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Commentary

A tale of two cities: Detroit and Southfield

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Well, we’ve come to the end of the year, and I do have a little good news: There are already three more minutes of daylight than on the year’s shortest day. There’s a long winter ahead, but at least that’s something. And while Detroit certainly faces a lot of difficult challenges, the year ends with the city in better shape than when it started.

The bankruptcy is over. The Detroit Institute of Arts was saved. City workers and retirees still have most of their pensions, though no longer adjusted for inflation.

Detroit enters the New Year with a new chance. But while we’ve talked all year about Detroit, there’s another city worth looking at.

Southfield sits right on Detroit’s northern border. Like Detroit it is also a majority African-American city, and has been so for some time. But unlike Detroit, it has remained solidly middle-class.

Southfield is a city of leafy streets and ranch or two-story colonial homes, clustered around a forest of office towers that have served since the 1970s as a sort of satellite downtown.

The Great Recession of six years ago hit Southfield hard, and there are thousands of square feet of vacant space in those towers, and too many empty storefronts along Southfield Road.

But you don’t see anything like the blight you see in Detroit. The population, once about 78,000, fell by close to 10%, but now it is coming back. More of those empty offices are being occupied, and a new, mixed use office and retail center is under construction at Twelve Mile and Southfield Roads.

Yesterday, I talked with Brenda Lawrence, who’s been Southfield’s mayor the last thirteen years. She’s resigning next week, to take a seat in Congress.

When she first ran for mayor, some black residents of Southfield didn’t want her to win. “Any city that has a black mayor turns into a ghetto,” one told me. But that hasn’t happened.

The population is now more than seventy percent black, but there is a large Orthodox Jewish population, and a rich mix of other communities as well.

I asked the mayor how they had made things work, and she said it was no accident. The trick, she told me, was making residents of all flavors feel invested. Two of the biggest things were community policing and fighting blight.

“Our police are everywhere in this community," she told me. “They are in the schools. In the neighborhoods. People know them.”

When the recession came, people in Southfield, as elsewhere, lost their homes. Some left in the dead of night.

Lawrence knew how critical this was. She reached out to residents, made them part of the solution. People were given numbers to call, day or night, if they saw suspicious activity.

The city hired college students in a program called “Two Kids and a Truck” to rove around and cut the grass or fix broken windows in abandoned properties. If these were owned by a bank, Southfield sent them the bill. The result is a city that works.

No city is perfect, but if I were Mike Duggan, I might take Brenda Lawrence to dinner. If Detroit were to become more like Southfield this year, this state would be incredibly better off.