Mayor Mike Duggan visits Detroit's Boston Edison neighborhood for a May 2014 house auction. Reuters/Joshua Lott

Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years talks abandoned housing, streetlights, and gentrification.

“Every neighborhood has a future” was Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s campaign slogan when he ran for office in 2013. Now, just a few months into his tenure, it’s clear that his message—one that spat in the face of Detroit’s bankruptcy, its curtailed social services, and its high crime rate—will be a difficult one to implement.

A little about Duggan: He was born in Detroit in 1958, where he lived until he left to attend the University of Michigan. He received a Bachelor’s degree from the school in 1980, and a law degree three years later. He served as an elected official beginning in 1986, and more recently, as the president and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center. Now, Duggan is the first white mayor of majority-black Detroit since the mid-1970s.

I’ve long been interested in Detroit’s economic transformation, the comeback of its urban core, and the problems and divides it faces. I sat down Mayor Duggan earlier this month to talk about it.

Richard Florida: Let’s start with the basics. What is your vision for the city?

Mayor Duggan: The first thing we're trying to do is deliver quality city services, what in other cities might be taken for granted. We've got 18,000 streetlights installed since my first day here. We're taking down vacant houses—knocking down 250 of them a week.  When you take down the run-down houses, the beautiful houses that are left there have significant value.

What we've started doing is filing lawsuits on every abandoned house in a good neighborhood at once. We give the owners two choices: They can sign a court order to have it fixed up and occupied in six months or they can give it to us and we'll sell it on the Internet. About a week from now, those are all going to hit the Internet pipeline, which means you're taking the whole neighborhood at once. The beauty of this is, for every house that we sell, two people sign a consent agreement to fix up their own house. Because I, as mayor, don’t want the house: I want it fixed up.

We're at a point that I've never seen in this city's history, where the young people want to be in an urban area. People are moving back. The jobs are moving back.

Mayor Duggan visits a home auctioned off in May 2014 as part of the city of Detroit and the Detroit Land Bank's effort to fill abandoned neighborhoods. Most homes have a $1,000 opening bid. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

We hear a lot about how Detroit has to shrink. But you ran for mayor on the idea of protecting the neighborhoods in the city. Tell us about that.

I don’t see the size as a liability at all. I see the geographic size of the city as an enormous asset, if we think through carefully how to use the land. If you take the quality neighborhoods that are there and you save those, and then you take the commercial corridors near the quality neighborhoods and invest in those, that land becomes an asset to your overall vision and not some liability. I never use the word “shrinking.” Shrinking doesn't occur to me. I see that land as a very valuable part of a long-term vision for the city.

Traditionally, urban revitalization has been led by government. But in Detroit, a great deal of it is coming from the private sector. What do you think about that?

There is something about the spirit of this city that motivates people to want to help rebuild. And then when you look at how undervalued our assets are, you see there's enormous opportunity here. A lot of private investors are doing it from a profit standpoint. And a number of the foundations are doing it because they see return on investment in their own way. They believe the quality of life in the city is going to improve. Everybody sees the potential to have a significant impact in a short period of time.

So do you think a lot of the investment is motivated by the opportunity or a sense of community betterment?

I think it's both. No well-run foundation is going to throw money at me. They're going to invest where they think they're going to have the most impact on the mission. I hope the fact that the delivery of services has improved noticeably in the last seven or eight months is causing people to be even more willing to invest.

What do you see as the key areas and investments in that services area?

Everything starts with quality of life. If you live on a block and you have two burned down houses on your block, you have no ability to sell your house for anywhere near what it's worth. You are trapped there and your children are walking past those houses every day.

We have to improve the quality of life in those neighborhoods and we're working aggressively on it. If you can take out the abandoned houses and you relight the streets, that has an impact on crime. We've cut the response time during emergencies. You're seeing the fewest murders in 20 years. Our EMS response times are now the lowest they've been in five years: we're down from 18 minutes to 12 minutes. By the end of the year, my goal is to be down to seven to eight minutes.

If you go into any neighborhood in this city right now and say, “How are things?” people will say to you, "I got this problem with this or that. But it's getting better."  I think you'll hear that throughout the city.

Detroit firefighters respond to a blaze at an abandoned home. (Sam Beebe/Flickr)

How much do schools matter in this?

The heart of the problem is that you have 40 different entities that are authorized in schools in the state of Michigan right now. In the city of Detroit we have not been well-served by the multiple authorizing authorities. I don’t care whether it's the Detroit Public School's education achievement authority or the charters’.  Their performance standards are almost identical, and they are not succeeding. We've got to get to an authorizing entity that can ensure we get quality schools in the city.

I've said a big part of Detroit’s crisis is the wealthy suburbs not coming to the table. What do you think about this idea of the suburbs pitching in their fair share and working more closely with the city?

You can't go to the suburbs and say, “I want you to make a deal that's bad for the suburbs and work for the city.” They will not do that, nor should their elected officials do that. But can you find partnerships that are good for the suburbs in the city at the same time? I think you can.

We're going to have one shortly on the regional water system that will hopefully benefit both the suburbs and the city at the same time. You'll be able to judge for yourself whether it had any impact or not.

What about the State of Michigan. Do you think the state could do more?

I never go asking for money. What I try to do is put together partnerships that work for everybody, whether it's the governor, whether it's the president, whether it's the suburbs. I try to find things that work for all of us.

Mayor Duggan delivers his first State of the City address in February 2014. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

So what you're saying is that the private sector and foundations are more your focus than going to the state or at other political entities and looking for funding.

They're all pieces of a strategy. I need demolition money to be able to have the other houses succeed. That's a government function. But once I clear out the burned out houses and I want to sell the beautiful vacant houses, I need somebody to write a mortgage for that buyer. That's the private sector.

My wife, who grew up in greater Detroit, says it always felt like a big company town: You go to school, you get good grades, and you go get a job. Is there this entrepreneurial ecosystem now that's happening? What are its key features and supports?

The entrepreneurs are showing up on their own.  We need to build the ecosystem to extend it.

Go to Craft Work. The waiter has got a Brooklyn accent. What are you doing here? "My girlfriend and I couldn't afford to start an organic food business in Brooklyn. I'm waiting in this restaurant during the wait. We're opening the organic market down the street. We bought a house in the neighborhood. We're fixing up." You see these old houses starting to get fixed up and it feeds on itself.

The loans to start the businesses in the commercial district feed the neighborhoods and as the houses fill up, the neighborhoods fill up, and the commercial district comes back.

They’re also filling up my administration. There are 20- and 30-somethings coming back from New York and D.C. into jobs in the administration that have an impact. It is remarkable.

Some people say Detroit is a tale of two cities: a gentrified core for businesses and newcomers and limited opportunity and failing neighborhoods for the longtime residents. How are you addressing that?

Come hang out with me in any neighborhood in this city right now and you can see it being addressed very aggressively. But when half of the lights in the city don’t work, it seems to be a hopeless situation. So we are putting 1,000 lights a week in neighborhoods. Everybody in the city gets that. The number of people who have called me and said, "We've decided not to sell our house”—we never thought we'd see it in our lifetime.

There is a feeling of hope in the neighborhoods. We have a long way to go. But people in this city believe that the quality of life in their neighborhoods is being addressed.

Detroit's Earthworks Urban Farm, which is associated with the the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. (Jessica "The Hun" Reeder/Flickr)

But there are those who will say that improving quality of life mainly benefits the more affluent. When you make the quality of life better, isn’t the result gentrification?

I've got three city council district meetings for which 200-300 people from the neighborhoods are going to show up over the next few weeks. Come sit at one of them and see. You will absolutely have people complaining about individual issues, but the underlying tone of is one of hope. Nobody says it’s downtown and midtown versus the neighborhoods. People in the neighborhoods today believe that we have an administration that is all about the quality of life of the neighborhoods.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

About the Author

Richard Florida
Richard Florida

Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at New York University.

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