To mark the beginning of the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium, the Institute for Social Research held a panel Wednesday afternoon discussing the various effects of gentrification in Detroit and across the United States.
The University’s theme for this year’s MLK symposium is “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” which Dory Knight-Ingram, a senior editor for the Institute of Social Research, explained relates deeply to the topic of gentrification.
“Gentrification is now and it is urgent,” she said. “It is a multifaceted situation, and there is no simple answer, but we are trying to raise awareness.”
Piper Simmons, a coordinator for the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research which organized the day’s events, explained the consortium chose the topic of the panel with care. Gentrification, she noted, engages with both the MLK symposium theme and the University’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
The panelists examined the effects of gentrification through diverse lenses of sociology, social work, architecture, personal experience and population studies. Their overarching goal, explained Margaret Levenstein, director of ICPSR, was to provide the audience with the tools to think about this multifaceted and fast-growing issue.
“I think this is a great panel, and one of the things I really like about having a discussion like this is that people often feel like gentrification is something which happens to them,” she said. “I’m hoping that having these various perspectives will help us to understand better how we can all have agency in determining the future of the communities in which we live.”
Panelist Shayna Brown, a 2017 Music, Theatre & Dance graduate, revealed she has been thinking about the effect of gentrification since her freshman year at the University when she came home from school and asked her mother about new construction in Detroit. Many have hailed the city's comeback in recent years, with millions of dollars in investments pouring into development downtown, but residents like Brown's family found themselves left behind.
“She was like, ‘That’s not for us, that’s for tourists,’” Brown said. “I thought, ‘That’s an odd thing to say,’ and I didn’t understand, so I decided to do research.”
Brown conducted an independent study on gentrification and, like all four panelists, remains invested in the complex issue.
Other panelists included Tam Perry, assistant social work professor at Wayne State University; Lydia Wileden, public policy Ph.D. candidate; and Saundra Little, a founding partner at Centric Design Studio— a sustainable, design-focused firm in Detroit.
Foremost, the panelists brought to light the difficulty in standardizing a definition of gentrification. They generally agreed, though, the trend involves strategic, accelerated change in a neighborhood, and often comprises increasing wealth disaprities.
They continued to discuss how neighborhoods shape our lives, and examined the costs and benefits of neighborhood change.
Detroit and other large metropolitan areas are not the only places impacted by gentrification. To that effect, students themselves can be involved in the gentrification process. Gentrification in Ann Arbor is particularly prominent, with costs of housing surrounding campus on the rise. A report by The Daily last fall found the median rent in the city increased by 14 percent from 2010 to 2015 — the survey showed the average monthly rent of respondents to be approximately $772. Luxury high rise apartments sprouting up close to campus have some students worried about being priced out.
The event’s audience consisted largely of community members and University students interested in gentrification and sociology.
LSA sophomore Grace Lees said she attended the symposium because it related to her Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program project on neighborhood segregation and community health.
“I think it’s really cool that U of M hosts these events during the month of January. It’s evident, especially where I grew up in Boston, that there is racial segregation in certain areas,” she said. “It’s such a dynamic issue — economically, politically and socially. I’m at this event to hear a couple different sides.”