Nova High grad lifts Motor City out of the ditch

MARCH 2013:  Kevyn Orr is chosen by the governor of Michigan to be emergency manager for Detroit.
MARCH 2013: Kevyn Orr is chosen by the governor of Michigan to be emergency manager for Detroit. Detroit Free Press

Hundreds of city loyalists pedaled through a panorama of all that is hip and horrible about their home on a Slow Roll group bike ride that commenced at the Museum of Contemporary Art, passed blocks of blight and circled back by glorious vintage apartment buildings under renovation.

On one corner, a charred and abandoned house, its Victorian craftsmanship covered by plywood. On the next, an urban farm. Here, the skeleton of a factory. There, the industrial-chic Shinola shop, where custom-made bicycles and watches are in demand the way Pontiac Trans-Ams once were.

“Go through some rundown areas and you think, ‘They must have lost the war,’” said Greg Maslak, a regular on the weekly community rides and a 30-year resident of the revitalized Woodbridge neighborhood. “Pockets of life are interspersed with pockets of strife. But at long last, we can envision Detroit being whole again.”

Detroit is a city on the verge — of what, no one can be sure, given its tortured history. But Kevyn Orr has handed citizens one thing they lacked when he arrived as emergency manager 20 months ago: hope.

Orr, son of Fort Lauderdale schoolteachers and civil rights activists, declared Detroit bankrupt, then steered the Motor City through the largest municipal reorganization in U.S. history, forging deals with angry unions, panicked retirees and litigious creditors to dig out from under $18billion in debt.

The Washington, D.C., corporate turnaround lawyer who worked on the Chrysler bankruptcy rejected the job the first time Michigan’s governor called in 2013, believing it was “a suicide mission,” he said.

But Orr, who was planning to move back home to manage his firm’s Miami office, changed his mind after talking with his law partner, his mother and his wife.

“I realized it was a call to action,” Orr said. “Detroit is 83 percent black. I’m black. Detroit was in deep trouble. I’m specially trained to help. How could I say no? What would my mom and dad think if I bailed out on my people? I thought of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln and the insurmountable odds they faced. Then my wife summed it up: Here’s your shot, so either step up or shut up.”

Orr was assigned to reverse 60 years of decline caused by the wane of the American auto industry, the flight of 60 percent of residents that shrank the population to 675,000 and the corrupt habits of political leaders. Orr estimates that ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, serving a 28-year prison sentence for racketeering and tax evasion, embezzled $200million.

In dysfunctional Detroit, 40 percent of the street lights didn’t work. Garbage wasn’t collected. Grass wasn’t mowed. Half the police and ambulance fleet was out of service. Emergency response time averaged 58 minutes. Under-enrolled schools were closed. Forty square miles of abandoned or unsalvageable property sat rotting, making Detroit the capital of “Ruin Porn” photography — and even tours. City Hall was often brought to a standstill by blackouts and decrepit computers. The city was so broke that paychecks bounced.

Orr is no miracle-worker but he has constructed a blueprint of pension reform, blight removal and reinvestment to keep the city solvent. Detroit’s core, chock full of gorgeous, neglected and undervalued real estate, has lured entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, artists and musicians. Along riverfront bike paths, at Eastern Market food stalls and among renovated historic Brush Park houses, there’s a vibe not unlike that in Brooklyn or Berlin when they were being reincarnated. At a recent Scrap Metal Festival, welders made sculptures and furniture out of reclaimed junk.

“When I started working in Miami in the early 1980s, it was ‘Paradise Lost’ on the cover of Time, Marielitos, the McDuffie riots, cocaine cowboys. And there was no South Beach; Miami Beach was dead,” said Orr, 56, who began his career at Stearns, Weaver. “But within a span of three to five years, it was turning around. Detroit is at the same juncture. For young people, downtown Detroit is jamming.”

When Orr accepted the job, with its $275,000 salary and a room at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel, he was not welcomed with open arms. Although he earned his political science and law degrees at the University of Michigan, Orr was an outsider in a place where anyone who does not live within city limits is referred to as “out-state.” He was appointed by a white Republican governor and granted authority over the mayor and City Council. Meetings were heated, and resentful residents held demonstrations. Nasty letters and a package of Oreos were delivered to his office.

“I’ve been called Oreo since first grade,” Orr said. “My mother was an English teacher and we were brought up speaking the King’s English, so I got into a lot of fights because of the way I talked.”

Orr was the second of four children born to Dorothy Orr, who became a principal and deputy superintendent of Broward schools, and the late Allen Eugene Orr, a science teacher and minister. Orr’s two brothers died young — Gene of a rare infection in 1992 and Jerard in a car accident in 1996.

As a boy, Orr liked to watch Perry Mason with his grandmother. He used to proclaim: “I’m going to be a lawyer.”

“He was the peacemaker of the family, and the type of boy who always wanted to help people — carrying groceries, feeding pets, doing chores,” his mother said. “I taught my children to listen, listen, listen.”

Orr played football and ran track at Nova High. He loved to go fishing and scuba diving with his father. When it came time for college, he chose Michigan because its reputation for student activism “appealed to a young Trotskyite like me.”

“If you’re a young black man in America, you will get hassled by the police,” Orr said. “The cops used to follow me when I drove across the railroad tracks. I remember one time walking along Fort Lauderdale beach with friends and getting called racist names by white guys. We complained to the police, and when we drove back around, there they were, laughing with the white guys.”

Lessons from Orr’s upbringing gave him empathy for the people of Detroit, who live in the nation’s most segregated urban area. Thirty-eight percent live below the poverty line in a city that once symbolized the country’s peak position in the industrial world.

“I had to cut through a lot of scar tissue in understanding an entire history of skepticism, suspicion, disappointment and fear,” Orr said. “I did a whole lot of turning the cheek, as my dad and granddad taught me.”

Bankruptcy is “a metaphor for failure,” Orr said. In Chrysler boardrooms in 2009, he heard concern that the tainted company would never sell another car. Two years later, Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” ads with Eminem were the hit of the Super Bowl broadcast.

When Orr filed for Chapter 9 protection July 18, 2013, he braced for violent protests.

“The story of Detroit is it’s the city of fire,” Orr said. Detroit’s motto, coined by a French priest: We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes. “But we did not have that civil unrest moment. The citizens showed their fortitude.”

Part financial tactician, part diplomat, Orr got the city that “hustles harder” firing on all cylinders faster than anyone predicted. Services were revamped. Creditors were persuaded to settle billions in claims in exchange for property ripe for redevelopment. In what was termed “the grand bargain,” the state Legislature, local foundations and donors contributed $816 million, while retirees agreed to a 4 percent cut in pensions and the Detroit Institute of Arts — threatened by a proposal to auction off its masterpieces — was saved.

Now that the two-month bankruptcy trial is over and Orr’s restructuring plan was approved by a federal judge, Orr cites projects that will provide jobs and strengthen Detroit’s tax base, including light rail; a $3billion bridge from Canada; the massive mixed-use development surrounding a new Red Wings hockey arena by pizza and sports mogul Mike Ilitch; construction in Midtown.

Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans, owner of casinos and the Cleveland Cavaliers and co-chair of the city’s Blight Removal Task Force, has invested $1.5billion in downtown real estate since moving his headquarters from suburban Livonia. He, along with an array of tech start-ups and aggressive nonprofits, offers training and incentives for employees to work and live in the city.

“Kevyn Orr brought a fresh set of eyes to our problems and restored pride,” said Melissa Price, CEO of dPop, an office design firm based inside the bank vaults of the 110-year-old Dime Building. She does Slow Roll rides after work. “I feel a powerful sense of community celebrating our diversity that can keep the growth momentum going.”

When Orr heads back at year’s end to Chevy Chase, Md., where his wife — a surgeon — and two children have kept the light on for him, he’ll be optimistic about Detroit’s future but realistic about what still needs to be fixed.

The school and transit systems are in tatters. Depressed neighborhoods far from the gentrifying buzz of downtown face high unemployment and crime.

“We’ve heard promises of renaissance before,” Mohammad Abdula said while drinking beer inside the ghostly lobby of the arson-damaged Farrand Park apartment building. He doesn’t have a job but wants to take computer classes.

Detroit’s vast 139 square miles of contrasts serve as an example to other cities struggling to reinvent, Orr said. The vacant and vandalized Michigan Central Station, once a rail hub for a city on the move, now another Norma Desmond among Detroit’s faded architectural beauties, stands across the street from the thriving Mercury Burger and Bar and Slow’s Bar BQ — Orr’s favorite restaurant — in Corktown.

Orr recalled driving around the West Side on a cold afternoon.

“I saw a little girl about my daughter’s age, wearing her pink coat and pink backpack, waiting at the bus stop, out there shivering by herself because she has to take city buses — there are no school buses operating in Detroit anymore,” he said. “She crystallized the meaning of my role here. I hope it gets better for her.”

Comeback City

What’s happening in Detroit as it exits bankruptcy…

The arena district: Conceived by the Ilitch family (owners of Little Caesars Pizza, Fox Theatre, the Red Wings and Tigers), a huge residential and entertainment district between downtown and Midtown, would surround the new Red Wings arena.

Detroit Land Bank: There are 70,000 abandoned or unsalvageable houses in the city and the Land Bank is returning them to productive use through auctions, though it cautions that the rehab cost will often exceed the winning price. As part of the city’s $1.4billion blight removal project, Mayor Mike Duggan’s goal is to demolish 300 eyesore houses per week and clear 100,000 derelict lots.

Entrepreneurial spirit: Detroit has become a hotbed of startup businesses — especially technology companies — with training, financing and consulting help from Bizdom U., Techtown, Detroit Venture Partners, Detroit Creative Corridor Center and Green Garage Detroit. Among the new ventures: Hostel Detroit, the Wheelhouse, City Bird, Aptemal Clothing and lots of new restaurants, coffee houses and bars.

Kresge Foundation: Joining the Skillman, Knight and many other charitable foundations investing in Detroit’s future. Kresge spent $128million last year on education, environment, culture and community development programs.

Hantz Woodlands: Banker John Hantz, who lives in the historic Indian Village neighborhood, is converting 1,600 trash-strewn vacant lots into 30 acres of birch, sugar maple and dogwood trees.

Urban agriculture: Desolate land has been reclaimed by Detroit’s flourishing local food system, which includes Grown in Detroit, Brother Nature Produce, Gleaners Community Food Bank and Eastern Market. More than 800 gardens, farms and markets participate in the Garden Resource Program.

Makeovers: Detroit’s extensive array of historic buildings and neighborhoods are receiving TLC after years of decay. The ornate lobby of the Guardian Building, an Art Deco skyscraper, is a jaw-dropper. Nearby, Daniel Burnham’s Ford Building and Dime Building and Alfred Kahn’s Vinton Building, S.S. Kresge Building and Detroit News and Detroit Free Press buildings. Belle Isle was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York’s Central Park. The East Ferry Avenue and West Canfield districts are examples of elegantly restored 19th century homes. Check out the website for interesting photos.