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Throughout the recent recession in the United States, the city of Detroit, Michigan was seen as a cautionary tale of economic boom and bust within the country’s urban centres. Nicknamed Motor City, USA, Detroit was the thriving epicentre of the automobile industry from its early days in the 1900s to the 1950s, when the city boasted 296,000 manufacturing jobs. However, by the end of the 1950s the automobile industry began a slow decline, culminating in the 2009 bankruptcy of autogiants Chrysler and General Motors. With the fall of the industry, among other factors, came the economic decline of the city itself. On 18 July 2013, a bankruptcy petition was formally filed on behalf of Detroit.

During this period of industrial and economic decline, the population also drastically decreased, dropping 25 per cent between 2000 and 2010 alone. Yet mass migration from the city did not happen equally among Detroit’s residents. The make-up of the city is unlike that found in the country as a whole as ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans, make up the overwhelming majority of Detroit’s population. This has become even more evident in the wake of the recession as a disproportionate number of the city’s white residents have left: in the meantime, the share of ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos, has continued to increase.

The most visible effects of Detroit’s decline have been pored over repeatedly in media reports across the world, including the dereliction of its housing stock, the shutting off of water supplies to certain areas and the bulldozing of entire neighbourhoods. What attracts less attention is the array of community-led initiatives under way to revitalize the economy and rebuild local areas. However, this process has been slow and far from easy as old barriers, particularly racial discrimination, persist.

For Lauren Hood, a life-long resident of Detroit and Community Engagement Manager at Loveland Technology, a company working on mapping blight in the city and making such data widely accessible, moving forward starts with looking back. ‘When people get to Detroit and they want to work on revitalization efforts’, she says: To help facilitate these dialogues, Hood runs a racial equity training programme to encourage ‘some critical thinking’, as she puts it.

Kirk Mayes, another life-long Detroiter and the CEO of Forgotten Harvest, a nonprofit formed in 1990 to relieve hunger and prevent nutritious food waste in the Detroit metropolitan area, emphasizes the role that community programmes can also play in reducing divisions. In his years working on various economic and social development projects, including Forgotten Harvest, he has learned that: He adds, ‘and not enough about our very basic similarities as human beings’.

According to Mayes, Forgotten Harvest  plays an important role in breaking down barriers and connecting people of different backgrounds through their community volunteer opportunities within their food processing warehouse and community farm. Mayes felt that the organization, ‘is contributing to helping our region heal and providing a platform for people around us to contribute to people who are in the most need’. And he emphasizes the positive energy that communities are now creating themselves.

This is not to say that Detroit does not have its problems, including the painful physical realities of a city shrinking rapidly from its former size. ‘We have a lot of vacant houses,’ says Rico Razo, District 6 manager at the office of Mayor Mike Duggan. This can create serious issues for neighbours as abandoned houses, besides their demoralizing effects, can have health and crime implications. To address the issue, a volunteer group called ‘Operation Detroit Blight Fight’ was set up. Razo highlighted that within his district, which has the highest Hispanic population, the team would spend every Sunday helping seniors with clean-up and boarding up unoccupied houses. At present the group has 100 members and an official kick-off was launched on 31 March 2015 in commemoration of Cesar Chavez Day.

Razo recognizes that Detroit’s divisions have not gone away. ‘Some of the areas that may not have demolition dollars, they don’t see houses coming down in their  neighbourhoods, they don’t see revitalization happening, they’re still saying we have two cities.’ Nevertheless, though aware of the challenges ahead, he remains cautiously optimistic about the future.

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.