Block by Block: Transforming Detroit

For the good of all, the church must become involved in urban redevelopment
January 27, 2008

The Rev. Steve Bancroft has some tough talk for the Episcopal Church, and here's the short version: "Help redevelop urban America or die." Bancroft, who retired in June 2007 after 36 years as a priest, now devotes his energies and efforts toward real estate development.

His last dozen years in ministry were spent as dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit, which has been involved in neighborhood revitalization for decades. He predicts that, unless more urban congregations actively participate in rebuilding their neighborhoods, ultimately they will die a painfully slow, mostly irrelevant death.

Most churches, he says, flunk the name game. "I challenge you to go into any neighborhood with a church and ask people on the street about it. Most of the time, they've never even heard of the Episcopal Church. They can't tell you where it is or what it is. What does that tell you?"

For clergy and congregations alike, he offers a similar challenge: "What is your reason for existing? And don't give me the 'it's to be an Episcopal presence' line -- tell me who in your neighborhood does it matter to that you're even there?"

In Detroit, where the numbers of blighted buildings are at record levels, he points to cathedral involvement in projects in the neighborhood. Adjacent to the city's cultural center, the cathedral historically has engaged in revitalization as mission; at present it has $22 million invested in helping to develop an arts district, businesses and mixed-income housing. The arts district reprises a local historic name for the neighborhood, the Sugar Hill Arts District, and will be oriented toward affordable artist housing in a 2 1/2-block area.

It's all part of the church's prophetic mission, he says. Most clergy and congregations, he adds, get in their own way -- too uncomfortable with money and the notion of earning a profit while doing good.

'Throwaway' message
City of Detroit Ombudsman Durene Brown wishes more congregations would take a more active role in helping to revitalize the city.

"I use the image of a one-year-old baby who walks out on the porch, and his world is a vacant house across the street or a burned-out home, full of trash. It's the first thing he sees. It has to put an indelible image in your head, that if you live in a throwaway neighborhood, aren't you just a throwaway, too? You're surrounded by trash, so the message is, you must be trash, too."

"It's heart-breaking," says Brown, a parishioner at St. John's Episcopal Church in the mid-city area. In any given week, complaints about vacant and blighted properties received by her office outnumber all others, she says. "We receive about 1,500 complaints per week, and about 21 percent of them concern vacant and blighted properties."

Deteriorating housing is a national problem, she says.

A June 2005 Detroit News article estimated 10,000 city structures were vacant and another 6,000 buildings classified as dangerous, and said the city had been demolishing buildings at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 per year.

The Detroit City Council recently joined with other municipalities urging the U.S. House of Representatives to pass H.R. 3498, the "Neighborhood Reclamation and Revitalization Program Act of 2007," which calls for collaboration among federal, state and local governments and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create policies to assist local communities in revitalizing and reducing vacant property.

The Rev. Canon William Logan, senior canon emeritus at the Cathedral of St. Paul, has been involved in Detroit outreach ministry for more than 40 years and says the church absolutely has to play a role in community revitalization.

It's called transformation, he says.

"It's more than just meeting the needs of the moment. If you're after transformation in biblical terms, we are told to feed and clothe, but we're also given a picture of a new kingdom. We're given a picture of something new and more powerful, and it involves everybody."

In other words, according to Logan: "You gotta believe that's what you're here for, because we're a permanent part of the neighborhood. We're the 15th oldest corporation in the city. We got our charter from the territorial government before Michigan was a state, so we're going to be around, and that's very comforting to the people who are working on the finances for these kinds of projects."

"We're not a fly-by-night investor just coming in to make a quick buck and leave or to bug out if things aren't going well. We're here, there's a sense of commitment and purpose," he says.

He throws out names such as Sugar Hill and the N'namdi Art Gallery as both the fruit of the cathedral's endeavors and testimony to its ripple effect.

"Take the block south of the cathedral along Hancock," he says. "We did the first building, then the Hannan Foundation built their building and, encouraged by that, we tackled the Garfield Building until that entire block is now completely rehabilitated." 
The Garfield building was "derelict, an Albert Kahn building, six stories at the corner of Woodward and Garfield and about to be torn down," he says. After 1996 renovations, it is now loft apartments "with 100 percent occupancy rate, 30 percent of whom are low-income and with a Rite Aid drugstore on the first floor. It's highly successful."

"The church has got to do the stuff that benefits the community and makes money," says Bancroft, who retired in May "and went to work as a real estate developer the same day."

On a six-square block tour both north and south of the cathedral, he points to restaurants, businesses and other institutions to which the cathedral lent money or other financial support, offering lines of credit, temporary financing and in some cases outright gifts. Some ventures are more financially lucrative than others. "In some cases, like that of a local restaurant, "we weren't in it for more than a year. We invested $40,000 and cleared about $3,000."

Finding a vision
For Bancroft, the issue is striking a future vision, like the Sugar Hill project, which will transform three deteriorating buildings into art gallery partnerships and town-homes with adjacent parking.

"The question is, how many soup kitchens can we run? The church offers band aids, but do we want to attract people into the city who pay taxes?" he asks.

He has guided the transformation of deteriorating buildings into luxury apartments and recalls another conversion. Further north, at the Inn on Ferry Street, a series of three Victorian-style homes converted into a stately bed-and-breakfast complex.

A $175,000 commitment made six years ago has been repaid, he says.

"All it takes is getting started," he says. "We want to do whatever is necessary to revitalize the area and make it attractive for people to live here."

It isn't his first encounter with revitalizing urban areas. A native Texan, he hails from Houston, where he served at Trinity Church and led the transformation of "a downtown church with no reason to exist and a 100 percent commuter population into a booming, mission-minded congregation with 500 people in the pews on Sundays."

He and Logan acknowledge it takes courage and leadership. "There has to be a willingness to see money as building blocks and not as heavily emotionally weighted as security, and, of course, not every parish has some endowments that it can turn to that use," Logan says.

"And," he says, pausing, "it takes a bit of courage, and it may not go well. We do have one project that we put a fair amount of money in about eight years ago or so, and we lost $150,000, and that's hard for people to think about."

He repeats, emphatically: "But you gotta believe that's what you're here for. And you have to be in good relationship with your neighbors, because it's bigger than any one institution can do."

Sue Mosey, president of University Cultural Center Association, who has worked with Bancroft and Logan and the Cathedral Center, agrees. Mosey has been around the mid-city neighborhood about 20 years and is collaborating with the cathedral and others to create the Sugar Hill Arts District. Once the cathedral assumed a lead developmental role "a lot of other historic renovations have followed, says Mosey, president of the nonprofit University Cultural Center Association.

She says she wishes more churches would, like the cathedral, "build new housing on the land they own. Often, churches have underutilized property.

"It is very important that the church be involved in setting standards and taking a look at the highest and best use for their property and what's contributing to overall redevelopment of the neighborhood they're in," Mosey says. "Any time there's investment going into a disinvested neighborhood, it always facilitates other projects...others feel it's safer to come in and to invest money," she says. "You have to prove and establish a market, and that's part of what the cathedral has done all over the midtown neighborhood."

"We have to hear all voices at table," says Logan, "voices of conservatism, people who are voices of vision. We need voices that know how to talk to people who are different from themselves and people who aren't afraid, who can see in their mind 20 and 30 years, not just one and three years."

Tell us your stories of urban revitalization. Email

The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Province VIII (the Province of the Pacific). She is based in Los Angeles.

Related Topics: