Hearing stories like these, you realize why Detroit natives react so viscerally against well-meaning outsiders wandering into their city and marveling at its potential as “a blank slate.” There are a lot of empty lots in Detroit, perhaps even more vacant buildings, but there’s nothing “blank” about the Motor City’s slate. Much of the city is still as bad as its reputation, but there’s always one grandma keeping her house up at the end of the block, preventing that street from being consumed by the emptiness.
And in neighborhoods like Grandmont Rosedale and many more areas even less financially stable, there have been residents fighting every day to keep their city. When Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli moved back to Detroit, he had a neighbor instruct him, “This is where we live. … If you see someone pissing on that wall over there or trying to break into a car, you need to chase them down.”
To a degree its reputation belies, Detroit has kept its civic spirit intact, even through the 1980s, when Devil’s Night arson would light the city in every direction on Halloween eve. It was the residents who put out those fires, and starting in 1995, 50,000 citizens walked the streets to protect their neighborhoods from being burned by vandals.
The residents who stuck it out, who walked those Angel’s Night patrols, are finally seeing the decline start to lift. Even as their city proceeds through bankruptcy and an emergency manager overrules their elected officials, 2016 is expected to be the first year in over 60 years that the city of Detroit will increase in population. Wayne County, where Detroit and some of its suburbs are located, has now experienced five straight years of job growth.
Detroit’s official motto is, incredibly, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”—written by Catholic priest Gabriel Richard in the wake of the 1805 fire that nearly destroyed the city. Detroit has burned at least four times, in fact, but each time it has arisen.
In neighborhoods like Grandmont Rosedale, Detroit’s post-industrial wasteland is once again starting to show green shoots of hope pushing up in concentrated communities that maintain themselves. They preserved the built inheritance of America’s Paris. They hoped for better things, and now they are starting to see them.
Jonathan Coppage is visiting senior fellow at the R Street Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative . This article was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.