There’s a new unfamiliar sight in the Motor City amid all the usual construction sites: train tracks.

They sit unfinished and in pieces, as they will for at least another year and a half. It’s supposed to be a sign of the new Detroit, a city finally emerging from its toils and recessions. For now, it’ll just be the familiar site of the unofficial state flower — the orange construction cones — but at least anything is better than the “People Mover” and the couple dozen people it moves each day.

It’s not the first time in Detroit’s history when the streets were shared between cars and trains. Streetcars used to carry passengers around the city up until the mid-1950s, with major lines on Michigan Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, Jefferson Avenue and Woodward Avenue, exactly where the M-1 Rail will run. They might have been replaced by buses and taxis, but here we are, coming full circle back to the train era.

Some places in Detroit, you can see remnants of the tracks. They never took them out of the streets, just paved over them. They peek through cracks in the concrete in spots, a reminder of a different past. Along Michigan Avenue in Corktown, the uneven brick road remains except for a strip of messy asphalt in the middle lane, covering where streetcars used to shuttle passengers from the now-abandoned Michigan Central Station to Downtown. The past is still there, unable to be removed, instead just poorly covered.

Such is the way of Detroit. For every person who hails the city’s rebuilding process as a successful blueprint for American cities, there is someone in a Detroit neighborhood who claims to be forgotten. It’s still there, underneath all of the new development, poorly covered and only seen through the cracks in the surface.

There’s no doubt that much of Detroit is different. It’s visibly different with filled storefronts, offices and apartments. It’s economically different as it emerges from its bankrupt past. The Spirit of Detroit statue may have never left, but the spirit itself is noticeably different throughout.

Yet, as I take my shortcuts through city outskirts to play in this rebirthing city or eat at another new restaurant that just opened, the areas where so much of the inner-city Detroiters live — outside of the Downtown and Midtown bustle — hardly look different than they were before. The burned-out houses and boarded-up windows remain. The highways are newly paved for suburbanites to commute, but city-street potholes turn into fishing holes. The closed schools still sit abandoned, a reminder that the foundation of the future, the education of the youth in the city, remains perilously inadequate.

The leaders of these efforts say the city will benefit from additional jobs and taxes, results that will trickle down into better services for residents. And sure, recent city plans like District Detroit show ideas for a newly revitalized city that’s far better than the previous iterations. But it would be naïve to believe that a new sports arena, shopping district and business offices are anything but more for those outside the city limits with money. Upwards of $280 million in Detroit taxpayer funds is being used to subsidize the costs and taxpayer-funded efforts rarely provide any measurable positive, economic impact on a city (instead often negative impact). Detroit is forgetting its own residents who were forced to deal with the worst years of the downturn and are left behind, the city reforming without them. 

The stadiums do little for them. A new Whole Foods doesn’t solve inner-city problems. The problems aren’t bottom lines and business economics. The problems are no different than the problems of any inner city for the last half century. Those in the suburbs can get what they want with such developments, but the forgotten residents of the city need developments for the issues they want fixed as well.

Detroit will always have to face the economic and racial tensions that plague every big city in this country. Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley wrote a striking column about the business-centered transformation that has been the new Detroit rage in the news, a piece titled “Where are the black people?” In the article, Finley discussed the demographic differences between the city residents and those leading the revival. Though it may not be literal gentrification in the real estate of the city quite yet, these residents are already at risk of being pushed out of the city. Detroit must remember it’s far more than a trendy center of revitalization, but a city with hundreds of thousands of residents in need of the rewards of a turnaround as well.

So, Detroit moves forward building new train tracks, paving over the old city, forgetting its struggles. Like the old tracks, the people the new Detroit paves over, the residents who struggled with the city for so long, will peek through the cracks where the cover breaks. The city can’t let them meet the fate of the old streetcars if it wishes to move forward.

David Harris can be reached at daharr@umich.edu.

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