CHICAGO

Detroit, which was settled by French colonists back in 1701, is sometimes called the “Paris of the Midwest.”

But while few would see many similarities between Paris and Detroit today, there is one that’s consistently overlooked: Like Paris, Detroit has what some locals call an “island of opulence” at its center—namely in the downtown and midtown areas surrounding the Fox Theatre, the new hockey arena and, soon, where Quicken Loans will boast the city’s tallest skyscraper.

These pockets of gentrification mask the stark reality that, outside the glittering downtown, an increasing share of residents (16.2%) in the general metro area were living in poverty in 2016, up from 14.4% in 2010, according to a report by 24/7 Wall St., a New York-based financial news organization.

As I wrote after visiting the city in 2015, the “rebirth” story line has been driven by the recent expansion, and it overlooks the longtime residents who continue to try to survive in the impoverished outer areas of the city that have largely been left behind.

Those who, for years, have been advocating for attention to Detroit’s most vulnerable hoped that the city’s poverty would make headlines at last when 20 high-profile Democrats recently landed in town for the nationally televised presidential debates.

Instead: crickets.

“It would have been a great opportunity to give poverty the limelight, which it needs, because for a long time it’s basically been treated as a sideline issue,” said Bankole Thompson, a columnist with The Detroit News and the inspiration for the PuLSE Institute, a nonpartisan think tank whose mission is to ensure that extreme poverty and inequality are addressed by the city’s governing and business leaders.

“The response over the past year has been great. What we hear from people is that they finally have an entity that is going to be a bully pulpit that forces city hall, the mayor and business to be accountable to the topics of poverty and criminal justice reform in a way that’s never been done before,” Thompson told me.

One way the PuLSE Institute is attempting to hold those entities to account is by getting legislators, nonprofits and businesses on the record about their plans to address these issues and then creating scorecards to measure progress.

“One thing that has been very powerful has been getting CEOs of the businesses in town to attend forums on poverty—people who before would never go on the record except to comment on the NASDAQ—and we get them to talk about how they are going to invest in the city,” Thompson said. “They come to the table because the institute has the collective wisdom of some of the most skilled and influential anti-poverty activists on our National Advisory Panel, but also because, as several of the industry captains have said during our forums, they grew up poor, they are children of immigrants, they have lived it and are saying that battling inequality and poverty is important.”

Given the level of buy-in from local corporations, Lawrence Technological University recently announced that its MBA program students will partner with the PuLSE Institute to study how well city/business partnerships can address poverty and social inequality.

It’s all part of the plan to break new ground in how to identify results-oriented solutions, Tina M. Patterson, the institute’s president told me.

“Poverty is the biggest issue in Detroit that no one wanted to discuss. In the midst of a recovery that is supposed to be inclusive, a large population has been ignored, abandoned and burdened by compounding poverty,” Patterson said. “The institute is now giving voice to the cries of the majority in Detroit who are ignored.”

If successful, the initiative could be a model for other cities who often hurry to capitalize on philanthropists and corporations that want to make marquee investments but have no intention of ever taking a hard look at whether their headline-generating gifts or investments actually make a difference.

What city’s residents wouldn’t want to know that?

Esther Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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