Detroit: What it's like to live in the most famous bankrupt city in America
DETROIT — Ora Williams has lived in her home in the Brightmoor section of Detroit for more than 35 years, and over those decades, she’s seen what was once a thriving middle class neighborhood sink into what many regard as the wasteland of the city.
Crime and economic turmoil drove many residents away. Their homes, left to decay, became epicenters for murders and drug deals. The overgrown trees and brush became illegal dumping grounds for everything from old boats to dead bodies. Neighbors pleaded with city officials to do something, anything, but the government, broke and famously dysfunctional, offered little help.
But Williams, a retired caseworker for the state Department of Human Services, refused to give up on Brightmoor — even as many around her packed their bags and looked for more stable ground. Her endurance is slowly paying off.
Over the past two years, private foundations have come in to help Brightmoor, setting up a community action group to help revitalize and rebuild. The Detroit Blight Authority, a nonprofit that demolishes abandoned homes and cleans up empty lots, cleared out 14 blocks of decay in the neighborhood last summer and plans to tackle another 35 blocks this year.
But the initial work has already transformed the neighborhood — making the streets a little safer and energizing residents who had never given up on the idea that Brightmoor could bounce back, even if it’s getting little help from the city government.
Williams is the first to acknowledge that Brightmoor has a long way to go, and she admits the transformation will be arduous and could take many, many years. But she refuses to walk away, even if it would be easier to live someplace else.
“This is my home,” Williams said. “This is where I raised my kids. … Besides, if everybody decides to run, you don’t have a community anymore. They beat you at your own game. It’s about stick and stay, and believing in what can be.”
Williams is not alone in her hopefulness and her resilience. Her words could be a mantra for the other estimated 700,000 residents of Detroit who are a testament for survival and strength in a city that has struggled for decades and is now in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
But what is it really like to live and work in the most famous bankrupt city in America?
The headlines about Detroit are constantly doom and gloom — and for good reason. The city has major problems. Its long-term debts are at least $18 billion and growing. The infant mortality rate rivals that in developing countries. Unemployment is at 11 percent. City Hall, long mired in corruption scandals, is now under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Municipal services, which had already been lacking for years, have been cut to the bone. Retired city workers are worried about losing their pensions. Half of the city’s 88,000 streetlights don’t work. Roads go largely unplowed during snowstorms. The police reportedly take in upwards of an hour to respond to even the most serious of crimes. And the list goes on and on.
Today, Detroit’s iconic image is almost always a picture of one of its estimated 78,000 empty buildings, which have become an odd tourist attraction. The “ruins,” as they are described, are a striking monument to what the Motor City used to be.
But just as there is blight in virtually every corner of the city, there is also hope and glimmers of new life. It’s an odd dichotomy for a city that many have written off as dead.
In Midtown, just blocks from the boarded up mansions of historic Brush Park, there is a new Whole Foods store — the first new grocery store to open in the inner city in decades. A few miles away in downtown, all the tables at Roast, a restaurant owned by Food Network chef Michael Symon inside the renovated Westin Book Cadillac hotel, are perpetually booked and not just by visitors to the city.
At the bar on a recent Wednesday, a frantic server paused and laughed. “What bankruptcy?” he said.
And that’s what locals say the world doesn’t get about Detroit: that life here goes on, fueled in part by the strength of residents who believe very strongly that the city will come back. And many are working to make it happen in both big and little ways.