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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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