Photo by Marvin Shaouni

Sue Mosey spends a lot of time telling stories. When I first met her, she breezed through two hours of narration about the behind-the-scenes practicalities of cultivating a vibrant center in the city of Detroit, a story she is clearly well-practiced at delivering to the many national journalists who come to her with questions. A few days after our meeting, I saw her again at Fourteen East, a Midtown café that opened one year ago after Mosey inspired the owner to host her new venture on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s central corridor. Mosey was at the café to pose for photographs before meeting a potential funder for lunch, where her strategic storytelling was again called upon — this time, to inspire concrete commitments for the non-profit that Mosey leads, and which, in turn, is headlining the city’s revival.

Home to key anchor institutions — including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center — the Midtown neighborhood sits just north of the city’s downtown and riverfront. Throughout the last five years, the neighborhood has seen a remarkable revival, with independent businesses veering from national trends to open their doors and restore life in previously dark storefronts. New residents are moving into rehabilitated housing, and community gardens are thriving in what had been vacant lots. Indeed, almost no Midtown businesses were lost during the economic recession — incredible, given that Detroit entered the recession at what might politely be called a disadvantage.

Midtown’s vigor belies the narrative of Detroit as an utterly disinvested city. And coordinating the show is Midtown Detroit, Inc., a peculiarly influential community development corporation that has transformed nearly every aspect of the neighborhood. Founded in 1976 by community activists rooted in the affordable housing movement of the 1960s, Midtown, Inc. evolved along with the city. In the last two decades, the scrappy non-profit’s tactical collaborations with major anchor institutions in Detroit — including City Hall — have elevated it from the antiestablishment fringe and into the establishment itself.

While, historically, power in Detroit was synonymous with the auto industry and labor unions, both the decentralization and economic fluctuations of the car business has left space for Midtown, Inc. to make its mark on the city. These days, it provides landscaping on boulevard medians. It partners with Wayne State’s police department, which patrols the neighborhood beyond campus borders. It puts strings of lights in the trees along Woodward during the holidays. It is installing LED street lighting. And with its popular Live Midtown initiative, which offers financial incentives to employees of anchor institutions to buy or rent homes in the neighborhood, Midtown, Inc. is coming full circle, returning to the business of creating housing options. Even in a shrinking city with a high vacancy rate, Midtown’s apartments are 95 percent occupied.

The organization’s work moved Reuters to describe the neighborhood as “the centerpiece for Detroit’s revival” in an article about the construction of a 21,000-square-foot Whole Foods store on a vacant corner in Midtown. This is the first time the chain has set up shop in a distressed urban center. At the groundbreaking in May, company CEO Walter Robb told the Detroit Free Press that, “the richness that we discovered here was very encouraging. That’s special for me."

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