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Leadership Series: Dave Bing Reimagines Detroit (Part 1)

How important is the quality of leadership to the economic vitality of a city? And what role can leaders play in the transformation of our region? Changing Gears is exploring these questions in a three-part series on leadership.

We start with the man who may have the toughest job of any big city mayor: Dave Bing of Detroit.

He has to keep his economically depressed city running, while convincing residents that Detroit must shrink to survive.

One of those residents is David Dudley.


He points out the little brick home where he’s lived for forty years, while driving through his neighborhood in Detroit’s Grandmont Division.

Right before Christmas, he says, they found a body at the abandoned house next door.

Almost a third of this city is believed to be vacant, about 40 square miles. So David Dudley wants one thing from the mayor.

“Make it safe and they can do whatever they’re gonna do,” he said. “Just make it safe. I wanna be able to walk to the store and not have to carry a stick or … other things.”

Dudley says he knows what it’s like to sleep with a gun. He did that back when he was a soldier in Vietnam. But he doesn’t want to do it in his home, in Detroit.

A few miles to the east, Reverend Horace Sheffield of the New Destiny Baptist Church also knows what he wants in a mayor. He liked the charismatic leadership style of past mayors. He wants Dave Bing to have more of a presence in the neighborhoods.

“The mayor is in absentia,” he said. “We don’t see him, we don’t hear from him. We know he’s the mayor, but that’s about it.”

As for Mayor Bing, he’s got his hands full managing the day to day operations of his cash-strapped city. But he’s given himself another job as well. Dave Bing wants to be the leader who reshapes this American metropolis. From his high rise office, Bing looks out at a city with an enormous footprint. It’s a city that could swallow Boston, Manhattan, San Francisco and still have room to spare. It’s also a city that’s lost a million people, more than half its population. Mayor Bing knows there’s no blueprint for fixing that.

“You gotta do what’s right,” he said. “You gotta do what’s best over the long haul. And in a lot of cases it means pain now. But you can’t duck it. I mean we gotta make tough decisions, otherwise we’ll be 20 years from now trying to figure out what to do next.”

When Dave Bing took office in May 2009, the former Detroit Piston and NBA hall of famer stood nearly a head taller than the judge swearing him in. He knew the city from his basketball days and his years as an industrial magnate.

But the Detroit he inherited was, in his words, nearly bankrupt — financially, ethically and operationally. He learned right away just how bad it was.

“You say, what the hell did I get into?” he laughed. “But I’m a person that’s very competitive. I believe in results. And my first career I knew what my results were at the end of 48 minutes. In business, I pretty much knew what my results were month to month. But in government, it’s like dog years.”

The leadership challenges in Detroit are huge. There’s the fiscal crisis – the city government doesn’t have enough money to operate. There’s the economic crisis – not enough jobs and an official unemployment rate of 20%.

And then there’s the city’s reputation.

Detroit’s former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is still in prison for a probation violation stemming from his infamous text messaging scandal. In December, a federal grand jury indicted Kilpatrick on more charges of racketeering, bribery, extortion and fraud.

Sheila Cockrel served four terms on the Detroit City Council, including under Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. She applauds the new mayor for ending the culture of corruption that she says characterized the Kilpatrick era. “Tone is set at the top,” she said.

But Sheila Cockrel also warns that the roots of Detroit’s problems run back decades, to the aftermath of World War II:

“The irony of all ironies is that poor folks, Southern folks … started coming to Detroit as the land of opportunity at precisely the time the economic structure of the city was beginning to falter,” Cockrel said.

Add to that a history of discriminatory federal housing policy and urban renewal plans that wiped out black neighborhoods, and she says you get a real deep-seated mistrust of plans that are going to change where people live.

But Mayor Bing says the Detroit of the future needs to look very different from the Detroit of the past.

“People gotta realize that we must change,” he said. “We’re not gonna be 2 million people again. We still have 139 square miles to service.”

So while the city’s size remains the same, its tax base is crippled. City officials say Detroit will spend more than 9 million dollars per square mile to provide services this year. That’s more than Pittsburgh, more than Cleveland, even more than other sprawling cities like Phoenix. Mayor Bing’s solution is to concentrate people in the city’s denser pockets.

He says he won’t force anyone to move, however. He says he’ll convince them with success.

“There are people across the city that are living in some terrible conditions, who want to move,” he said. “I will go to those people and get them to move into a better situation. And for those people who want to stay on the outside, if you will, they’ll have decisions to make down the road.”

In this process, city services become the carrot and the stick. The mayor says services will not be cut off, but they will slow in sparsely populated areas. That raises a lot of questions about which neighborhoods will form the core of the new Detroit and how poor people and senior citizens on fixed incomes will be able to afford to move.

The mayor gave a preview last week of what might be possible, when he announced a pilot program to entice Detroit police officers back to homes in the city. He plans to sell them vacant houses for as little as $1,000 down, with additional funds provided for renovation.

Back in David Dudley’s neighborhood, you can see a garbage trucks navigating through the snow — a sign of normalcy.

But Dudley says that when he called the police about that vacant house next door, call after call for years, nothing happened. Eventually, he just gave up.

A few doors down, a jagged pile of debris rises where another empty house stood earlier in the morning.

Mayor Bing has said his administration will tear down 10,000 vacant structures during his first term. So far, more than 2,000 have come down. Neighbor Inez Frazier watched this one fall. She says she’s counting on Mayor Bing to make the right decisions for Detroit.

“The Bible says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So if he do us wrong, he gonna get his. Do right, by all of us.”

The administration plans to release a detailed neighborhood study this spring … followed by several possible blueprints for the future Detroit.

Debate will follow.

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