Lots to learn from Detroit’s current state of fiscal, political and social collapse. Chief among the lessons is that nothing can substitute for a cadre of honest, dedicated, competent public servants, especially now that the long-feared bankruptcy filing has become reality.
That’s why this fall’s election of a mayor and new city council bears critically on Detroit’s future. For energy, youth and idealism, I haven’t met anyone – though I would be thrilled to – who matches Adam Hollier, 27, candidate for city council District 5, a swath of central Detroit that stretches from Belle Isle to Grand River south of Highland Park and Hamtramck. An unsuccessful candidate for the state representative, he faces a runoff against some better-known names on August 6.
From appearances only, Hollier might be a study in contrasts. His long dreadlocks mark him as a member of the youth generation, and an athlete, which he was, as a safety on Cornell University’s football team. His white shirt, suspenders and stylishly-cut suit suggest that he’s comfortable in the halls of power – which he has traversed as liaison to city council for Mayor Dave Bing and chief of staff for former Michigan Senator Bert Johnson.
Closer inspection reveals his human core: He’s a bright, curious, caring man who is passionate about helping to guide the city on a path that will provide a safe, nourishing environment for its people. A graduate of Renaissance High School and Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, he also earned a degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan.
With his Ivy League credentials and optimistic personality, he could be working on anything he wished, on Wall Street or in Washington or in Silicon Valley. Most of his peers from Renaissance are doing just that.
“My number one issue is recruitment. I want Detroit to be a place where people want to live, not just downtown but in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I’ve seen what can happen when people decide they can make a difference. I’ve seen it work.
“We’ve got to encourage people to live here.”
That encouragement, he said, isn’t about hope or promises, it’s about delivering safety, education, public services. (He comes by this thinking honestly, as his father is a retired Detroit firefighter.)
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina he volunteered with a group from Cornell to assist in the recovery efforts in New Orleans. By chance he was assigned to a group in Biloxi, Mississippi. As some of his classmates partied in Cancun, he was picking up debris. The successful cleanup of Biloxi convinced him that the same could happen in Detroit.
He’s right: it can happen. Not just the urban rebound sparked by Quicken Loans and a new hockey arena. This week I toured Hantz Farms’s development zone on the east side with Mike Score, who pointed out the lots Hantz is mowing, the trees he’s planted and the lots he intends to purchase. The neighbors love it.
Slowly but surely Detroit is figuring out that wealth creation and enterprise matter – and Hollier says he gets that as well: “I’ve been intrigued by Hantz from the first time I’ve heard of it.” And he said he played a role, from the mayor’s office, to encourage city council’s approval of the Hantz development agreement.
Besides the endorsements of several noted clergymen, such as Rev. Nicholas Hood and Bishop Edgar Vann, Hollier (pronounced: OH-lee-eh) won a nod from the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. He is one of only seven candidates, including three incumbents, of the 54 on the ballot to receive the chamber’s endorsement.
Hollier and his wife Krystal are homeowners in the North End, east of the Boston Edison historic district. Their house was built in 1922 by a wealthy businessman, the sort who fled Detroit long ago for Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe.
If Hollier gets his chance, I bet he will make a difference for the city. And if enough more like him are willing to serve, the narrative on Detroit could get better, and quicker, than any of us dreamed.