What Can Detroit Tell Us About 'Comebacks'?

We've all seen and read the endless stream of news stories about the demise of Detroit. How does a city go from being the Paris of the West in the 1920s to the first major U.S. city to declare bankruptcy in 2013? It's true that Detroit finds itself saddled with a number of very complicated issues, as are many U.S. cities. It's easy to sit back and shake one's head and join the chorus of doom. But how many of us have actually seen Detroit firsthand lately?

We have. This past week the Junior Leagues held their Fall Leadership Conference in the Motor City. We came, we saw and we learned a lot. None of us attending the conference is now an expert on Detroit's problems, and I'm sure we cannot appreciate the magnitude of what is needed to turn things around. But we witnessed passion and innovation and citizen action and corporate involvement working together with a common goal: to make Detroit live up to its newest nickname, the 'comeback city.'

The determination of Detroit's residents to return their city to its former glory was apparent from the moment we met our tour guide from D:hive Detroit, a nonprofit group dedicated to sharing, engaging and making the connections necessary for people to succeed -- whether through renovating houses, raising families or launching businesses. We marveled at the city's awesome beauty and history, evident in icons like the Guardian Building, a magnificent example of Art Deco architecture that has been designated a National Historic Landmark. We learned about the 100-year history of the Detroit Junior League and its involvement over the years with Belle Isle, the country's largest city-owned island park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of New York's Central Park.

We saw plenty of buildings, homes and neighborhoods that were empty and abandoned. But we also visited blocks and neighborhoods that are slated for redevelopment. We were reminded once again about the impact that a group of citizens, or even one person, can have. The Heidelberg Project is an example. This outdoor art project started by one young man turned "a hardcore inner-city neighborhood where people were afraid to walk, into one in which neighbors took pride and where visitors were many and welcomed." How? You'd have to see the polka-dotted buildings and street, and see the outdoor art (imagine a speed boat filled with a mountain of stuffed animals) to understand.

Certainly, new business is a key to economic growth and we learned about Detroit's thriving entrepreneurial community. One example is Pure Detroit, now a 15-year-old business that has consistently invested and reinvested in the city by opening new shops and restaurants, supporting residential neighborhoods and urban development projects and promoting local culture.

That imaginative spirit is also alive and well at Eastern Market, the oldest and largest continuously operating farmers' market in the United States. It supports more than 250 independent vendors and merchants who process, wholesale and retail primarily local food.

Established corporations also play a big part in recovery, and our tour guides made a point of telling us about Staples, which came to Detroit with a purpose, and what a difference that has made.

Throughout our tour, which preceded our conference, we were impressed with the passion people have for their city. The impression stayed with us as we headed off to workshops on women's community and civic leadership over the following two days and reminded us that as Junior League leaders, we too are passionate about our own communities and committed to making them better places in which to live, work and learn. Seeing Detroit at such a watershed moment of renewal made us all think about the unique, or not so unique, challenges we are facing back home. We were grateful to have the opportunity to see beyond the news headlines and hopeful for Detroit and the 292 other towns, cities, counties, and neighborhoods we serve.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated Pure Detroit was a 12-year-old business. It is 15 years old.