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Can "Civil Society" Succeed Where Government Fails?

"What are the baseline rights and services that all citizens are entitled to? And what can be supplemented through private dollars, knowing any service provided by markets or charity will be unevenly distributed?" - Patrick "Cooper" McCann (Rethink Detroit)

Detroit's fiscal condition has become so dire that private citizens, foundations and community organizations are stepping up to provide basic services. Some experts say that volunteers, private donors and entrepreneurs are the Motor City's best hope. But can this "civil society" of patchwork efforts in a vacuum of consistent city services replace an effective local government?

The Decline of City Services

In April 2013, a state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, signed an order effectively relegating city officials to the sidelines and placing himself in full control of Detroit’s policy apparatus. Nothing can be enacted without his approval. Although elections for a new Detroit Mayor and City Council occurred in November 2013, the newly elected officials hold no power due to the EM. Although new Mayor Mike Duggan and EM Kevyn Orr have worked out a collaborative shared power agreement, the EM retains final decision making authority.


While the city continues to navigate its way through bankruptcy proceedings, there is a simultaneous focus on attempting to restore the most basic city services and infrastructure. In an attempt to raise funds to meet basic services and infrastructure needs, the city is negotiating a new $120 million dollar loan (which has just recently been approved). According to a recent article by the Detroit Free Press (How Detroit would use $120M loan), "More police and fire vehicles, hiring of additional cops and firefighters and a new round of cash for blight removal and park upgrades were among the top priorities Detroit detailed today in a bid to persuade a federal judge to approve $120 million in bankruptcy financing.

The spending priorities dovetail with what emergency manager Kevyn Orr and elected city officials say are critical areas Detroit must address if the city is to recover from its financial tailspin."

In a vacuum of a city attempting to deliver the most core basic services, volunteers, foundations and grass-roots organizations have stepped up in an attempt to plug the gap. And the city's insolvency has created business opportunities for some and spurred a sense of civic pride for others.

According to the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, it remains to be seen if volunteers and entrepreneurs can save Detroit, but they've already shown that what this organization refers to as "civil society" can succeed where government fails.

The Center defines civil society as a network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families, friends and co-workers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions that generally steps in when political society fails. Without it, failing cities like Detroit would be in even more trouble.

Maintaining What's Left of a City Treasure

Among the many examples of "civil society" playing a role in Detroit is the story of the Navin Field Grounds Crew. In a recent article in the Metro Times (The Volunteer Grounds Crew That Works to Keep The Historic Ball Field In Play...), author Ethan Casey writes: "Most of Tiger Stadium was torn down in July 2008, leaving in place the Navin Field configuration, so called because it approximated the original dimensions of the ballpark named for then-Tigers owner Frank Navin when it had opened in April 1912. The Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, founded to preserve the stadium, was then blindsided when the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation tore down the Navin Field configuration in 2009, without warning or explanation.

Then the nine-acre empty lot was simply left to become overgrown with weeds, and Tom Derry’s sense of right and wrong kicked in.

“After Ernie Harwell died, I heard that some people were remembering him by playing catch on the

field where Tiger Stadium stood,” he told me. “This was May 2010. I thought, ‘Cool! I want to play catch on the field.’ So I went down to the field on Sunday, May 9. It was Mother’s Day. When I got to the field, I couldn’t believe how tall the grass was and how bad the infield looked. It was completely covered with weeds. You could barely make out where the pitcher’s mound was, and the weeds covered the base paths and the whole dirt infield. I played catch with my friends, and I took a few swings at home plate, but I wasn’t that excited about it. I couldn’t believe that the baseball field had gotten to that point.

“I figured I had a riding mower, and I could cut the grass, and I knew that some of my friends were big baseball fans, and I thought that they would probably want to come down and help out too. So I went home that night, and the first thing I did was I called Frank Rashid. I told him that the field looked terrible, and that I thought we should clean it up. I asked him if he thought it was a crazy idea, and Frank immediately said, ‘Pick a day. Let’s go down and do it.’”

“Tom goads us into doing things, out of principle,” Frank told me. “People recognize that good-heartedness. He formed a new group, and it’s a really impressive group. It’s a different bunch [from the Tiger Stadium Fan Club].”

The Navin Field Grounds Crew represents the kind of initiative by ordinary citizens that can — to repurpose a recently fashionable buzz phrase — create facts on the ground. It’s the same impulse that kept baseball at Michigan and Trumbull avenues for an additional decade in the first place. For people like Tom and Frank, the point is not to wait around for the powers that be to decide for us what’s going to happen. At a certain point you just have to do something yourself, or it won’t get done.

While historic preservation, or at the very least, public park maintenance, plays a vital role in creating the fabric of a city and it's neighborhoods, there are other questionably more significant examples of civil society attempting to plug a gap where city service delivery has failed.

Carless in the Motor City 

"Public transportation in the City of Detroit is at a crisis level." According to a recent Wall Street Journal article (Detroit's Broken Buses Vex a Broken City), author Matthew Dolan writes: "For legions of carless in the Motor City, the buses are running on fumes."

When the Number 53 along one of the city's busiest thoroughfares wheezily pulled into a crowded stop on a bitterly cold afternoon recently, a gray-haired woman in a pink knit cap immediately lodged a complaint.
"We have been waiting almost an hour and a half out here," she told driver Raymond Muse as she boarded the bus on Woodward Avenue. And then, as if her message hadn't been heard, the woman, who declined to provide her name, repeated: "An hour and one half I've been waiting."

Frustration over dysfunctional public transportation in this bankrupt city is a daily reminder of how often the rubber on Detroit's public services fails to meet the road, residents and city officials say.

Many Detroiters have little choice in the matter: High unemployment and expensive auto-insurance rates keep a growing number of residents from owning their own car, making bus service a necessity in a city of 139 square miles with no rail system, save for an elevated, three-mile monorail that loops around downtown.
Bus lines, which have a daily ridership of 100,000, have been cut or curtailed in recent years. Aging, poorly maintained buses regularly conk out, leaving remaining ones so overcrowded they often blast through stops without taking on new passengers. Many days, nearly one-third of all buses don't even make it out of their depots because of mechanical or staffing problems, according to transit advocates, union and city officials. The average age of a Detroit bus is 9½ years, the back end of a 12-year life span.

In response to the critical need for more public transportation, a Detroit entrepreneur has emerged.

Reporter Perry Chiaramonte wrote this article for Fox in 2013 (Detroit dire, but private groups, citizens keep the Motor City running): "When Andy Didorosi read in the newspaper that budget cuts had made a casualty out of a long planned light-rail project, the lifelong Motor City resident wasn't sad. He was angry.

“I was pissed. I said, ‘I’ll make the corridor,’” Didorosi, 26, told FoxNews. "I was an asset liquidator at the time and had recently bought some buses anyway. I’ve always been a gearhead.”

He started the Detroit Bus Company. The initial goal was to provide reliable routes in the city, mainly along the main artery of Woodward Avenue, where the light rail had been proposed. He also thought it made sense to establish a route to and from Detroit airport, something the city had provided, but poorly, according to Didorosi.

“The only option is one bus that doesn’t run very often and stops on every corner,” said Didorosi, who hopes to get city approval for an express airport route next month. “It takes three hours to make a 45 minute commute. The city has missed out on holding conventions and we could possibly lose out on hosting the X Games because a lack of transportation.” (Detroit did ultimately lose out on hosting the X Games)

The Detroit Bus Company currently runs charter services as well as scenic tours with six buses -- ranging from school buses to coach liners -- and provides free rides for kids to after-school programs and summer jobs.

“Transportation is a public problem,” Didorosi said.” I don’t necessarily think that the system should be privatized, but I don’t see a better option than providing the services. Hopefully, everything will work itself out and the city will be back on track.”

An (Absolutely) Essential Service Crisis

While parks management and public transportation are sore spots for Detroit citizens, many more ominous service gaps remain. In a recent Buzzfeed article (Being Raped in a Bankrupt City), author Emily Orley writes:  On Feb. 17, 1997, at approximately 4 a.m, Audrey Polk was asleep in her sister’s house in Detroit, Mich., when a stranger broke in, snuck into the room where she was sleeping, and sexually assaulted her. The mother of two young children called the police, who sent over some officers who happened to be up the road at Leo’s Coney Island — a downtown staple — having a late-night snack. 

As Polk remembered it, the police spent a few minutes walking around the house and left, barely doing anything. The case was handled so poorly, she said, that when one of the police officers who dealt with it testified in court more than a decade later, he admitted that he was embarrassed by how the investigation had been handled. “The police didn’t do a thing,” Polk said. “I was thinking to myself, Shame on them, shame on the entire department.” 

After the police left, Polk also went to a Detroit hospital to have a rape kit compiled and to the police station to fill out a formal report. For months, she persistently followed up with the department about the progress of her case, but after repeated silence, she said, “I just gave up, and I wanted to let it go.”

Then, on Feb. 3, 2011, almost 14 years to the day after the attack, Polk finally heard from the prosecutor’s office. They said they knew who had raped her and wanted to know if she wanted to move forward with charging him. “For 14 years, I’m moving around knowing this person — monster, I should say — is out there and law enforcement never did anything,” Polk said. She eventually went ahead with the prosecution, and now her attacker is serving a 28-year sentence. But, she said, “They just left me on a shelf for all these years and nobody gave a damn.”

Polk was not alone. Her kit on the shelf was just one of 11,304 in Detroit’s backlog of untested rape kits.

Five years after being appointed Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy had a big project land on her desk. In August 2009, then-assistant prosecutor Rob Spada went to a Detroit Police Department overflow warehouse, looking for a particular piece of evidence for a case he was prosecuting. As he began wandering around the building, he found something unusual: boxes upon boxes stacked on top of one another at the back of the third floor. No one knew what was in them, or how long they’d been there. Later that day, Spada brought Worthy back down to the warehouse. What they found was a shocking number of rape kits — 11,304 they would later discover — that had been, allegedly unbeknownst to any department in the city, stored away. 

In a city that had no funds to give — to this day, the city has not given a dime to the project — the task force had to utilize other resources, like foundations, grants, and private funding. Grants from the National Institute of Justice, Project 400, and Joyful Heart Foundation completely fund the initiative to work through this backlog.

The prosecutor’s office, however, has recently been able to cut the price of testing a backlogged kit almost in half by working out an agreement with the labs due to the volume of kits coming in. According to the Detroit Police Department, approximately 2,500 of the 11,304 kits have already been tested, and 7,400 kits were sent out to labs in December 2013 and January 2014. Of the remaining 1,100 kits, “many were either tested in the first waves of testing or there are reasons not to test the kits (i.e., the case has been adjudicated, guilty pleas, etc.).”

The Detroit Dialogue

The CPBB sat down with the founder of Rethink Detroit. Rethink Detroit seeks to foster an ongoing dialogue on Detroit's future. It takes as its motto the famous
Kurt Lewin quote: ”If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” It is dedicated to the twin pursuit of improving Detroit and better understanding it, recognizing that to truly know Detroit, you have to fight for its revitalization.

Rethink Detroit was founded by Patrick Cooper-McCann, an Urban Planning PhD student at the University of Michigan. "Cooper" studies urban governance and community development and works closely with neighborhood organizations in Detroit. Cooper states, "as Editor of Rethink Detroit, I try to tell the city's story in full, sharing both its challenges and its progress. I do so as an academic and as an advocate committed to making Detroit a better place."

Cooper grew up just outside Detroit in Hazelpark. As a high school student, he found himself becoming more and more interested in Detroit, mostly through the music scene and attending concerts in the city. Cooper stated, "While spending more time in Detroit you eventually ask yourself more and more questions about the city, like "what happened to this place?"'  Cooper went on to say, "the more time I spent in Detroit the more I cared about it. I started thinking more about it and wondering what I could do about it." This led to his interest and pursuit in urban planning.

In college at the University of Michigan, Cooper wanted to get involved in a more direct way. He volunteered at the Brightmoor Community Center through the Detroit Partnership and performed internships with groups such as Transportation Riders United. Prior to entering post-graduate studies, he served for a year at Focus: HOPE through AmeriCorps. Cooper states he "started to fall down the rabbit-hole. The more I knew the more I wanted to know and ultimately led me toward studying urban planning."

Cooper's PhD dissertation is focused prominently on governance issues. "Whether you think changes in the city are good or bad, one of the more interesting spaces is the diffusion of governance authority towards non-governmental actors. It is unprecedented. Especially the enormous power of private actors."

CPBB: What are the pros and cons of significant level of private investment? For example, what we're seeing with Dan Gilbert in downtown Detroit?

Rethink Detroit: "Even if you think that the effect Gilbert is having on the city is a great one, there's a fear that cities are built at the expense of neighborhoods. For instance, the park systems in Detroit. Specifically Corktown, downtown and Midtown. Every park (in these neighborhoods) has at least one organization, that have come in the last year or two, that is sponsoring these parks. So you have a level of additional care in these areas."

CPBB: By having privately maintained parks, do you have concerns about access to the parks and whether they are still public? Is it still a public park?

Rethink Detroit: "Well if you have a private partner in these core downtown areas, then probably. But there are other neighborhoods that have parks. Outside of the core areas you have Clark Park that is well maintained (thanks to Clark Park Coalition and its sponsors). On the opposite end of the city you have Palmer Park that is maintained by People for Palmer Park. If the general expectation is that the only way you are going to get a level of service is dependence on someone outside the government, that's not a sustainable model to run a municipal park system, or anything else. That's the worry...

Outside investment in the parks isn't a purely negative thing though. Without a level of private investment we might not have any functioning parks. But my interest is trying to figure out what are the partnerships, and what kind of outcomes do we see with different kinds of partnerships? What makes those partnerships work or not work and for whom? And to try and get a more panoramic picture of the type of trade-offs we're talking about where we have a system that is operated this way vs. that way."

CPBB: There was a significant change in the voting and organization of the city council recently from at-large to district based. Seven of the nine council members are now district based. Now the district based council members, in theory, should be more engaged with the citizens of their districts. And citizens, in theory, should be more engaged as they have a direct connection with the city through their district council member representative. How do you feel about this change?

Rethink Detroit:  "I went to a meeting on the West side for improvements in Rouge Park. About four people were there, but one of them was the District Councilman. If he were at large he probably would not have been at that meeting. The districts only took effect during last election. I was in favor of moving toward council by district. 

One of the central problems in Detroit is government dysfunction. One of the ways we talk about this in Detroit is that people here feel that you can't expect your government to do anything - which isn't always true, but is often too true. There are compounding issues such as budget cuts after budget cuts, antiquated city technology services and systems, etc. It has become a system where you only get what you want if you know the right person. There's a level of desperation here that drives people to embrace these changes where they might not do so elsewhere. It's not a matter of building on top of functioning systems. We have a completely broken system and you have a whole range of responses to address the issues and a corresponding range of outcomes."

CPBB: There seems to be a focus on the bankruptcy that many believe will create a magic panacea to all ills. It won't fix public safety, lighting, road conditions, public transportation issues or antiquated city technology services. The bankruptcy proceedings are strictly a debt issue with the intent to eliminate an unsustainable amount of debt. It does nothing, from a service and planning perspective, to prepare the city to address the enormous challenges it faces moving forward nor does it prepare the city to fiscally plan and prepare on how to address these challenges. There doesn't seem to be any established priorities, or a solid understanding from a fiscal perspective, on how to address these challenges through responsible budgeting?

Additionally, it's our understanding that the Detroit Declaration (and the 12 principles that define the declaration) were established by a small group of community activists (without large-scale citizen engagement), but with many co-signers. How do you establish service level priorities that the city wishes to achieve, and then tie the priorities to short and long-term budgeting and fiscal planning?

Rethink Detroit: "If I had to run this city, and if we accept the bankruptcy is what it is, and the State of Michigan drastically increased their revenue sharing (or met the agreed upon distribution of revenue sharing based on promises that were made a decade ago), we'd have a lot more revenue, but those prospects are not good. Bankruptcy clears a lot of debt off the table (so the question becomes) how can you reach a baseline where below this line you can't claim to operate a government that you're not completely embarrassed about. There needs to be a level below which you cannot go, but where the city isn't much likely to go much above. You are seeing this with public lighting, where we are going to have the same amount of street lights as we currently have, but in different places and theoretically many more will work. What they are saying is that they are going to put the lights where the greatest density of people are to the detriment of semi-abandoned neighborhoods. I'm not going to celebrate this as a victory. But if you can accept the fact that there is no more money coming to build a better system, then they are going to build the best system that the city can afford. It's not going to give you the standard of city services that the people deserve, but it may at least establish a more reasonable baseline.

Take the parks for example. Last year there were approximately 150 parks that were officially open. Only 15 were mowed with any regularity. The remaining parks were mowed only twice all summer and looked much the same as the vacant lots that surrounded them. Now many citizen groups emerged that adopted some of these parks in an effort to provide some level of maintenance. The most prominent being the Detroit Mower Gang. There have been about a dozen national articles written about this group and they deserve the attention. Kudos to them. But it can give one the false impression that this type of DIY action is the norm (or that it would suffice to counterbalance the budget cuts) and that is simply not the case. 

The fact is that if you look at the last decade of Detroit, downtown has probably never seen a better decade. Coleman Young declared the renaissance of the city in the 70's and that didn't happen. Dennis Archer thought he was presiding over Detroit's renaissance in the 90's, and there were signs of that as casinos got built and unemployment dropped slightly, and then the bottom fell out during the dot.com bust. 

We are on a definite upward trajectory. But simultaneously there probably has never been a worse time for the City of Detroit. The neighborhoods have been devastated during the last decade. Including some of the best like Grandmont-Rosedale. Go to areas that were pristine even 10-15 years ago and due to the foreclosure crisis, or the enormous drop in housing value, even more Detroiter's took the opportunity to move to the inner ring suburbs or just out of the city. So it's about balance. Absolutely we should be championing folks like the Detroit Mower Gang without losing site of the fact that their efforts, at least without some type of system organizing and coordinating them, is like icing on a cake that doesn't exist."

CPBB: Is the city, in its current size, sustainable and serviceable given the current conditions? Can the city condense as the Detroit Future City plan suggests?

Rethink Detroit: "The city of Detroit couldn't possible afford the reorganization it would take to move folks from a heavily blighted community to one less blighted. It is very expensive to get people to move. There is one neighborhood that was bought out in recent times. Oakwood Heights in SW Detroit which is immediately adjacent to the Marathon Oil Refinery. It's where all the heavy industry is. Marathon offered homeowners $60k each to move which is far and beyond what Detroit could ever pay individual home owners (and more than home market value). 

This wasn't a neighborhood that was full of blight. It was relatively well intact. People lived there because they worked nearby. It just became an unsafe place to live because of pollution. Most folks took the buyout and within 30 days the house would be demolished. Marathon's approach was to get folks to accept the buyout without being pillaged in the media as destroying the neighborhood. The idea that the city of Detroit is going to offer people $60k to move is unlikely. My feeling is that if people want to stay where they are you pretty much need to let them stay where they are. It doesn't mean that we should let people build new, but the city needs to find a way to make those areas livable even though it might take 20-30 years until they're empty."

CPBB: Rethink Detroit sent the CPBB a link to the "Being Raped in a Bankrupt City" article. The following comments were included in our e-mail exchange.

Rethink Detroit: "Here you have an article whose tone should be one of outrage. As many as 15,000 rape cases await prosecution in Wayne County but have been ignored due to lack of funds. But Buzzfeed chose to frame this as another case of scrappy Detroiters "getting things done." Yes, Kym Worthy has managed to work through many of the cases despite it all using private dollars and volunteers, and she deserves huge credit for doing so. She's a hero, and so are the foundations and volunteers. But I think the takeaway here has to be that government is broken and needs to be fixed. Processing rape kits shouldn't depend on charity -- it should be a legally guaranteed right. And that's maybe where we need to go with this: What are the baseline rights and services that all citizens are entitled to? And what can be supplemented through private dollars, knowing any service provided by markets or charity will be unevenly distributed?"

CPBB: What are your next steps after graduation and obtaining your PhD?

Rethink Detroit: "When you are in a PhD program, you are surrounded by students and professors who are on the same track. So I'm looking into tenure track professor positions, and at potentially working in policy positions that may be more direct at applying what I've learned."

The CPBB thanks Cooper and Rethink Detroit for his insights on Detroit's civil society. Find out more about Rethink Detroit @rethinkdetroit.

Priority Based Partnerships and Priority Based Economic Development

In our work at the Center for Priority Based Budgeting, we've been overwhelmed by success stories stemming from partnerships. In fact, one of the key reasons cited by so many of our most recent PBB implementers for initiating the process is their desire to identify the most opportune partnerships, both public-public and public-private partnerships, worth pursuing. We're so excited about this, it begs the question: at what point does Priority Based Budgeting become, in part, the systematic discovery of Priority Based Partnerships?

What is interesting is that the very term "partnership" lacks the power to truly convey the significance

of the solutions that can truly come about; the kinds of solutions we're seeing unfolding in the City of Detroit. Sometimes a "partnership" is the recognition that, in order to achieve a community's intended Results, it's in the best interest of local government to assume the role of "facilitator" rather than leader. Past Detroit Mayor David Bing was quoted in the New York Times, depicting his view of the role of the City in facilitating partnerships and economic development: "My job is to knock down as many barriers as possible and get out the way."

The fundamental question posed in this article though is this: Does the concept of civil society, the notion of a network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families, friends and co-workers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions that generally steps in when political society fails, enough to sustain the city and its citizens? While Detroit would undeniably be in even more trouble without this unique, yet unequal, safety net, how long can the city depend on this civil society network until core services are consistently provided once again?

Mayor Duggan, through his power sharing agreement with EM Orr, has assumed day-to-day management of city operations (with the exception of the police department). The Mayor assumed office effective January 1, 2014. Per the city website, "Duggan ran his 2013 mayoral campaign on a platform that “every neighborhood has a future.” During the campaign he spoke directly with nearly 20,000 Detroiters at the 250 gatherings he attended in living rooms, coffee shops, barbershops and salons, as well as church halls. It was out of these intimate meetings that Duggan’s vision for the city crystallized."     

Mayor Duggan's stated priorities include "implementing a single coordinated strategy to once and for all address the city’s ongoing blight problem, establish a Department of Neighborhoods office for each of the seven City Council districts, work with the new Detroit Public Lighting Authority to speed repairs of broken street lights and to improve EMS response times."

As far as street lights, progress is being made. According to a recent Detroit News article (Detroit installs 3,200 new LED street lights), "Things are looking brighter in the city. The Public Lighting Authority of Detroit reports Tuesday it has installed more than 3,200 new light-emitting diode street lights in two demonstration areas on the east and west sides of the city.
 
The installation represents about two-thirds of the total number of lights to be installed in those areas and are the first of some 50,000 new LED streetlights that will be installed throughout the city before the end of 2015." Mayor Mike Duggan said the steady progress of installation “is welcome news to Detroiters who have waited far too long for reliable street lights.”

While Detroit clearly has enormous obstacles to overcome, we are moved by the initiative displayed by the city's "civil society." Civil society represents a glimpse of what becomes possible when local government understands the Results it is striving to achieve, it's role in achieving them (even when that role is less prominent), and aligns resources to bolster success (preferably without obtaining loans to fund services). Future City USA stands not just for Detroit, but for all of us where "civil society" effectively collaborates with local government to create a thriving community. The opportunity is upon us!

Related Articles:

The Quest to Remake the Motor City

Opportunity Detroit! Future City USA

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