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Perspectives on Detroit 

"Perspectives on Detroit" panel kicks off MLaw Detroit Month

By Clarissa Sansone
Oct. 8, 2012

Detroit, the former industrial behemoth that gave rise to America's automobile culture, has had for decades to contend with a notoriety brought on by urban decay, racial tension, and corrupt politics.

"The city has a glorious past," but is "labeled the consummate urban problem child," noted Prof. Dana Thompson, panel moderator at Oct. 3's "Perspectives on Detroit" lunchtime presentation.

The panelists, who are working to transform the city's toxic image, informed MLaw students of the revitalization efforts going on in Detroit neighborhoods and the opportunities for students to get involved. Their perspectives ranged from legal, to grassroots, to historical.

Emeritus professor and sociologist Reynolds Farley, of U-M's Population Studies Center, provided a brief history of Detroit and the circumstances that contributed to its demise. Attorney Deborah Olson spoke about the legal side of community revitalization, and sustainability models for regional economies. Delphia Simmons—social activist, founder of Thrive Detroit, and co-chair of Kiva Detroit—addressed hands-on, community-based approaches to economic stability, such as microfinance.

From 1900 until 1930, Detroit was America's fastest-growing city, and "Detroit boomed in World War II," said Prof. Farley. At its peak, the city was the fourth-largest in the nation, with more than 2 million residents. Today, Detroit has just over 700,000 inhabitants and the highest child poverty level of any major city.

What happened?

Prof. Farley points to three "unresolved conflicts" faced by Detroit: First, the Jim Crow policies put in place after World War I exacerbated racial tension, as did the so-called white flight to the suburbs in the decades after WWII. Second, conflicts over labor plagued the city. Finally, the Home Rule City Act, proposed in 1909, effectively removed incentive for municipal cooperation between Detroit and its surrounding communities, resulting in the "polarization of city and suburbs in Michigan," which is particularly pronounced in Detroit, Prof. Farley said.

In Deborah Olson's view, Detroit, which had been "the Silicon Valley of the world" in the 1950s, bred a population dependent on large corporations for jobs. With globalization, large corporations located overseas, where low-wage employment could be had, leaving cities such as Detroit to look to the long-neglected development of local sustainability.

Olson is executive director of the Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE), which develops local sustainability through a "collective entrepreneurship" model. C2BE supports the development of sustainable, local companies that benefit the community and offer a living wage.

"We have some very interesting research projects that we would love to have students involved in," Olson said.

Delphia Simmons' work in Detroit neighborhoods starts at the level of the individual. As a project manager at COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter) in Detroit, Simmons encounters people who would not be homeless, could they only earn a little more money each month.

"Homelessness does not look like what most people think," said Simmons. "Homelessness and a lack of education do not go hand in hand." To benefit educated people who were more than willing to work, Simmons founded Thrive Detroit Street Newspaper in 2011: a newspaper-selling micro-enterprise with the potential to end homelessness for some and prevent homelessness for others. Simmons' role as co-chair with Kiva Detroit supports micro-lending projects that originate in and benefit the local community.

Organized by JDs in the D and cosponsored by the Michigan Access Program (MAP), the panel discussion kicked off Detroit Month, a month-long series of talks and presentations geared at linking MLaw with Detroit, and raising law students' interest and consciousness about the opportunities and challenges of Detroit.

For more information about MLaw Detroit Month, visit their facebook page or blog.

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