History can teach us a lot: What Detroit can learn from Atlanta

Apr 17, 2013

In the early 1980s, the city of Atlanta was known as the murder capitol of America. It's economy was flailing, much of the city was dangerous - the city needed help.

Sound familiar? 

The national image of Atlanta sounds alarmingly similar to how many Americans view the city of Detroit.

Then, in 1981, Andrew Young ran for mayor of Atlanta, and the city experienced some major renovations. Young was a close friend of Martin Luther King and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He served in Congress and as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before Corretta Scott King encouraged him to run for mayor of Georgia's capitol. 

Young recently spoke in Detroit at an event sponsored by the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce as a part of black history month in Michigan.

As an individual who really gave Atlanta a new lease on life, Young spoke with Michigan Radio's Cynthia Canty about the possibilities for Detroit's future.

"[In Atlanta], we used creative capitalism, what I call public purpose capitalism," Young said. "I knew there was a surplus of capital all over the world that was looking for a place to invest that was safe, honest and efficient. I started telling people that if you're going to be in business, you need to be in America, and the best place to operate is Atlanta."

In eight years, 1,100 new businesses came to Atlanta, assured by Young that their investment would be "safe, honest and efficient" - Young's unofficial slogan for his approach. In that way, Atlanta bypassed Washington and the state government and plugged itself directly into the global economy.

Can Detroit do what Atlanta did?

Yes, Young said.

The first step, is to get the community involved.

A major part of Young's success in reducing crime in Atlanta had to do with the way he refocused local law enforcement. Without spending more money, Atlanta changed its approach to how the city handled crime.

"We essentially had two black Ph.Ds running our police force. We had a cerebral, intellectual approach to crime, but it worked."

Young took police officers out of cars, and put them on motor scooters. Having police on the street in that way gave people comfort. The police department made a computerized map of the history of crime in Atlanta and provided concentrated police coverage in those areas.

They also conducted meetings with the community.

"We started what we call community policing. Police would have meetings with the community...they told us how they wanted to be protected."

Young said Detroit has a lot of opportunities that can lead to a positive future, just like Atlanta.

"With Detroit's auto industry, the educational system in Michigan, the infrastructure...there's not many better places in the world to do business, if you create a favorable business climate."

Developing a favorable climate in which the community and Detroit businesses work together is possible, but only with a positive attitude. Detroit businesses and community members have been beating up on themselves for years, Young said.

Ultimately, the rejuvenation of Detroit is a matter of organizing the financing  and the communities.

"Detroit isn't going anywhere, it really is a nice city."

-Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

To listen to the full audio, click the link above.