The Mary Poppins of legacy cities? Or, why I moved from New Orleans to Detroit

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Laura_Settlemyer_Crop“Where are you going, miss?”


It has been six months since I moved from New Orleans to Detroit, and a question I’ve struggled with is, “Where is home?” Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, however, I found my answer. I drove to Windsor, Ontario, for a short day trip to see the Detroit skyline from across the river. When I passed through customs on my way back into Detroit, the officer asked where I was headed. Confident this time, I replied, “Home.”

After a brief, customary interrogation that included my sharing with the officer that I had recently moved to Detroit, that I was an attorney, and that I had moved to Michigan to work on vacant and abandoned land issues, the officer let me through, saying, “Good luck, counselor.”

But suspicious to the customs officer was why I had moved to Detroit from New Orleans (and especially why had I done so in January). It is a question many of my former colleagues in New Orleans have asked, and a question I am occasionally asked in Detroit.

To me, the answer is obvious: I am a real estate attorney, working on vacant and abandoned land issues and committed to creating cities where abandoned and neglected properties no longer exist.  The answer makes sense, but it does not always sit well with the listener.  As the Canadian customs officer joked, “So you seek out disasters?” Or as a friend in New Orleans said when I told him I was moving, “You’re like the Mary Poppins of legacy cities.”

Why did I make the move?  Maybe I am drawn to disasters.  My first day of college, in Boston, was September 12, 2001, the day after the twin towers fell—Harvard did not adjust its academic calendar.  My first day of law school, in Atlanta, was August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.  When I started my first job in New Orleans, I worked one week and then evacuated for Hurricane Gustav—the mayor at the time declared a mandatory evacuation, the second in the city’s history since Hurricane Katrina.

What in fact drew me to New Orleans after Katrina, and to Detroit earlier this year, is the resiliency of the communities and people who fight for a city that has fallen on hard times—a city that they have lived in and stood by during those hard times, a city that is making a comeback because its lifelong residents are determined to make it happen.

Vacant Land in the Lower 9th Ward - New Orleans, LA - Credit Luke Telander for the Center for Community Progress - 2013

Vacant Land in the Lower 9th Ward – New Orleans (Credit Luke Telander for the Center for Community Progress – 2013)

When I visited Detroit for the first time last fall, I was struck by a key marker of the slow, economic disaster that has unfolded in Detroit: the missing curb cuts. Some city blocks in Detroit have been vacant for so long that the city has repaved the street and the accompanying curbs and sidewalks, meaning that there is not even a curb cut left to indicate where driveways once led to homes in what were previously vibrant neighborhoods.

During a recent visit to New Orleans with friends from Detroit, I pointed out this distinction in the Lower 9th Ward, where not only curb cuts but also remnants of driveways exist, reminding us that these now vacant, and in some places overgrown, lots were once homes.

So why do I do this work? Because home matters. Because if I, someone who has chosen to pick up my life and move to new places can feel unsettled by not knowing where home is, then how does it feel for those who have had to do the same, but not by choice? For those who have been forced to leave their home due to a hurricane or a flood? For those who have watched home disappear around them due to an economic disaster—or economic revitalization? For those who have been forced to leave, or watch home leave them, without the resources to return or rebuild?

The story of the Lower 9th Ward is one of the reasons I do the work that I do. It is not my story to tell, but the memory of walking around the Lower 9th Ward in January 2006 haunts me still. It had been four months since Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees had failed (these are two distinct disasters: one natural, one human-made).  Residents and homeowners of the Lower 9th Ward were for the first time being allowed back into the area, not to come home but only to survey the damage during daylight hours.

Downtown Detroit Fountain

Downtown Detroit Fountain (Credit Luke Telander for the Center for Community Progress: 2014)

Doing this work—reforming property tax systems, including developing strategies for land banks to hold and maintain abandoned and vacant property, and designing and managing effective code enforcement systems—is about joining a team to help people strengthen and rebuild communities, neighborhoods, and homes.

The energy in Detroit right now reminds me of the energy I felt in New Orleans. It is the energy of people who are strong, resilient, and determined to return, rebuild, and ensure the City is a safe, strong, and equitable home for existing residents and new neighbors like me.

I am grateful to my friends and colleagues in New Orleans for all they taught me over the last seven years, and I am grateful to my new friends and colleagues in Detroit, and even the U.S. customs officer over the holiday weekend, who have welcomed me here and made me feel at home.

That said, I am still rooting for the Saints this fall.