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Detroit tour reveals challenges, promises for city's future growth

A day filled with contrasts was more than just educational for students and faculty of the School of Information (SI)—it was an eye-opener.
Graduate student Diana Gavales listens to a presentation at the Boll Family YMCA. Organized by the SI Community Information Corps, the trip allowed participants to see the same thing from different viewpoints. They also considered how to use the new U-M Detroit Center for research, education and service projects. (Photo by Jay Jackson)

On one hand, it was a bleak look at Detroit with many of its neighborhoods in disrepair. On the other, it was a view of those same areas as grounds full of opportunities for anyone with a desire to serve the public good.

Looking at the same thing from different viewpoints was one of the purposes of the
Feb. 18 trip organized by the Community Information Corps, an SI initiative that explores the changing role of information and technology in society. Students in the CIC especially are interested in taking on jobs that can make a difference in a community, as many graduates already have in the United States and Central America. The nearly 50 participants also were interested in seeing how the University as a whole can promote positive change in the city.

"The purpose of the trip was to acquaint CIC-interested SI faculty and doctoral and master's students with Detroit demographics, opportunities and challenges, and to stimulate our thinking about how we might use the new U-M Detroit Center in research, education and service projects," says Associate Professor Maurita Holland.

The field trip for SI 575: "CIC Seminar in Kids, Technology, and Informal Learning," included narration by Reynolds Farley, professor emeritus of sociology and research professor emeritus of population studies.
Faculty and staff from the School of Information visited the world-famous Heidelberg Project, an outdoor display of found-object art that covers a city block in Detroit, above. (Photo by Maurita Holland)

Farley's descriptions, coupled with stops at the Boll Family YMCA and the U-M Detroit Center, stirred much discussion about the city's outlook. At the Detroit Center, school board member and U-M employee Tyrone Winfrey concentrated on the need to improve city schools. Winfrey, associate director of undergraduate admissions, outlined challenges Detroit schools face in increasing the number of high school students qualified to go on to U-M and other universities.

Tour guests saw both the good and the bad of the city as the day went along. One minute they were looking at dilapidated housing and abandoned factories. Just a few blocks later, they were entering the new downtown YMCA. Sprinkled throughout the city were single-family houses, condominiums and apartment projects under construction. New office buildings gave hope that workers of all kinds will choose to live in the new housing. The group also saw numerous historic sites that were a reminder of how the city has contributed throughout American history.

The mix of old and new, the glaring side-by-side contradictions between decay and rebirth, surprised some.

"The trip was very well-orchestrated and really tapped the broad resources of the University," said master's student Maurice Solomon. "I got a stronger idea of the way
U-M fits into Detroit, and how SI fits into the U-M effort. The tour of the YMCA really showcased some innovative uses of information technology—the big take away was that the technology needs to be situated in the proper environment, surrounded by well-meaning people, to really bring out its potential for the larger community."

Solomon added that the YMCA, in addition to providing recreation, is a community resource. "I was particularly impressed with the kinds of classes they were running—drawing, animation and Web site creation," he said. "In a city with so many historical landmarks but so many abandoned buildings, it was good to hear about forward-looking projects going on."

The reality couldn't be missed, however, that the way back for Detroit will not be direct and quick.

"Seeing Detroit was actually somewhat depressing," observed Assistant Professor Gavin Clarkson. "Clearly the city was a grand city at one point, and much of the architecture still remains, but in its current incarnation, it will be a very long road back that may never be traveled.

"The city reminded me of downtown Houston 20 years ago. That area has come roaring back, but it has a vibrant economy driving it. Detroit and Michigan as a whole are unlikely to provide such an economic engine in the near future."

Winfrey's talk impressed master's student Christopher Korintus. "I was inspired," he said, "and I'd like to participate in the follow up to helping these inner-city kids get motivated and on the right track."

As the bus meandered the streets Farley explained how different ethnic groups settled in various neighborhoods and what impact they had on the city. In his role at the U-M Population Studies Center, he carefully tracked Detroit census data and watched the ebb and flow. The life of some neighborhoods seemingly disappeared entirely, while that of others has thrived. Those who live outside the city don't often picture the latter.

The city was not a first-time destination for all who toured, but everyone came away with new interpretations.

"I knew Detroit was historically significant, but I don't think I realized how rich the city's history was until the tour. I left the tour enchanted by the city's architectural history and I now want to learn more about the city and explore it further," said student Noor Ali-Hasan.

Assistant Professor Ixchel Faniel, who came to SI from the University of Southern California, had few first-hand experiences with Detroit before the tour. She sees potential for SI to become involved in the Detroit community.

"The interesting thing is that we at SI consider information, people and technology to be important resources. We tend to study the interplay between them. However, some of the communities we toured in Detroit are lacking when it comes to some if not all of them," Faniel said. "It could be interesting to think about how communities make do when there is a lack of one or more of these resources or how the communities go about creating access to these resources and how that affects revitalization."

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