*An edited version of this article by Daniel Cherrin first appeared in the October 17, 2013 issue of The Detroit Jewish News.
Despite Detroit’s bankruptcy, this November 538,000 registered voters in Detroit will have the opportunity to select a new mayor and nine City Council members. Each one of these individuals will have an important role in rebuilding and rebranding Detroit while guiding the city beyond bankruptcy.
“Detroit is at a crossroads,” Benny Napoleon, Wayne County’s Sheriff who wants to become Mayor, recently told the Jewish News, “and where we go from here will determine the future of the city for generations to come.“
However, in this election, the Jewish vote won’t make a difference in electing Detroit’s next mayor. Although more members of the Jewish Community may work in Detroit or attend services at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue than in years past, of the 72,000 Jews living in Southeastern Michigan, according to the 2005 demographic study, there are only 1,000 Jews actually living south of Eight Mile in the city of Detroit itself – and that is a rough estimate. With only 18 percent of the registered voters in the city of Detroit voting in the August primary, Detroit’s future rests with just a handful of voters.
Although many people in Detroit’s Jewish Community cannot vote, it does not mean the next mayor is not important to Detroit’s Jewish Community. "For the past 30 years, Detroit's leaders have largely failed their constituents," said Gabe Neistein, Alumni Relations Director for Tamarack Camps and a Detroit resident, who lives in Midtown. "Living in Detroit, I take a lot of pride in not only living in the city during a time of resurgence, but also in having a say as to which leaders will help keep us moving forward."
Moving forward and beyond an emergency manager is what each candidate wants. “I understand that we succeed and fail as a region,” said Napoleon. “Right now, Detroit is failing, which is one of the reasons our region is divided. We will work to transform Detroit so we can come to the table as equal partners with the region and seek regional solutions to our issues, together.”
Mike Duggan, former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center and former Wayne County Prosecutor who is also running for Mayor, told the Jewish News, “We all saw how our region can work together when communities in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb rallied to save the SMART bus system during the time I was General Manager of SMART in the 1990’s. As Mayor, I will work with people of good will across this region to build coalitions that support our mutual interests.”
Despite not living within Detroit’s city limits there are a variety of ways the Jewish Community can still get involved. “The buy-in to Detroit’s future is key,” according to Napoleon. “Once we begin to market our area as a region, southeast Michigan will be well on its way. The Jewish community has both influence and resources to shape and move this type of discussion.”
According to Napoleon, “in our region, the roots of the Jewish community in Detroit run deep.” After all, Detroit is a city that the Jewish Community helped build, starting with Chapman Abraham who landed in Detroit in 1762 as a fur trader, followed by Sarah and Isaac Couzens a century later. Fred Butzel former Detroit city councilman David W. Simons and Albert Kahn further made the city stronger. Carl Levin, Mel Ravitz, Norman Drachler, Max Fisher and others helped rebuild Detroit after a turbulent time. Today, the Jewish Community has new urban pioneers such as former State Representative Steve Tobocman, Summer and the City Founder, Ben Falik, D-hive executive Jeff Aronoff, Vice President of Business Development at Eastern Market Corporation Randall Fogelman, Detroit Farm and Garden founder Jeff Klein, Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert, Isaac Downtown Synagogue President and attorney Leor Barak, not to mention well established community leaders such as Gene and Elaine Driker, and Kathleen Strauss and others who are equally committed to seeing Detroit thrive.
With Detroit’s Jewish Community centered in Oakland County, a majority of our community still identifies as Detroiters with the City of Detroit sitting at the core. There is no doubt that whoever gets elected will work with regional leaders on regional problems, such as the M1-Rail, a new regional water authority, the future of the DIA, the development of a new arena for the Red Wings and a new international gateway between Canada and the United States.
While others work on protecting Detroit’s assets, some candidates, such as Adam Hollier a candidate for City Council in District 5, will seek private funding for other important initiatives such as creating safe bus shelters for children and seniors.
However, there are other issues that those who are elected in November will tackle. Issues such as public safety, neighborhood growth and jobs through economic expansion in our neighborhoods, which are the top three issues of which Napoleon is concerned. When asked about public safety and the need to feel safe in the city, Napoleon, current Sheriff for Wayne County and former Detroit Police Chief said, “Detroit’s downtown continues to be one of the safest in America, and it is obvious that our visitors know that as evidenced on any given weekend in downtown Detroit where people from all over coverage to go to dinner, sporting events, concerts and theatre events.”
“The issues that I am most interested in and am hoping the candidates address,” said Neistein, “are education and the public school system, blight removal, improved public transportation and business development. I'm also very interested in the future of Belle Isle.”
Mike Duggan agrees with Neistein and other Detroiters as to where his focus will be as Mayor. “Detroit should be a city that is safe, is growing, and has strong and vibrant neighborhoods and commercial centers,” Duggan said. “Our citizens should be able to call the police and know they’ll come promptly, should expect timely repairs of the streetlights, a reliable bus system, and a commitment to rebuild the neighborhoods by moving families into vacant homes as soon as they become abandoned.”
Duggan also said, “we need to get back to where we can feel safe in Detroit by returning to the strategy of cooperation that existed when I was Wayne County Prosecutor,” he said. “We had a partnership with the U.S. Attorney, the DEA, the ATF, the Detroit Police, and the Prosecutor that resulted in 2003 in Detroit experiencing the fewest murders in 30 years. Lately we have had 5 police chiefs in 5 years, leaving Detroit with no consistent crime fighting strategy. With no leadership and rebuilt partnerships we can make this city safe again.”
Literacy also will be a big issue for the next mayor to consider. According to the Detroit Literacy Coalition, 47% of adult Detroiters are functional illiterate. “Illiteracy is critical. It has become an impediment to our children’s education when parents aren’t able to provide their children with the assistance they need at home,” according to Napoleon.
The Detroit JCRC has made this one of their focal points and has three initiatives to address illiteracy in Detroit, through Detroit Jewish Coalition for Literacy (DJCL), Team Lamed and Reading Works. Bookstock also supports efforts to reduce illiteracy and donates proceeds from the sale to support education and literacy projects in the Detroit metropolitan area.
“DJCL’s roster of volunteer tutors has increased from 300 to 800 Jewish community members serving in almost 60 schools in Detroit and Oakland County. DJCL partners with Repair the World, Beyond Basics and other pro-literacy organizations, expanding each other’s reach and effectiveness and sharing expertise,” Robert Cohen, President of the Detroit JCRC said.
Beyond the JCRC and Bookstock, there are other ways the Jewish Community can reconnect with the city. “Truly transforming our city requires working in our neighborhoods and healing our communities,” Napoleon said. However, a lack of transportation options limits the ability for Detroiters to access needed services. “Because our regional transit system is inadequate, we need to bring services to those who need it, but volunteers and workers from JVS and other services need to feel safe in our city,” Napoleon said. “I would integrate organizations like JVS into my "One Square Mile Initiative,” where they become a neighborhood asset and work closely within that structure. My One Square Mile Initiative places a police officer in each square mile of the city to partner with residents, businesses, community groups, places of worship and others to address crime and quality of life issues in that square mile. It truly looks at our city from the micro level in transforming the neighborhoods.”
“JVS has maintained a presence in the City of Detroit since opening our doors in 1941, and we are committed to assist in its revitalization. By developing a partnership with business, schools and job seekers, JVS is preparing the workforce to meet the needs of Detroit’s economic development. As evidenced throughout the Metro Detroit region, transportation remains a significant challenge in matching our workforce with business, “ said Leah Rosenbaum, JVS interim president and CEO.
With regards to how the candidates can serve as a bridge between Detroit and Detroit’s Jewish Community, Napoleon said, “The African American community and the Jewish people have a unique understanding of one another and deep respect for our respective faiths. Napoleon said he would serve as a trusted link between Detroit’s grassroots community and Detroit’s Jewish community.”
However, Napoleon said that despite a shared history of oppression and discrimination, there are many children living in the city of Detroit who have never met or know any Jewish children, or, according to Napoleon, “know much about the rich traditions and deep faith of the Jewish people.” “From the lessons of oppression, discrimination and contemporary issues like self-governance and determination,” Napoleon said, “our children are the future to a more just world. I can envision working closely with The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to build bridges and relationships in our respective civil rights communities as well, perhaps, a more robust youth exchange program.”
While there are many in this community that long for the days of riding the bus or trolley to Hudson’s along Woodward, or even summer nights along the shores of Lake Francis in Palmer Park, there are still many of us who fear travelling into Detroit, albeit for a guided tour from an air conditioned bus taking us to Old Jewish Detroit or to a sporting event. Both Duggan and Napoleon want everyone in the region to not only feel safe in the city, but for others in the region to know who Detroiters are. “Detroiters are very loving, passionate and compassionate people who have largely been ignored by previous administrations as it relates to their neighborhoods, Napoleon said. “They want the same things out of life as anyone else: safe and livable communities; quality education for their children; and economic opportunities.”
There are many examples where companies emerge from bankruptcy stronger and more efficient. While cities will not disappear despite how they are run, this is Detroit’s opportunity. With a new international airport, new life in the downtown, a world-class cultural scene and a new entrepreneurial culture now occupying Detroit – Detroit is back. In fact, each of the candidates expressed messages of hope, optimism and the ability to seek help from those wanting to lend a hand.
Mary Sheffield, a minister and candidate for Detroit City Council in District 5, which includes the areas between Midtown and Belle Isle, wants the Jewish Community to stay committed to the rebuilding of Detroit and use its influence to convince others to do the same, whether it is through synagogues, businesses or personal relationships. “Detroit’s Jewish Community is an integral part of the future of the city, in my opinion,” said Sheffield, “and as such, in an effort to achieve our vision it would require this community to continue to embrace Detroit and choose to live, work, own businesses and enjoy all that Detroit has to offer.
Richard Bowers, an attorney who has worked for a number of City Council members in addition to Mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel, Jr. and now a candidate for Detroit City Council in District 2, which includes Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest and the University District, suggested ways that the organized Jewish community could stay connected. “I would like to work with ADL to make sure we have the most up to date ordinances and laws in the City of Detroit to protect citizens from bigotry,” Bowers said. (In full disclosure, I worked with Richard when I worked for Cockrel).
According to Bowers, “The vast, vast majority of Detroiters want the same thing- clean, safe, well kept neighborhoods where everyone lives in harmony no matter what religion, race, or background and they are able to have a good paying job and top of the line retail. In other words, the majority of Detroiters want Detroit back, and they need the help of Jewish people to share it with them.”
There was a time in Detroit’s history when the Jewish vote did mater, but that was when Albert Cobo, Louis Miriani and Jerome Cavanaugh were mayor. Over the past few years, Detroit’s Jewish Community has not been as politically engaged as previous generations. Although many of us cannot vote this November and help elect a new generation of leadership to help move Detroit forward, we have the opportunity to develop new relationships, build coalitions and create a bridge between our community and our city.
“Jewish people have always had a sense of social action and philanthropy,” Gabe Leland, a candidate for Detroit City Council in District 7 that includes Dexter/Davison and Russell Woods, and the only Jewish candidate in the race said. “It’s apparent with the many contributions to our education and civic institutions that we are small in numbers yet strong in philanthropy. Its hidden in the remembrance of where we came from and what this city meant to our families. It’s apparent that keeping this connection to our roots is so important to the Jewish community, no matter the state of the city.”
Although the Jewish Community cannot vote for the next mayor of Detroit or for City Council, it is never too late to become involved and continue to have influence on rebuilding and rebranding Detroit.
Daniel Cherrin is the founder of North Coast Strategies, a public relations + affairs firm in Royal Oak. He is the former Communications Director for the City of Detroit and Press Secretary to Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr.