City On The Edge



Detroiters react to bankruptcy, the future.

Jake Cohen of Detroit Venture Partners views Downtown from the Compuware Building.
Jake Cohen of Detroit Venture Partners views Downtown from the Compuware Building.

Longtime Detroiters and relative newcomers to the city alike have high hopes for a town that once was a world leader in manufacturing and the automotive industry.

They speak almost collectively of a Detroit “renaissance,” and of wanting to be part of the city’s comeback. This sentiment comes from those who have lived in the city for 50 years and from those who moved there last year, some as part of Jewish community initiatives to bring a younger generation home.

Though Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy protection on July 18 against $18 billion of debt and unfunded liabilities, these city dwellers — and many in the suburbs — believe the city is worth fighting for.

The JN spoke with five Jewish residents of Detroit about why they live in the city and what they love about it. The speculate on how bankruptcy will affect Detroit and give their thoughts on the city’s future.

Five Jewish Detroiters give their take on Detroit, the bankruptcy process and the city’s future.

Jake Cohen
Jake Cohen

Jake Cohen: partner, Detroit Venture Partners; board member, Quikly and Level Eleven.

How long have you lived in Detroit? I moved to Detroit in February 2011. I was in Ann Arbor for 11 years before that, and I grew up in West Bloomfield. Detroit in 2013 is undeniably one of the most interesting cities in the world.

It has unintentionally become ground zero for discussions about what the future will hold for American cities, educational systems, government and industries. Necessity has forced Detroit to rethink everything, and young people are moving here to be a part of this discussion.

How will bankruptcy affect Detroit? The current level of city services for Detroiters is absolutely tragic — for basic needs like transportation, police, firefighters, water and streetlights. While the bankruptcy will be incredibly painful for many of Detroit’s citizens, the vast majority of its citizens will benefit from improved city services that are desperately needed.

As a practical matter, the bankruptcy will allow Detroit to dedicate its limited resources to supporting the needs of its citizens today and into the future. Currently, most of those resources are going toward paying for services that supported the city many years ago. The bankruptcy is a much-needed chance for a fresh start.

What is the future of Detroit? The bankruptcy is what I would call a “trailing indicator,” meaning that it is an indicator of what was happening in the past (e.g., population decline over several decades), as opposed to what will happen in the future.

“Leading indicators” of a thriving future for Detroit are everywhere — college-educated young people are moving to the city in record numbers, University of Michigan students are staying in state more than at any other point in my lifetime, the trendiest restaurants and bars are opening in Detroit rather than Royal Oak or Birmingham, and commercial and residential occupancy rates in Downtown Detroit have been steadily climbing for at least two years.

I plan to live in Detroit for many years and be part of its historic comeback.

Harriet Saperstein
Harriet Saperstein

Harriet Saperstein: chair, Woodward Action Association; board member, Opportunity Resource Fund, Center for Community-Based Enterprise, WSU Press Board of Visitors, Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit.

How long have you lived in Detroit? We have lived in Detroit since 1963, when my husband, Al, came to Wayne State University. A local colleague lived in Huntington Woods, and another in Detroit’s Lafayette Park (a co-op apartment building east of Downtown.) We chose Detroit because as former New Yorkers we disliked commuting, and we wanted to bring up our children in an urban, integrated setting.

Living in this new development meant Al could bicycle to work, and we could be part of an urban experiment that also promised possibilities for me as a sociologist. We stayed because we became committed to our neighbors, to our neighborhood and to Detroit, a challenging and challenged city, even at that time.

We appreciated the other individuals and families who shared our values of a commitment and willingness to take action for community improvement. We were reasonably satisfied with Chrysler School and Cass Tech for our two daughters and (later on) our various exchange students.

I began working for the city of Detroit in 1967, and that reinforced my understanding of the complexities behind Detroit’s difficulties and my desire to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

How will bankruptcy affect Detroit? That’s the wrong question. It should be: “How will it affect Detroit, the region, the state and even other cities?”

No one really knows what it will mean. The required changes will directly and indirectly affect a much larger region. For residents, it will hurt individuals as pensions and health benefits in an underfunded system get cut back, and as politicians at every level continue to take personal benefits while undercutting the social safety net.

The probable negative is a “leaner, meaner” city, with even fewer available services or necessary funding for investments to improve the physical and social service structure. The possible positive is a “leaner, meaner” city that is part of a more integrated, regionally funded area; a state that doesn’t just see cutbacks as the only answer, and is again a leader in education and technology; and a responsible private sector (including bond holders and investors) that has accepted reasonable financial compromises.

What is the future of Detroit? My dream: A city of about 700,000 in viable neighborhoods amidst green areas, integrated in terms of race, ethnicity and class, one that builds on some of the vibrancy and enthusiasm of the younger people coming into Detroit, keeping them as we improve schools and services.

My image: All of us in our area struggling to make this dream work.

Yes, I will continue to live in Detroit, trying to be part of the solution, not the problem. I take many of my values from my Jewish heritage. Tikkun olam is how I have lived and will continue to do so. I will look at the positives — e.g., the Riverfront — and work on changing those negatives that I can. I will also work with younger people in our community to hand on and hand over the continuing challenges in our community. Detroit is worth working with and for.

Jodee Fishman Raines
Jodee Fishman Raines

Jodee Fishman Raines: vice president of programs, Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation; board member, WSU Alumni Association, Palmer Woods Association, Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

How long have you lived in Detroit? We [husband, Roy, and children Jalen and Zoe] moved to Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood in October 2011 and are very happy we did. I love being part of a community that is making a difference. I am a third-generation Detroiter and have always been committed to the city, so moving here made me finally feel whole.

Granted there are some challenges, but to me they are far outweighed by the positive aspects. Nowhere else would I be able to live in such a beautiful historic house, in an amazing historic neighborhood, alongside incredibly talented and wonderful people working on world-relevant issues.

I also appreciate the diversity of the city and the opportunity to live, work and play with people who may appear very different from me on the surface but share many similarities once I get to know them. And it is not always all serious work — Detroit is an incredibly vibrant city with more cultural and social offerings on any given day than I could possibly ever do.

How will bankruptcy affect Detroit? It is my hope the bankruptcy process will help sort through our issues in an orderly fashion, with fair consideration given to the various stakeholders, and help position us for a more fiscally responsible future.

Typically, I would say that the legal system is not the most efficient way to resolve an issue, as it can get bogged down through lengthy procedural battles, but in this case I feel it will be more efficient than working through the political process and bureaucratic paralysis.

Detroit’s bankruptcy has become a global conversation, and I hope that will help people look beyond the superficial or narrow stories that typically dominate, into a more thoughtful, richer analysis of the realities — good and bad — of Detroit.

The future of Detroit? While Detroit likely will never look like the city it was in its heyday, I think it has a good future and will be an even more interesting place than it was in those days.

One interesting vision is presented by the Detroit Future City framework plan, and I encourage you to look that up.

But the future is also being developed organically, day by day, by the very creative and dedicated people living and working in the city.

The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, on whose board I serve, is one example that I hope everyone is familiar with, and there are many more. I plan to stay in the city.

Zac Berlin
Zac Berlin

Zac Berlin: communications specialist, Credit Acceptance; participant in Challenge Detroit.

How long have you lived in Detroit? I have lived in Downtown Detroit for almost one year, and I love how, at such a young age [23], I am able to make such a huge difference in my community.

How will bankruptcy affect Detroit? Detroit is very much a tale of two cities. Most people know it as a city of blight and despair, but it is also a city of hope and opportunity. The bankruptcy will result in great hardships for many people, but it will also be a catalyst for a much-needed renaissance in Detroit and the entire metropolitan area. And, this renaissance is something we can all be part of.

What is the future of Detroit? The future of Detroit is only limited by our imaginations. I know most people don’t see the city this way, but Detroit really is a land of opportunity, especially for the young generation.

There are so many different stakeholders — in terms of business, policy and the community — all coming together to solve problems. And often times, the answer is the next generation. I am happy to be part of this renaissance and look forward to being part of our region’s future.

Sharon Luckerman
Sharon Luckerman

Sharon Luckerman: development specialist, Detroit Area Agency on Aging.

How long have you lived in Detroit? I have lived in Detroit more than 30 years. I enjoy the mix of people in my community: professors, cops, artists, autoworkers, journalists, students — black, white — it’s an urban community. I love the houses and greenery in my area (not the nearby blight). I also love living near Lake St. Clair to bike and walk and sail on.

How will bankruptcy affect Detroit? I’m a cautious optimist, that is, my head is cautious, but my feelings are … we go on, we’re here … we have had to be creative and caring and open to new ideas in order to live well here for quite a while. I know the tremendous amount of work, leadership (especially political and community leadership), dedication and education (especially educating citizens/voters) it’s going to take to make this city hum again.

The reality is I’m living my life here with great friends, interesting people, amazing ideas. Detroit attracts a lot of people from around the world wanting to test ideas, businesses, art, urban theories, community concepts and more. And I’m enjoying the new wave of young people moving into my east-side community with its great brick houses just 15 minutes from Downtown for a song!

What is the future for Detroit? Detroit has the potential of becoming a city of the future if we, including the communities, businesses, universities, nonprofits and religious organizations, can get behind a strong plan and elect strong leadership.

We’ve got a lot of vacant land right near the city center and beyond. What are our priorities and opportunities for this space?

We have an inventive plan, a strategic framework the Kresge Foundation put together over a two-year period with input from people from all walks of life around Metro Detroit. We helped plan everything from bike routes to art parks to neighborhood business districts. Then Kresge targeted $150 million over five years to put these ideas in motion.

Will I stay here? I grew up in Chicago and lived in Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., and have no desire to go back. But there are other amazing cities in the world. Or I’ll look into supporting a cool new living space in Detroit for seniors, families and others to live, and for some of us, to grow old gracefully, and still be in the middle of activity and great ideas. 

This story was compiled by Keri Guten-Cohen, story development editor.


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