fix those that aren't working, Rodin said.

Cities also are a focus point for the Rockefeller Foundation's interventions these days, Rodin said, including projects to bring good food/grocery stores to urban areas. (Hey, we could use that here!)

FYI: “The Rockefeller Foundation supports work that expands opportunity and strengthens resilience to social, economic, health and environmental challenges—affirming its pioneering philanthropic mission since 1913 to ‘promote the well-being' of humanity.”

Anchor institutions like universities (see WSU and Penn), medical centers and such are vital to keeping these mega regions going. She called this the “Eds and Meds” approach (such a great bon mot… She used two other phrases I loved: “urban vulnerability,” and “asphyxiated neighborhoods.”)

Taking care of their surrounding city is an obligation and an opportunity for these groups, Rodin noted. They have to tackle all of these region's issues simultaneously: housing, retail, business, education, transit.

At Penn, Rodin was part of a plan to bring West Philly back from the brink. It was falling apart in parts, and it threatened the university. So she and the rest of Penn's leadership forged a plan to build schools, rehab houses, build retail centers, create mortgage incentive programs, light up the walkways. They asked vendors to hire and buy local. When Penn did this sort of stuff, banks and other private investors followed. Neighbors started talking to neighbors. Blights got busted.

Rodin admitted it was hit and miss. There was plenty of failure to go around. But there also was success. For a region to succeed, you must have three things, she noted: innovation, participation and leadership. You must take deliberate risks to pursue progress. And it cannot be done on high. The community – the people and activists that live within the neighborhoods – must participate and be vigorous partners.

Here's what I learned from Rodin: Detroit needs an agenda like this. Let's get Mayor Bing in front of everyone with a focused plan. And then let's get behind it, put in some elbow grease for next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years or so and make it happen. I too think this is our moment. But if you don't believe me, believe Rodin. She's thinks we're pretty enough to get ‘er done.

“The moment is here for Detroit to do it. The stars are aligned,” Rodin said. “I think you have an amazing opportunity. I really hope you seize it.”

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  • 1

    This has to be the most powerful statement of all . . .
    “Everybody is paying attention now. So if you don't believe in yourself, no one will.”

    Rodin notes the 3 elements to succeed, innovation, participation and leadership - you can participate very easily by what you say and how you react when you talk about Detroit - We are our own worst enemy - in Detroit and Michigan.

    Talk about the positive, talk about the opportunities, educate yourself as to what is being done to move us forward - participate by being part of the solution - not the problem.

    Talk positive about our city and believe in Detroit and it will become contagious !!!!

  • 2


    We do need the new Jane Jacobs.

    1. I remain appalled that the Time Blog has never looked at Lafayette Park... the first and most successful Urban Renewal project in America. You should see some photographs of the Rhodies growing near downtown or the Japanese Maples in the fall.

    2. Dave Bing does not have a legitimate Planning Department. It's all ad hoc without people with the proper backgrounds. You can expect nothing from the Bing administration with this current situation.

    3. There should be a great international Architectural competition on urban housing near downtown to see if this younger generation can outperform Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer. Remember that these are Architect-Planners.

    4. Someone should light a firecracker under MSHDA since they have abrogated their responsibility for a number of years now, ruining the rural landscape and destroying a great logo illustrates the lack of profound understanding. They should be a key player and they need architectural intelligence.

    5. There needs to be some oversight over Robert Bobb's efforts. Certain moves are being made that are close to disastrous. The design for the King High School simply does not meet the needs of the school and washes out it's greatness. Having two architects on each project is costly and absurd. Who is doing the accounting on the accountants?

    6. Remember that the University Cultural Center area has been developing beautifully and it is a result of Architect-Planners' efforts in creating one of the largest Medical Centers in America. Midtown is fine and getting better.

    7. Mary Sue Coleman and the University of Michigan should pick up some buildings Downtown and create a U of M Detroit. Having students in and about Downtown is Vitally important. Isn't that the message of the lecture? The U of M efforts towards helping its original home are not substantive enough. Dave Bing should be romancing her on that.

    8. Data Driven Detroit needs to be a key element in all of this... they have done excellent work and they must not be allowed to languish.

    9. The light rail is a poppycock idea... there will be no demand and the solution in Brazil is far less costly and far more intelligent and beautiful. See TED.
    There needs to be destinations at each end.

    10. Jane Jacobs pointed out that Transportation Engineers really are a bogus group and we saw that with the special buses running from Downtown to the Cultural Center to the New Center and back. Empty.

    11. The money spent for the light rail would be far better spent on other projects for the city. The animated rendering with the 3 cars is a screaming travesty. Costs of upkeep and repairs will become a huge burden.

    12. Someone should point out that the ubiquitous 3 bladed fans that have become a symbol of hope for humanity are absurdly inefficient. They are examples of poor engineering and a Detroit Automotive Engineer developed fans that met the theoretical maximum efficiency 25 years ago. 59 vs < 39. That means that we are throwing away lots of capturable energy. And his designs are of metal... Can you think of a City that knows how to make metal things?

    13. Years ago the New York Times quoted me on saying that the pronunciation of the name Detroit has been transformed a number of times and it had become
    Destroyit. Demolition is not the only answer. In some cases yes but not in all cases. Tiger Stadium did not have to be lost. Cass Tech has no decent playing fields.

    14. In the history of Architecture and the development of Downtown Detroit and the American skyscraper there have been a number of buildings built in Detroit that are significant. The Fine Historic Architecture of the City and the Region must be preserved.

    15. To accomplish great things we need two things: INTEGRITY and COMMITMENT.


  • 3


  • 4

    And in the face of a breakdown RECOMMITMENT.

  • 5

    To your point #14: Henry Ford's first purpose-built auto plant, on Piquette Avenue in Detroit, has been rescued and opened to the public -- not by the government or large granting agencies or Ford Motor Company, but by dedicated volunteers.

    It's a world-class and remarkably original historic site, built in 1904. Restoration continues as the group gets resources. It's where the Model T was designed and first built. Hours and other details at


  • 6

    Well, Karen, I love how you write. Good Job.
    And I agree with Rodin in the things that are needed for Detroit to get better adding Perseverance. Which equates to commitment and recommitment as the other comments point out.
    See it is easy to fall in love, to stay in love is the hard part.
    It is easy to get excited about an idea but to follow through is the hard part. Plus, when it gets down to the nuts and bolts of getting things done, politics take a hold of it and complicate it.
    Hopefully we are a new breed of leadership that can get in there and push for good things.

  • 7

    Cities, Rodin explained, are where people have migrated over the past few decades, and it is where we will continue to live for pretty much the rest of time. The Brookings Institute calls them “mega regions,” and there are about 50 or so of them. Basically, we need to care about these places, focus on ways to keep them healthy and fix those that aren't working, Rodin said.

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