By Cameron Brown and Victoria Kovari
Cities are composed of neighborhoods. While often overlooked, neighborhoods play a key role in a citizen’s urban identity and relationship with their city. The creation of a dedicated Department of Neighborhoods can shape positive interactions between citizens, neighborhoods, and city governments, fostering a culture of civic engagement. Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods (DoN) directly connects the City of Detroit to block clubs, community groups, business owners, faith leaders, educators, and everyday residents. By formalizing a system of community “block clubs,” the Detroit DoN promotes neighborhood representation in local government and normalizes direct coordination between residents and city officials. The creation of the DoN and the rejuvenation of Detroit’s block clubs have allowed the city government and community members to work hand-in-hand and develop a more civically engaged Detroit.
In 2013, Detroit, Michigan filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. It was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: 20 percent of houses were foreclosed or vacant and 90,000 parcels lay vacant as urban prairie. The city was unable to supply regular services to Detroit’s many neighborhoods, and deep distrust fermented between residents and the city government. These challenges were further compounded by large population declines that shrunk funding and political support to neighborhood organizations and community organizers. However, with the creation of a government entity dedicated to neighborhoods and a newfound focus on developing “block clubs” to bolster citizen representation in everyday governing, the current picture of Detroit is markedly more optimistic than in its early days of insolvency.
The year 2014 marked the establishment of Detroit’s new Department of Neighborhoods (DoN), the first entity in the city’s history devoted to improving the quality of life in every neighborhood. Envisioned as a 14-member team composed of two representatives from each City Council district, the DoN forges a direct link between the City of Detroit and the numerous “block clubs,” community groups, business owners, faith leaders, educators, and community stakeholders that live and work in the city. The DoN’s top priority is “rebuilding and strengthening the fabric of Detroit’s neighborhoods.” Every year, the DoN directly engages thousands of residents and volunteers in major initiatives that address urban blight. It strives to build relationships with citizens through one-on-one meetings, cleans vacant lots, helps residents form “block clubs” and other community associations, drives community engagement on neighborhood planning projects, resolves complaints, and educates residents on City programs and policies, among other initiatives.
Much of the DoN’s work would not be possible without direct coordination with citizens. One way the DoN is able to effectively deliver on their mission is by developing a common, formalized mechanism by which residents can organize block clubs.
Block clubs serve as an anchor for many Detroit communities, and play a unique role in the DoN’s work: they communicate often with assigned “district managers” who provide resources, information, and a direct link to the mayor. All residents must do is register their block club with the city government and follow three key requirements: (1) they must designate a set of agreed-upon geographical boundaries, (2) they must have an officer structure with a set of liaisons for the DoN to contact (and the officers must be residents within the delineated geographical boundaries), and (3) they must hold regular meetings, which can occur weekly, biweekly, or monthly.
The City of Detroit outlines no specific rules on how residents should organize block clubs, so these groups take on various forms. Some block clubs are stratified and hierarchical (complete with “captains” and “presidents”) while others are loose confederations of neighborhood organizations or highly informal gatherings of a few residents who share a common block. The DoN formalizes the creation of these block clubs by recognizing clubs that meet the basic requirements and reconciles the problem of redundant organizations by minimizing overlapping block club boundaries.
For much of Detroit’s pre-insolvency era, the local government was largely defined by the ever-widening gulf between city officials and the citizens who elected them. According to a 2013 poll, 90 percent of sampled Detroiters negatively rated the city’s ability to provide basic services to its residents. Another poll revealed a 14 percent approval rating of the city government. As a consequence, a deep distrust of government permeated the minds of many Detroiters when DoN’s work began. With low computer literacy, unequal internet access, and only just enough funding for basic staffing, the DoN had to rely on its own creativity to engage people in its early stages. Without the means to execute large-scale initiatives, the DoN started with a simple goal: to establish relationships and build trust.
To start, the DoN needed to find an asset that was ubiquitous in the city. Luckily enough, there was one thing Detroit had in abundant supply: “urban prairie.” In 2014, Detroit had approximately 90,000 parcels of vacant property; many of these parcels included housing that had been demolished in recent years. In addition, Detroit had a decades-old tradition of neighborhood block clubs that had largely waned in importance in recent decades. As a result, district managers found two key metrics to assess their impact. Vacant lots and block clubs could be used to measure the DoN’s success in relationship building and trust.
The DoN achieved significant early success. After decades of decline into near irrelevance, nearly 800 active block clubs were created with the help of the DoN. Now, these block clubs engage with the city government on a variety of issues and decision-making initiatives. The DoN, in partnership with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, began work with community groups to identify dangerous homes to demolish and facilitated the purchase of salvageable homes or vacant lots. The DoN also drove an effort to board up houses that were vacant, open, and dangerous and cleaned up dump sites to beautify neighborhoods that had become aesthetically unruly. By enshrining a means of community organization and consistently following through on small goals, the DoN garnered enough trust to begin resolving resident complaints and referring neighborhoods to city services that could address their needs effectively.
The DoN’s work did not stop there. A new feature of the Detroit City Charter (revised in 2013) mandated that the mayor host a series of eight town hall meetings every year. The DoN furthered this new effort by encouraging larger turnout at town hall meetings and publicizing these events as another avenue by which Detroiters could engage in the civic sphere. Their efforts were largely successful: as of early 2021, there have been eight town hall meetings per year for the past seven years, most of which had attendance in the hundreds. Town hall meetings were popular largely because the mayor would spend hours answering Detroiters’ questions, but also because they provided valuable opportunities for activists and non-community leaders to engage with the city government beyond the block club structure.
Block clubs would soon prove to be a key part of the DoN’s efforts during a challenging 2020 Census. Due to restrictions from COVID-19, over 90 traditional Census events, including PTA meetings, Census Sundays, community booths, etc., were all cancelled, putting Detroit in a precarious position. In order to adapt to this changing environment, the DoN and Detroit’s block clubs recruited 110 neighborhood leaders to serve as census captains and created a virtual phone bank that made nearly 60,000 phone calls to Detroit households in March and April 2020. The DoN also worked fervently to schedule over 100 outdoor events from the end of May 2020 through the beginning of October 2020 in time for the Census’ final deadline.
Victoria Kovari, who has served as the first director of Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods since 2014, discussed how the 2020 Census revealed the strengths of a department dedicated to neighborhoods and the development of a block club-based organizing apparatus. Effective engagement, she believes, is about meeting people where they are and not the other way around. As the Census began, the DoN hosted a major “drive-up rally” and passed out food, personal protective equipment, lawn signs, and flyers communicating critical information. Meeting people where they are, however, doesn’t just involve large-scale events. Whether the DoN engaged residents in front of supermarkets, at drive-through church services, or at one of the nearly 500,000 doors in Detroit, Kovari emphasized that there is no substitute for direct interactions with citizens.
The DoN’s efforts were not without challenges. Illiteracy in Detroit is a significant problem, as roughly 47 percent of adults are “functionally illiterate,” according to the National Institute for Literacy. This obstacle became particularly evident during the 2020 Census. The law prohibits filling out census forms for other individuals, so legions of community volunteers dedicated time to read aloud questions for those who were unable to read and helped Detroiters navigate electronic forms, especially if they were unfamiliar with the relevant technology. Despite these challenges, Kovari argues that the DoN’s effective collaboration with Detroit’s growing network of block clubs made the Census a successful endeavor. The DoN is working to replicate these efforts for the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in 2021.
Beyond the Census, other battles persist. Some departments in Detroit’s city government continue to hire third-party firms to “do engagement” through largely inadequate methods. Unfortunately, many of these third-party firms only “dabble” with local organizing efforts in a highly limited and stratified manner. This leads to fragmented decision making and the continuation of a top-down approach to governing. In addition, some departments have yet to fully grasp the value of the Department of Neighborhoods and often interact with the most familiar stakeholders rather than the organic leaders of the community or the block clubs that comprise them. To effectively remedy these challenges, the DoN has encouraged departments to mandate that contractors work through the DoN and the neighborhood organization in question. The current vaccination rollout, alongside the Dept of Health, is one more testing ground for inter-departmental coordination.
Block clubs also present their own challenges. It is crucial that these groups maintain legitimacy by properly representing their neighborhoods. For this reason, the DoN often attends block club meetings in person to gauge whether the group actually represents the neighborhood it claims to serve. In some instances, block club representatives have been activists from other neighborhoods or even outside of Detroit. It is critical that the leadership of the block club resides within its delineated boundaries in order to secure each club’s role as a neighborhood-rooted, place-based organization.
After enduring decades of blight culminating in insolvency, Detroit was in dire need of a better path forward. A responsive government supported by an engaged citizenry is a crucial part of this journey. However, civic engagement is only as effective as the relationship between the city and its citizens. If a city government hopes to incorporate civil society in the political process, developing a formalized apparatus of neighborhood representation and a corresponding government-based arm is an approach that merits consideration.
Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods (DoN) provides a direct link between the City of Detroit and block clubs, community groups, business owners, faith leaders, educators, and everyday residents. Its successes have demonstrated the benefits that emerge when citizens organize in a formalized manner to work with their elected officials and advocate for their neighborhoods. The DoN has shown its ability to play a role in the rebuilding and strengthening of Detroit’s neighborhoods. With the rejuvenation of Detroit’s block clubs, the city government can work hand in hand with community members to promote civic engagement on neighborhood planning projects, resolve complaints, and educate residents in order to develop a more sustainable, equitable, and transparent City.
- Cities have subunits - neighborhoods - that play a key role in a citizen’s urban identity and the relationship they have to their city;
- The creation of a dedicated Department of Neighborhoods can facilitate relationship building between residents, neighborhoods, and their city governments, and contributes to a city-wide culture of citizen engagement;
- Establishing a more formalized system of community “block clubs” can promote neighborhood representation and normalizes direct coordination between residents and officials;
- In times of need, the apparatus of neighborhood “block clubs”, alongside a dedicated department, enables effective mobilization for major engagement initiatives that require a full-city approach.
Cameron Brown is Democracy Cities Program Manager and a Johns Hopkins University undergraduate.
Victoria Kovari is Executive Director of the Detroit 2020 Census Campaign in the Office of the Mayor.