DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. The city of Detroit has reached a major milestone. Five years ago, it went bankrupt - was saddled with more than $18 billion in debt. Well, now Detroit is not only out of bankruptcy but is issuing bonds backed by its own credit instead of bonds guaranteed by state government or insurers. As Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET reports, while the city's economy is improving, some Detroiters fear it may be leaving behind those who toughed it out when the times were bad.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Detroit shed $7 billion of debt by going bankrupt. It then restructured and declared itself open for investment. New development poured in led by hometown businessman Dan Gilbert who invested more than $5.5 billion in about a hundred Detroit properties, moved his mortgage company and Bedrock real estate firm downtown and is now reportedly the city's largest private employer and taxpayer. At a recent groundbreaking for a new downtown office tower backed by Gilbert, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan marveled at just how fast the once bankrupt city is changing.
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MIKE DUGGAN: Well, isn't this an amazing week in Detroit? I mean, we...
DUGGAN: ...We started Monday with a historic commitment by the corporations to help transform Detroit neighborhoods. And three days later on Thursday, we're here with Dan Gilbert and Bedrock - an announcement that's going to help transform the skylight.
KLINEFELTER: Moody's Investors Service analyst David Levett says the city government is balancing its budget now, saving funds to cover pension obligations Detroit will have to resume paying in 2024. And he estimates impending job cuts in Detroit's auto industry really won't hit much of the city's workforce. But Levett cautions that Detroit's public school system has no money to make badly needed repairs, and investors are not spreading their wealth across the city.
DAVID LEVETT: The growth in the city has been largely concentrated in the greater downtown area. There's still declining population if you look at the city as a whole. And the income levels are still low in the city as a whole.
KLINEFELTER: And some here expressed concern that investment is skewed towards bringing new upscale residents downtown, neglecting the neighborhoods where most Detroiters live. The exodus from those neighborhoods has slowed to a mere trickle of what it's been over the past few decades. And in some, people are actually moving in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for coming in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No problem.
KLINEFELTER: The Art in Motion Studio and Gallery sits on what's called the Avenue of Fashion - once a prime shopping area. Owner Kay Willingham says she's stayed in this neighborhood for almost 50 years. While there are crime issues like any big city, there's also a vibrancy.
KAY WILLINGHAM: Families are moving back in 'cause that's one thing that had not happened. We see a lot of families that are moving in. And I think that's a great thing because that's what this community needs. They're not afraid to get out and try something new. They're not afraid to go for a walk, take the dog out, take the kids out - where, at this neighborhood for a long time, that wasn't happening.
KLINEFELTER: Detroit officials are targeting hundreds of millions of dollars to build up neighborhoods already doing well like this one. Willingham says that can be a mixed blessing.
WILLINGHAM: Now we're getting ready to go into construction next year, which is a good thing. They're getting ready to take the median out. They're expanding the sidewalks, putting in bike lanes. But that's going to be a two-year process. So for a small business, that's a lot to endure to keep business going.
KLINEFELTER: In other neighborhoods, stretching across Detroit's 143 square miles, residents are still waiting for a rejuvenation.
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KLINEFELTER: A soft rain is falling on heavy traffic along Jefferson Avenue, connecting a mostly barren edge of Detroit with the affluent Grosse Pointe suburbs. Detroit officials have plans to lure new business to the area, providing tax breaks, assembling parcels of land, even offering to match investors' money with grant funding. But community activist Luther Keith says too many stores here still sit empty.
LUTHER KEITH: To bring them back requires somebody to walk down this block of closed storefronts and say, I think we can change this; I'm going to put up the store - first storefront; I'm going to open the first coffee shop.
KLINEFELTER: The city recently announced it will renovate two vacant buildings in the area to create new residential units - half of them affordable housing for people with low incomes. Keith says that helps offset fears among some Detroiters that the city's tearing down of tens of thousands of blighted buildings makes way for new upscale residences while overlooking resources for those already in the neighborhoods. But he says the enduring challenges to transforming Detroit go far deeper.
KEITH: The real issue in Detroit is not gentrification. It's poverty - poor people. We need jobs. We need investment so folks can take care of themselves.
KLINEFELTER: Detroit's poverty rate has dropped slightly, but almost half of Detroit children live below the poverty line. City officials say there are jobs here. And they're offering training in skilled trades, everything from construction work to database administration.
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KLINEFELTER: Detroiter Thomas Sampson supports himself driving for the ride-share service Lyft. As he cruises towards downtown, he says he and others like him are making Detroit's post-bankruptcy economy work for them even if they're not the kind of new property owners the city wants to fill its tax base.
THOMAS SAMPSON: But because we have the decisions that was made...
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Turn left. Then turn right.
SAMPSON: ...And now we've got all these folks that's coming down. It enables me to do well in the ride-share program. And that's what's the most important thing about Detroit - is, you know, we're strong. We're resilient. You know, when we fall, we get back up.
KLINEFELTER: That's a mantra Detroit officials have adopted, too, touting the resurgence of the Motor City moving past bankruptcy far faster than experts anticipated but with many miles to go on the road to resurrection. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.
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