DETROIT (Reuters) - When Jeanette Pierce moved into a downtown Detroit high-rise seven years ago, she could always count on getting into The Well, a local bar with wood-paneled walls, dartboards and an X-Box in the corner. Now she can barely squeeze in.
“There could be a line with as many as 150 to 175 people at the bar,” said Pierce, 31, co-founder of a nonprofit that promotes Detroit. She’s wistful for the nights when just 50 patrons would show up.
Pierce’s neighborhood is an example of the renaissance and growth seen in a handful of areas in Detroit, a city whose overall fortunes and population have tumbled, especially in the last decade with the contraction of the American auto industry.
City officials and business leaders, who bristle over media fixation on crime and budget misery, are hoping to turn attention to Detroit’s green shoots: bustling restaurants, community gardens and long waiting lists for apartments.
Last month the nonprofit Detroit Regional News Hub, which connects journalists to people and organizations involved in rebuilding the city, held a promotional day-and-a-half event. “Transformation Detroit” featured talks by city officials, including Mayor Dave Bing, business owners, real estate developers and others invested in the city’s recovery.
Among them was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which recently finished moving 3,400 employees who had been based in the suburb of Southfield to a complex of five buildings huddled near the Detroit River.
The city is also home to 1,400 gardens tended by 15,000 to 20,000 mostly volunteer gardeners, said Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the Greening of Detroit. The 23-year-old nonprofit agency seeks to reclaim open spaces and restore the local ecosystem through tree planting and urban agriculture. The produce - 200 tons are harvested each year - is distributed to the community and sold at neighborhood farmers’ markets in Detroit, and the income is plowed back into the collaborative.
The event was partly sponsored by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a nonprofit whose board is appointed by city officials.
“We have to create the kind of environment to make people stay,” Bing, a Democrat elected three years ago, told reporters. “We’re well on our way to doing that.”
Detroit’s rebirth is concentrated in a handful of areas, chiefly downtown and midtown, near Wayne State University. Growth to the northeast is spurred by an increasing Bangladeshi community.
But most of the city’s neighborhoods are still losing residents due to few job prospects, poor schools and high crime.
In 1950, Detroit was the fifth-largest American city with more than 1.8 million people. By 2010 its population had fallen to about 713,000, its lowest level in a century.
From 2000 to 2010, Detroit’s population shrank 25 percent, according to census data, hurt by jobs losses in the U.S. auto industry and an exodus of black residents to the suburbs, drawn by better schools, lower crime, and housing made more affordable because of mortgage foreclosures.
Fewer people mean less tax revenue for key services and less social stability. From 2005 to 2011, Detroit had at least 70,000 foreclosures, according to Data Driven Detroit. The city’s unemployment rate in August was 10.7 percent, well above the national rate of 8.1 percent.
“What we see now is the effect of massive numbers of mortgage foreclosures and very high unemployment and a great deal of outmigration,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor in the University of Michigan’s urban and regional planning program.
Since 2007, Detroit has closed about half its schools. Almost 20 percent of its students drop out. Crime is down 1.6 percent this year, but the homicide rate is up 5.2 percent.
The city’s financial woes accelerated this year as its $260 million deficit became too much to handle. This led to a rescue deal in April that gave the state of Michigan more control over the city’s finances. This summer, Bing cut city workers’ paychecks by 10 percent to prevent the city from running out of cash by mid-October.
Much of Detroit’s progress is the work of local businesses and nonprofits like Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation that function largely outside city hall. Since 1989, Grandmont has bought, renovated and resold 75 homes in the Rosedale Park Historic District, 20 of them in the last two years.
Joe Kvoriak and his wife, Keara, both 29, bought one of those homes in August 2010, a 1,700 square-foot, three-bedroom home for $70,000. On their first day, two neighbors brought over fresh flowers picked from the yard.
“I knew from that point on, we’d made the right choice,” Joe said.
Bing’s revival plan for Detroit includes repairing the 40 percent of the street lights that are broken, bringing light rail to the city and demolishing many of the city’s 40,000 abandoned homes.
John George, executive director of the Motor City Blight Busters, considers such homes a neighborhood’s nightmare, lowering property values and inviting occupation by drug dealers. Bing’s goal is to knock down a quarter of the derelict houses by the end of 2013. So far, 3,000 have been bulldozed.
City officials, business and nonprofit leaders acknowledge the depth of the challenges they face. In Brightmoor, once a vibrant working-class neighborhood for low- and middle-class families, about 65 percent of residents are below the poverty line.
But residents here also take care of a flourishing community garden amid rows of empty homes, some without roofs.
About 350 people in the area are involved in improvement projects, including an effort to move elderly residents from isolated spots to nicer areas of Brightmoor, said Kirk Mayes, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance.
“We recognize that there are some very stark challenges,” says Mayes, but he pointed to the gardens as examples of “spaces that inspire hope. We’re not going to quit.”
Reporting by Julie Halpert; Editing by Deepa Seetharaman and Prudence Crowther