City needs paradigm shift, residents say

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    What do the 2010 Census figures showing the city’s population as 717,777, mean for Detroit and the region?

    Drake Phifer, CEO of Urban Organic Lifestyle Marketing, said the census numbers have caused him to recalibrate his expectations of this area, relative to it being a major city. He said it’s both a collective psychological adjustment and an individual adjustment.

    “I don’t think, at the end of the day, it’ll have to spell doom and gloom for us,” Phifer said.

    He also said that if Detroit hadn’t had some of its political and racial strife, it probably would have annexed many of its neighboring suburbs and would have, therefore, kept its footing as a major city.

    Phifer believes there needs to be a conversation regarding whether Detroit could, should or would annex neighboring communities; and that the conversation should be pushed to the fore, because the entire region’s survival relies upon Detroit’s well-being.

    With regard to recalibrating his expectations, Phifer said since he was a child, Detroiters have always wanted to consider themselves among the “cool kids” or “big kids on block.”

    “We’ve had this collective denial that, at some point, the population in this city was actually going to turn around and begin to increase,” he said. “Instead, it’s been on a steady decline that predates most of my political experience.”

    Phifer grew up in the beginning of the Coleman Young era, and was away from Detroit for a number of years. He came back because Dennis Archer “did such a fine job of selling the city, and saying he was going to return the city to world-class city status.”

    Phifer doesn’t think Detroit’s population will grow in his lifetime. Instead, he believes a newborn baby will see Detroit’s population begin to increase toward the middle part of his or her lifetime.

    Since he doesn’t see Detroit growing in population anytime soon, Phifer believes we need to start using other criteria: The city and region need to concentrate on being better.

    He said many of the political stakeholders in the region need to step aside for the region to improve. He believes they have been gun-shy about big ideas, ideas that seem impossible, but are possible and are being realized in other cities.

    He cited high speed rail as an example.

    “Once we decide we want to do it, as a region, it will be done,” he said.

    Phifer contends that things will begin to improve from a livability standpoint before they do from population standpoint, as evidenced by what’s going on in Midtown and Southwest Detroit.

    Asked about Mayor Bing’s plan to “shrink” the city, Phifer said the proposition is so complicated that it likely won’t happen.

    “It’s not something that’s would be easy to achieve,” he said. “We’re not just talking about Monopoly pieces here. We’re talking about people’s lives and emotions.”

    He acknowledged that something has to be done to help Detroit rebound and admitted he doesn’t have the answer.

    He pointed out, however, that Detroit brought about some of its current problems. As an example, he said the construction of I-75 — which might well have been a necessity — led to the destruction of once-vibrant neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods never rebounded.

    Today, Detroit might need another paradigm, according to Phifer. He suggested that new paradigm is occurring in Midtown, Corktown and Southwest Detroit.

    He pointed out that at least 30 people he knows personally have relocated out of state, a fact he finds depressing.

    On the other hand, he’s spoken with people who are moving back to Detroit and want to be involved. He said while it seems there is a nonslowing exodus out of the region, there is still a hopeful influx of talent into the region.

    Community activist Francis Grunow said the fact that we’ve had a drop-off since the last census is a wake-up call, but no more so than it’s been in the last 50 years or so. He also said that while we have to be concerned, because of the need for change, many other cities operate very successfully with Detroit’s population numbers. Instead of focusing on the numbers, Grunow said we need to focus more on making Detroit a welcoming place, so that people want to be here.

    Grunow, who has advocated for electing City Council members by district, said going to council by district will help people begin to feel government can be accountable to them on the micro, local level, where there are people looking out for their interests.

    He said having a council by district system with a smaller population would be a good way to get a smaller population to come together around common issues.

    Grunow noted that we’re in a flat growth region, and that a strong message coming out of the census results is that we as a region can’t afford to keep doing business as usual.

    He also said that logically, we’re all Detroit, no matter how we feel about that. How we manage that in terms of government is another question. Annexation of other parts of the region is one answer; consolidating some city and county functions is another; and setting up authorities to look at certain areas of oversight, like transportation and planning, is a third.

    “There’s lots of options,” he said. “I just believe the status quo is not working with a capital n-o-t. There are other models, there are other places that are able to think and govern more regionally. We must be open to that as an option going forward.”

    For Christianne Sims, who started her company, Urbanize(D), earlier this year, and has been involved with quite a few young professional initiatives, the census numbers haven’t necessarily made her reevaluate her plans.

    She also said the census data serves as a wake-up call to local and state government and business leaders to step up, put their differences aside, and work toward making a positive impact.

    In the past, Sims asserted, stalling has typically been the name of the game.

    Sims said government and businesses aren’t necessarily responsible for retaining people, but they are responsible for putting a lot of things in place that would make a city more attractive, and improve the quality of life.

    She believes light rail would be a sign that the region is starting to improve.


    Hopefully the census results will show that we can no longer afford to be grandstanding,” Sims said. “Especially because Detroit is the largest city in the state and is the state’s anchor.”

    She said the longer we wait, the worse it’s going to get.

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