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Pontiac is the city we mostly forgot

Mar 2, 2017

It’s no secret that many Michigan cities are in trouble, economically and otherwise. The drama of Detroit has played out on a national stage. The entire nation also knows something about Flint, thanks to the horrendous water tragedy.

Other towns, such as Hamtramck, have their own form of gritty cachet.

But then there is Pontiac, a city that seems to be defined by things that are dying or just not there anymore.

There’s the Pontiac Silverdome, which has been waiting demolition for years.

There’s the misnamed Phoenix Center, actually a parking deck that was supposed to revive the city but never did. After years of trying to tear it down, the city sold it to an Australian software company a few weeks ago. The former Pontiac Mall, later renamed Summit Place, is technically not quite in Pontiac, but was long identified with the city.

It is awaiting the wrecking ball too.

Seven years ago, Arts, Beats and Eats, the city’s signature summer festival, left for trendy Royal Oak. Pontiac is the affluent Oakland County seat, and a bustling courthouse and criminal justice complex provide some jobs, but not enough.

Pontiac cars were built here. Madonna was later born here.

Pontiac was once a vibrant place, with a snazzy downtown, echoes of which can still be seen in some magnificent buildings along Saginaw Street.

This was the first city in the interior of Michigan to be settled, and it boomed in the 1920s. Pontiac cars were built here. Madonna was later born here.

There are still pipes beneath the city laid by an Armenian immigrant who dreamed that his Pontiac-born son would become a doctor. He did, though I’m not sure Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s career was exactly what his dad had in mind.

But then Pontiac hit hard times.

People moved to newer suburbs. Crime became a problem. There were still some trendy upscale restaurants here in the 1990s, when I spent some time consulting for the Oakland Press, which had become a very good newspaper.

But the restaurants are closed; the paper was sold to a succession of greedy out-of-town owners who drove it into bankruptcy. Pontiac cars became extinct with the great downsizing of General Motors. For four years starting in 2009, the city was under a succession of emergency managers. But it has emerged from that.

And yesterday, I had lunch in Pontiac with a dynamic and impressive young woman named Megan Catherine Casey, and her nineteen-month-old daughter Kennedy.

Casey who is 28, has lived her whole life there, and has dedicated herself to helping Pontiac rise again. Her politics are progressive; her daughter’s name is no accident.

But she’s practical, as is her husband, the assistant city manager of another struggling older suburb.

She and a group of like-minded friends have formed a nonprofit called BetterPontiac.org. They meet in an enchanting space called the Alleycat Café, and are trying to create a business incubator and lure artists to the city.

They’re also trying to foster a true sense of community among the city’s remaining 60,000 residents.

That’s been a challenge, but she at least seems to have lots of energy, optimism and enthusiasm. I left thinking they really do have all the ingredients for success except one, the same one Flint and Saginaw and every other Michigan city lacks.

And that would be more jobs.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.