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Excerpt: Summing up three decades of work in Detroit, and looking ahead

Centennial, Detroit

Tony Proscio

Tony Proscio

Myron Farbe

Myron Farbe

John Gallagher

John Gallagher

Excerpt from new book considers a ‘triple threat to philanthropy’ in the magnitude of city’s challenges, the multiplicity of problems and competing ideas for solving them.

Today concludes our series of weekly  excerpts from Embracing a City: The Kresge Foundation in Detroit 1993-2023 (Momentum Books).

This behind-the-scenes look into 30 years of the unlikely partnerships, unique collaborations, varied financial tools and bold bets of The Kresge Foundation — originally the work of veteran journalists Tony Proscio and Myron Farber — was first released in 2018 covering the span of 1993 to 2017. An updated edition includes a new chapter from Proscio plus revisions and additions throughout by longtime Detroit-based journalist John Gallagher to bring the narrative up to date. Gallagher will host a panel discussion on the book and Detroit History at the Detroit Historical Museum on May 23. Register for in-person attendance or to watch a livestream here.  

Back to Life, Chapter 7, looks ahead to the conjoined futures of Detroit and The Kresge Foundation.

“When all else is said and done, often it is love—love of a place, love of a neighborhood, love of a team or a landscape or family or just a moment in time that is bound up in the experience of Detroit—that can prompt this city to stand its ground and face its bitter truths, willing to work and hope for the days of change.”

— Detroit Future City: 2012 Detroit strategic Framework Plan

Catastrophes—including those like Detroit’s, of the political and economic kind—pose a triple threat to philanthropy.

Laura Trudeau

First, their sheer mass can quickly overwhelm the resources that even a large foundation has at its disposal, threatening to make any intervention seem puny in comparison with the need. As Laura Trudeau pointed out in a 2013 paper on Kresge’s efforts in Detroit, the city’s loss of property value just between 2008 and 2012 instantly “dwarfed” The Kresge Foundation’s entire contribution to the city over the previous nine decades. The Foundation’s total annual grant outlays nationwide would not fund the cash-starved Detroit Public Schools for even three months. Strategic foundations like Kresge that strive for “coordinated, integrated solutions” (Trudeau’s phrase) to massive public needs can easily end up buried by the size and complexity of the problems they are confronting, unless they can rally the backing of other, larger players or target their investments to points of maximum leverage—or, most likely, both.

Second, great crises generally draw the attention of many public, corporate, and philanthropic actors with disparate ideas about how to solve problems. Picking which ideas to support, or what alliances to make, and for what purpose, is therefore even more of a challenge for foundations in extreme circumstances than in normal ones. The choice among different approaches and points of view will eventually tie the foundation to some subset of the competing interests and advocates—and thus likely place it in conflict or disagreement with others. In the worst case, if its preferred course of action is solely its own, the foundation may find itself in the middle of the cross fire, a convenient target for all sides. This is usually a manageable problem—the cross fire is not literal, after all—but it can be an exceedingly uncomfortable position for institutions dedicated to social harmony and cooperation. Laura Trudeau summed up the difficulties this way: “Cross-sector collaboration is imperative, but foundations need to protect their work against other sectors’ limited capacity or conflicting priorities.”

Third, a catastrophic landscape usually features a panoply of different needs whose urgency cries out for immediate attention. Focusing on just one or two of these cries for help means making painful, invidious choices. But the temptation to tackle everything at once—to find “comprehensive” remedies or, as Robert F. Kennedy famously put it in 1966, to “grab the web whole”—can mean aiming at too many targets and diluting the chance of being effective at any of them.

Kresge President & CEO Rip Rapson

In Detroit, where Rip Rapson explicitly envisioned “taking on [an] entire” city, and where Kresge has sought “to change the trajectory of Detroit,” the number of different fronts on which the battle can be waged is enormous. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, Rapson’s framework for Re-imagining Detroit 2020 comprised nine fields of effort, but even that list encapsulated dozens of subareas, each demanding different skills, answerable to different constituencies, subject to different systems and rules, and likely to progress on profoundly different timelines.

To move on so many fronts at once, Kresge has acknowledged, means choosing a smaller number of areas on which to concentrate the Foundation’s own time and money, and playing a supportive role in others. But even so, that has meant immersing itself—and mining the skills of its staff and advisers—in areas as diverse as urban planning, transportation, capital formation, leadership development, neighborhood revitalization, the arts, and early childhood education, among others.

It has also meant forging constructive but complex alliances with big corporations and individual investors, for whom civic and business interests inevitably intersect; with state and local public officials who rarely see eye to eye, and who often focus on conflicting issues; with grassroots neighborhood leaders and downtown elites who live and work in different social strata (and, most often, in markedly different physical places); and with foundations and donors who, no matter how absolute their dedication to the public good, are bound to draw disparate conclusions about the most important needs and the most promising solutions.

The QLINE –– a 3.5 mile streetcar running down Woodward Avenue––began passenger service on May 12, 2017. It's creation entailed the establishment, by the state, of a regional transit agency, something that had frustrated transit activists for decades. (Photo by Ryan Southen)

A result of all this can be a formidable challenge of priority setting and diplomacy. But even more, it’s a complex strategic and organizational puzzle whose stakes are no less than the survival of a still large and important American city. There is no pattern or precedent for this type of philanthropy in extremis. No great American city has fallen so far, so fast, as Detroit, nor brushed so close to financial and political ruin, nor struggled against such ferocious headwinds in its efforts at recovery. No foundation, before Kresge, has tried to “change the trajectory” of so large and complex a place. Detroit is not the kind of “Gray Area,” teetering but still vigorous, on which the standard playbook of urban philanthropy has been based for some sixty years.

Nor are Detroit’s woes purely economic, and thus correctable primarily with money, as might be the case if the problems had been limited to underfunded pensions, poorly distributed taxes, or mismanaged debt. Decades of racial segregation, white flight, disinvestment, industrial decay, and racially charged hostilities between the city and its suburbs have contributed to a dangerous erosion of the fundamentals of urban well-being: the physical integrity of neighborhoods, the viability of their commercial strips, the ability to control crime or provide other essential public services, and—some might say worst of all—the quality of the schools. Grants alone cannot reverse such things. It takes collective will, civic bonds of trust, and patient perseverance over several decades—all of which are virtues in short supply in contemporary America, and none of which can be summoned into being by any amount of philanthropy alone.

Yet for all its difficulties, Detroit has held on to a reservoir of strengths that makes it possible not only to persevere, but to imagine a different, more equitable, and more resilient city taking shape on the horizon. Its community and religious leaders, a new generation of political and administrative talent, a growing cadre of private investors and young entrepreneurs, and, most of all, a bedrock of resolute Detroiters constitute a solid platform on which to continue building. It may even be reasonable to hope that the younger generations of the new century, on both sides of the Eight Mile Road city limits, may find the barriers of race less sturdy than did their elders, and may find new ways to breach them.

In the meantime, however, exist urgent practical challenges—acres of empty or crumbling real estate, overstretched municipal services, failing schools, meager economic opportunity, neighborhoods fearing oblivion—that cannot wait for further generational shifts or an upsurge of public confidence and trust. It is on these fronts that the “trajectory of Detroit” must shift, and soon. “Re-imagining” the city means, in essence, mapping an upward path on all these issues and generating a lasting momentum, even if the process takes decades—as seems probable.

What makes this abundance of different challenges so difficult is not just that there are so many, but that they are interdependent. Neighborhoods depend for their survival partly on the quality of their schools, and vice versa; economic opportunity depends partly on transportation; city services depend partly on property values and the tax revenue they generate; and on and on. Focusing on just one or two of the big issues, to the neglect of others, runs the risk that the neglected areas will ultimately undermine any progress on the ones where the work and money are concentrated. Seen in that light, Rapson’s contemplation of “taking on entire cities” is not so much an act of visionary audacity as a simple confronting of reality. Even if Kresge can’t play a leading role in all these areas—and in some cases shouldn’t—it must be a deliberate part of a web of effort that touches the entire city, with some overarching plan or vision holding all the effort together.

A group photo of graduating high school students in cap and gown standing in front of the school building at the School at Marygrove.
One of Kresge's major undertakings during the 30 years covered by "Embracing a City" was the collaboration with Detroit Public Schools Community District and the University of Michigan Marsal Family School of Education to create a new model for education on the campus of the former Marygrove College. These are the first graduates of the The School at Marygrove, the class of 2023. (Photo by Darrel Ellis)

In Detroit, such a broad, encompassing vision has been lacking for more than half a century. At least since the violence of 1967—which, as Coleman Young later wrote, “put the city on the fast track to economic desolation”—Detroit’s struggle to regain its footing has tended to be transactional and particular, focusing on big projects like the Renaissance Center, the People Mover, sports stadiums, and casinos that were somehow supposed to reverse the cycle of decline, depopulation, and decay.

Philanthropy was as much a part of this transactional, big-project approach to revitalization as were government and the corporate civic establishment. Kresge itself, in its early years, preferred to award its support project by project, based mainly on the merits of each individual transaction (though, to be fair, the underlying objective of many of these transactions was to strengthen the organizations that sponsored them—arts institutions, the Riverfront Conservancy, Eastern Market—and equip them to accomplish more things over time).

Even among the foundations embedded in Detroit, the pattern was much the same: each one had its specialties and signature projects, and while executives met periodically to exchange information and solicit one another’s help, each foundation essentially pursued its own business its own way. One person who regularly attended these meetings described them as “very cordial and often quite interesting,” but concluded that they “never challenged anything or changed anyone’s basic direction.”

What Rapson had called “the absence of a shared community vision,” which he identified as “the defining problem” of Detroit, was not just a failure to conjure a goal beyond the next big project. It was an inability to draw the city’s—and the region’s—many factions and interests into a single discussion, transcending sectors, geographic boundaries, racial divisions, and political or ideological leanings. To weave the various lines of effort into a coherent (if still pointillist) picture of overall recovery for Detroit was a job that, in Kresge’s view, fell disproportionately on philanthropy’s shoulders. “Philanthropy,” Rapson said at a gathering of urban experts in 2011, “has emerged as the sector best able to provide the long-term vision and investment of capital the city needs to right itself.” As the region’s largest foundation, Kresge embraced the challenge.