What can Philly learn from Detroit? Local leaders are heading to the Midwest to find out

The two cities have a lot in common, so organizers say this year’s GPLEX conference has a ton of potential.

People dance in Detroit as the sun sets behind the skyline in November 2020

People dance in Detroit as the sun sets behind the skyline in November 2020

David Goldman / AP Photo
jordanlevy-headshot

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In some ways, Detroit and Philly are extremely similar — they both cover about 140 square miles of land, for example — but in other ways, they’re sharply different. A group of Philadelphians is heading to the Motor City this fall to look at how those juxtapositions might benefit both cities.

It’ll be the first traveling leadership conference hosted by the local nonprofit thinktank Economy League since 2018. Friday is the deadline to apply to join the event known as GPLEX.

“We’re going to learn how Detroiters are uniquely solving problems cross-sectorally and in creative and innovative ways,” GPLEX director Kiersten Mailler told Billy Penn.

What problems? Both cities saw population peaks in the 1950s, when Detroit had 1.85 million residents and Philly had just over 2 million. But Philadelphia has grown slowly since the turn of the century while Detroit dramatically shed residents between 2000 to 2010.

Today, the Motor City has just over 650,000 inhabitants, compared to Philly’s 1.6 million.

Detroit’s population decline helped lead to the economic “doom loop” that caused it to file for bankruptcy in 2013, said Esmat Ishag-Osman, the Detroit expert at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, who has been helping the GPLEX team think out their visit.

Around the mid-1970s, Ishag-Osman said, “you start seeing tax rates being increased as a way to compensate for the shrinking tax base, which was a result of population decline.”

Colman Young was Detroit’s mayor during that time, overseeing two tumultuous decades that saw disinvestment batter the contracting population. Higher taxes led to more unpaid taxes, he said, and eventually more foreclosures.

According to Ishag-Oman, the revitalization that resulted from bankruptcy was needed, and is changing how Michiganders view their largest city. But the recent development boom has been unevenly distributed, raising prices for longtime residents — which may ring a bell for Philadelphians.

“There is a lot of investment being made in the city, more so in that 7.2 square mile area of Detroit: Downtown, Midtown, New Center,” Ishag-Oman said. “There’s also a lot of gentrification happening.”

The median price of a home is on the rise in both cities, per Redfin data. Detroit’s median price of just below $81k marks a 9.1% jump from last year, and Philly’s median selling point of $250k is 5% higher year over year.

Detroit’s Preservation Action Plan, launched in 2018, has some of the same goals as Philadelphia’s recent Neighborhood Preservation Initiative. The former aims to preserve 10,000 units and produce 2,000 new units of affordable housing by 2023, while the latter’s just-announced Turn the Key initiative would construct 1,000 new units and preserve “thousands” of affordable units.

What GPLEXers will see and study in Motown

Real estate development factors into several of the themes GPLEX will dig into during the October trip.

Participants from Philly will visit sites across the Midwest city to spark conversations around:

  • Detroit’s Downtown Renaissance
  • Philanthropy and Major Donors’ Impact on Detroit
  • Education and Employment Pipelines
  • Community Engagement and Development
  • Innovation

Stops include Michigan Central Station, an abandoned transit hub being repurposed as an “innovation hub” through a public private partnership with Google and Ford; the Arab-American Museum; and the city’s North End neighborhood, which will help highlight how communities on the ground are fairing during a supposed economic recovery.

GPLEX director Mailer has been working to make the conference more representative of Philadelphia’s demographics.

“In the past, the faces at GPLEX have been older, male and white,” Mailler said. That wasn’t in line with the Economy League’s mission of helping craft a “representative economy,” so the group is casting a wider net for applicants and subsidizing some tickets.

While Black people are the plurality in Philly at around 41%, they are by far the majority in Detroit, totaling almost 80% of the population.

One big issue participants will explore is that these figures aren’t reflected in entrepreneurship in either city.

In Philadelphia, only about 5.4% of small business owners are Black, according to U.S. Census data — or 26% if you include sole proprietors who don’t have employees. In Detroit, Black entrepreneurs make up just 3% of the city’s total, also via census data.

Both heavily Democratic cities, with 76% of Philly registered blue and 68% of Detroit voters pulling the lever for President Joe Biden, these metropolises have similar (contentious) political relationships with their state governments.

“Our state legislature has always, for the most part, been Republican,” Ishag-Osman said. “The perception towards Detroit is that this city is poor … that the city is hopeless, there’s nothing that can be done with the city.”

All this contributed to the motto “Detroit vs. Everybody.” Originally coined in 2012 by fashion designer Tommey Walker as the name of a clothing line, it has “turned into a rallying, empowering statement for Detroiters,” Ishag-Osman said

Heard that phrase before, but with a different city? Yep, “Philly vs. Everybody” is one of many localities to use Detroit’s template since it was established.

That the motto fit both cities so well shows the similar attitudes between their denizens — which is part of what will make this edition of the annual leadership exchange so useful, Mailer said:

“This is gonna be a really cool opportunity to learn from a place that is sort of a cousin of ours.”

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