Can Our Nation’s Poorest Cities Benefit From Detroit?

Written By: Alice M. Fisher (A Flatlands Avenue Productions Associate)

Seal of Detroit – “We Hope for Better Things”

Reports of late declare that the economy’s improving. And yes, there has been progress. However, as recent studies highlight, some areas are not recovering as fast as others. In fact, depending on where you live, it’s simply bleak. To see more photos, type into Google,” images of Detroit ruins.”  or see Paul Cannon’s photography, who is from St. Clair.  Since the onset of the recession, the poorest cities in America, and the more than 46.3 million people who continue to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have not seen any solutions to their abject poverty, in their distressed communities.   

Just what are we to do? How can we help? Many urban neighborhoods face an untold number of challenges from the shortage of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, lack of jobs, income inequality and crime. According to the 2009 to 2013 American Community Survey, more than 13.9 million Americans live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty—defined as an area where the poverty rate is 30 percent or higher. The concentrated poverty rate remains highest in big cities, where almost one in four poor residents lives in a distressed neighborhood.

In December of 2014, the Census Bureau released its Five-Year American Community Survey (ACS). Thereafter, a California-based online research group,, used the ACS results to compile a list of the nation’s 33 poorest cities.

The absolute poorest cities in America are  Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Memphis, Tuscon, Baltimore, Fresno, El Paso, Indianapolis, Boston, and Louisville.

Other research suggests that persistently higher long-term unemployment in communities and cities can have a devastating impact on crime, teenage pregnancy, mental health, and other social problems. In The Truly Disadvantaged (1990) and When Work Disappears (1996), William Julius Wilson argued that many social problems are fundamentally the result of jobs disappearing. He and others argue that concentrated areas of economic distress and joblessness result in a breakdown of other social structures, creating a complexity of nearly unsolvable cyclical social issues.

There are alternative business approaches starting to evolve that are promoting economic recovery thereby shortening the depth and duration of economic distress. These innovative alternative businesses direct targeting residents, workers and infrastructure in specific distressed communities.

Distressed communities normally are poor environments for business investment, where plant closings and massive layoffs resulted in increased poverty, as well as lower consumer consumption. And, Detroit provides a particularly poignant example.

Detroit’s once-famous economic good fortune faded with the decline of the U.S. auto industry. In early 2014, Detroit became the largest U.S. city to ever declare bankruptcy. The city’s current poverty rate is infamous. It has thousands of vacant or abandoned homes, malls and communities without the expected municipal services. Detroit even had to shut off water to thousands of customers who were delinquent on their water bills. With the help of a plan to drop about around $7 billion of its $18 billion debt, the city exited bankruptcy last December. There is no longer a single national grocery chain with an outlet in that city. In addition, shrinking tax bases can lead to cuts in key services—smaller police forces, lower-quality schools, and poorly maintained physical infrastructure—and even basic services such as waste disposal and snow removal. Having fewer municipal services effectively raises the costs of doing business.

    • Percentage of Detroit incomes under $25,000: 48%
    • Percentage of Detroit population with bachelor’s degree 12.7%
    • Total population: 706,663 ( During the height of prosperity, Detroit’s population was 2 million people)

Not much seems to have helped cities like Detroit crawl out of their deeply depressed situations. But, social and business revitalization is absolutely critical to saving Detroit, and many other of the most distressed and poorest cities.

There’s an old English proverb that seems applicable, “Necessity is the mother of invention” which means that difficult or impossible scenarios prompt inventions and solutions aimed at reducing the difficulty. Enter, social enterprise. The power and opportunity at the heart of the social enterprise business model is that it’s sole purpose is to make a direct positive social and/or environmental impact on a community.

By spreading the knowledge of what is starting to work in Detroit, the nation’s other depressed cities and communities may be able to learn from and replicate new business models. More and more companies are choosing to use and partner with businesses to create social good. Other business models and solutions have simply failed the people in the poorest cities in America. Social enterprise is innovative and unique because:

    • A social enterprise aims to make a profit, and then use the profits to support its charitable, social and/or environmental goals to accomplish good for the community.
    • A social enterprise also provides products and services that further the charitable, social and/or environmental goals.
    • When a consumer purchases a product or a service from a social enterprise, he or she makes a tangible, positive impact on a community
    • Social enterprises differ from for-profit businesses which only promote social responsibility. While these businesses often support social change through their policies of corporate social responsibility, the company’s first goal remains to make a profit.
    • A social enterprise, however, takes social change as its primary goal, and uses its profits to reach it. Social enterprises also differ from traditional charities, which ask you to make a donation of money and/or time. People have only a finite amount of both.
    • Social enterprise unlocks other ways to make a difference through citizen choices and actions.

Romy Gingras, of Gingras Global, LLC just launched a new podcast series offering listeners vignettes highlighting how others are making a difference through their social enterprises, in Detroit. They are doing business differently. The Bonfires of Social Enterprise podcast features the collaborative work of social entrepreneurs who are revitalizing Detroit, through the development of incubator businesses, which give back by engaging citizens in their depressed communities.

The podcasts hit home with many businesses because these entrepreneurs are making a difference in people’s lives. Gingras explains, “When I walked in for an appointment in downtown Detroit, the owner was listening to my Bonfires of Social Enterprise podcast, and she was crying. Gingras initially thought,”This isn’t off to good start, maybe she’s crying because of the sound of my voice.” After the business owner stopped crying, she explained to Gingras that she was “the person” in that story, the one who kept walking away from the bonfire. The business owner tells Gingras, she really needed to listen to that story, and another ten times. Gingras says the business owner thanked her repeatedly, for creating the Bonfires of Social Enterprise podcast.

Rita Rich, the Flatlands Avenue producer in charge of post-production for the podcast says, “Romy’s story telling skills are very strong and I love how she breakdowns complex business ideas into bite-sized pieces of information, about problems being solved” Rich continues, “During the interviews, Gingras takes time to highlight concepts or notes from the field and how such concepts are working in local communities. Rich explains, “Listeners learn about the different elements of a social enterprise and are able to connect with the front lines of a new era of movers and shakers, who are in the business of revitalizing their towns.”

The reality for cities like Detroit, where there are both massive social challenges and a distinct blurring between the public and private sectors’ roles in improving the quality of life for everyone, means there’s a need for out-of-the-box strategies to solve complex problems. The Bonfires of Social Enterprise podcast showcases those who are helping to move the needle on poverty and social issues. The following list highlights the diversity of emerging businesses Gingras interviewed for the Bonfires of Social Enterprise podcast, as examples of the kind of social entrepreneurship in Detroit.

  • Welding Art Center– Gary Hendrickson and his business partner, Don Martin, opened a welding training certification center and gallery in Detroit to find a way to help the at-risk urban youth gain skilled trade certifications. The center and gallery that will cater to hobbyists and create a welding pool of talent to support local infrastructure growth.
  • Vehicle City Tacos– This hip and energetic food truck business is renovating a local community. Flint city entrepreneur Danny Moilanen started his business last summer after receiving a $10,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and winning the Drive Flint prize, as part of last year’s statewide Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. Moilanen talks about his new business and there is a great story about tacos and tattoos, that is helping to grow the business through a unique on the street social marketing campaign. Vehicle City Tacos is partnering with another new Flint establishment, Tenacity Brewing.
  • Rebel Nell, L3C-Amy Peterson designs high-end fashion jewelry from graffiti chunks that fall from dilapidated Detroit buildings. Peterson works directly with local homeless shelters with the sole purpose of employing, educating and empowering disadvantaged women in Detroit. They provide a transitional opportunity for women in Detroit. Their goal is to help women move from a life of dependence to one of self-reliance, overcoming barriers to employment through the fruits of their own labor.
  • Artesian Farms–Farm founder Jeff Adams discusses the rationale of the hydroponics business in the center of the city and the social impact of hiring 100% within the local neighborhood of Brightmoor. Artesian Farms provides sustainably grown, pesticide-free, and non-GMO>
  • The York Project, LLC – What started out as a fun idea for a local college student turned into a money-making craze, with a portion of each sale going back to communities across the country and as well as to Detroit. Josh York is the Founder of the York Project. For every item of York apparel sold, they give an article of clothing to a homeless person.York explains his humble beginnings from a Livonia basement in 2012, his growth and his plans to hire Detroit’s homeless.
  • Lazlo, LLC –Christian Birky, designer, and fashion model makes high-end heirloom men’s T-shirts and plans to bring fashion manufacturing to Detroit. She intends to reduce mistreatment of factory workers with the first ever dye factory in Detroit. Lazlo challenges the status quo by manufacturing clothing from sustainably sourced materials. The result is high-quality casual menswear, made in Detroit. The company employs and supports returning citizens as they become productive members of their communities following incarceration.

The Bonfires of Social Enterprise podcast series is located online at and via iTunes.

Gingras Global is the Gold Standard for Social Enterprise Development, with services including; Reporting, Assessments, and Awards Programs; Development & Consulting; Global Impact Groups, Products, Events, and Investment Services. For more information, contact Romy Gingras at, Phone: (248) 845.2032,   Website:


Audio production for the Bonfires of Social Enterprise Podcast is provided by Flatlands Avenue Productions, LLC. For persons or businesses interested in podcast production, contact Rita Rich at or call (301)404-9609. Flatlands Avenue Productions,LLC is a bi-coastal agency with offices in the Washington, DC, Los Angeles and New York and collaborates on projects including the promotion and marketing of broadcast commentators and educators; public relations services; media tours; audio news and feature report creation and distribution; targeted-customized talk radio programming; as well as Public Service Announcement production, distribution, and promotion.

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