Detroit's comeback: A sustainable city is not a segregated one

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - 12:10pm

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We rarely agree on what exactly gentrification means. To some, it merely suggests the improvement of a neighborhood. To others, the word inherently implies displacement. It could also suggest the forced removal of lower income peoples from a neighborhood due to economic push factors brought on by middle class investment. But is it gentrification if there’s improvement with no displacement? Can only poorer neighborhoods be subject to gentrification? And, most importantly, is gentrification really so bad after all for cities like Detroit?

In a phone interview with The Daily, Joel Stone, a senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society, said “The word gentrification has a negative connotation.” Though the word itself was only popularized in the ’70s, it seemed to me that many people’s perceptions of the word was no different from what people before the ’70s would have merely described as “development.” But this isn’t all gentrification is. Since its introduction into mainstream media, “gentrification” has always carried racist and classist undertones that “development” doesn’t.

“Historically, there have always been lower income people in places around the city that have been displaced,” Stone said. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. One such example of this is the Brush Park neighborhood. Now part of Detroit’s midtown, Brush Park was once entirely farmlands. Under pressure from developers, these farmers were forced to sell their land and move further out from the city center. This feels different from what we would consider gentrification today, though. White farmers moving out to what we now accept as the suburbs to make way for the city to grow? Isn’t this how all American cities came about?

Stone then cited a photo in the Detroit Historical Museum’s collection of the General Motors building going up alongside tenement houses in the 1920s. In a neighborhood once considered on the wrong side of the tracks, GM single-handedly redefined a new city center (called “New Center”) over the course of the next few decades.

“Did that improve the area? It did. Did it make that part of Detroit’s history? Absolutely. Did they remove lower income people? Absolutely,” Stone said.

What differentiates Detroit's current gentrification and the Brush Park case? In the Brush Park example, low-density land on the edge of a booming city was replaced with new, medium-density housing. People were displaced and emotional damage was surely done, but less so than in the higher-density displacement of the residents of the New Center. Wasn’t the medium-density housing there already comprising a viable city neighborhood? What right did GM have to displace these lower-income immigrant families from the city they were trying to make succeed in? 

“I suppose there are people who would argue, ‘Were they (the neighborhoods) viable? Or were they barely surviving?’ In which case the influx of new renters, renters with more money may be raising the viability standard,” Stone said, describing both historical and present-day examples of gentrification. This is the issue at hand in Detroit. In a city where the poverty rate differs significantly between the city’s core and the metropolitan area as a whole — 36 percent and 15 percent respectively — isn’t middle class investment a welcome change? Not if it creates a city blatantly divided by race, and certainly not if it forces minority families that have been sustaining the city for almost a century now to move out all together.

To discuss the more personal effects of poverty and gentrification in Detroit, I spoke with Otiyah Ross-Chapman, youth and young adult ministry chairperson at the Conant Avenue United Methodist Church in Conant Gardens, Detroit. Ross-Chapman said she’s yet to see any examples of gentrification in the neighborhood, which is located just south of 7 Mile Road. What she does see, however, is the struggle many neighborhood residents go through to put food on the table on a regular basis. At a local level, she believes that anchoring neighbors in the church and investing in youth are the two ways to deter gang violence and elevate residents to a higher ground than they currently stand on.

“If you reach out to the children, then eventually you’ll get their parents. We have programs that allow children to come off the street, like the arts program allows for the children to come off the street rather than run to the gangs so they can come and work on their art. And we have a summer program for when they’re out of school and they’re hungry. It’s called a ‘meet up and eat up’ program …  and that allows for them to come out and get something to eat and allows for them to learn academically as well as have social skills,” Ross-Chapman said.

There are also other programs the church is involved in.

“We have a youth program where we do dance, step and choir. So that allows them to get in touch with their musical side, if they love to sing or if they love to drop beats, you know, whatever. And they can live you know, not live the lifestyle they’re living now because eventually we want them to do better. He changed their hearts, and made them into better citizens,” Ross-Chapman said.

Local change like this seems to contrast with the public’s visions of Detroit’s revitalization. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s investment in Detroit’s downtown since 2010 — which involves $5.6 billion spent across over about 100 properties and the employment of 17,000 people — has led to unprecedented growth in the Woodward Avenue area of downtown. But it’s unclear just how much of this investment is reaching neighborhoods beyond downtown.

According to an editorial in The Detroit News, “In 2000, there were over 100,000 African American families in Detroit who earned $40,000 or more. In 2016, after adjusting for inflation, there were only 44,000.” This makes a difference in a city where 79 percent of the population is African American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census (and even more so in Conant Gardens, where 93 percent of residents identify as such). And it doesn’t seem that Gilbert’s investment is helping. According to City Lab, jobs for Detroiters decreased from 46,309 in 2007 to 29,875 in 2014, while jobs for non-Detroiters increased from 75,000 to 88,000 over that same period. This reflects a general trend of educated, middle-class people moving to Detroit’s suburbs for higher standards of living, and the resultant drainage of cash flow from the inner city.

While the greater trend has been towards this suburbanization, contemporary examples of gentrification and inner-city development do exist. Joel Stone cites the development of Cass Corridor, Corktown, Woodbridge and several others as examples of places where the stabilization of downtown has pushed development beyond its borders.

When I asked if  the commercial activity that’s happening downtown and along Woodward spilled out into the adjacent communities at all, Stone replied yes. 

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“I would say now that the downtown has been stabilized, it’s encouraging entrepreneurs to invest in those ancillary neighborhoods. In other words, if somebody invests in a beautiful building on Woodward or in a historic building on Cass, it encourages people to invest in the building next to and around it, and, you know, they’re putting up new buildings where there weren’t, where there were parking lots. Now there are brand new apartment buildings, and once you get those in and it stabilizes the block or stabilizes three or four blocks, that encourages people to invest their time, their effort, their money in the blocks adjacent to that. It’s kind of a ripple effect. So maybe the folks who lived on Cass have been able to find housing three or four blocks further away, but that also means in another four or five years, assuming we remain on the same trajectory, that they may be looking for new housing in another five or ten years,” Stone said.

If a block does become revitalized and ‘stabilized’, a lot of people may point to the fact that it doesn’t take going very far in Detroit to find new housing. It only takes a few blocks just because that downtown area is so concentrated, and Stone agrees. 

“There were parts of Brooklyn that got so run down that they probably had a similar (situation), but theirs has happened faster, and now so much of Brooklyn is taken up you can’t say that’s the possibility … in Detroit I noticed they just opened the Saint Regis building, which is great. That was a gorgeous, gorgeous building, it needed help … and, if you used to live in Saint Regis or in a building near there, you probably only have to go a few blocks to find a place that has a rent that you can afford,” Stone said.

It may be happening more slowly than in other cities, but surely, Detroit’s downtown is gentrifying. And not all of the city’s talent is moving out either. According to Alan Mallach, “Since 2010, Detroit has seen an increase of 8,000 in the number of people 25 to 34 with a college degree living in the city. That’s a change after the steady decline of this group up to 2010, but it’s small compared to Pittsburgh (15,000), Baltimore (24,000), Philadelphia (44,000) and many other cities.” Alan Mallach is the author of “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America” and a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C.

In accordance with Joel Stone’s analysis, Mallach’s book also points to Cass Corridor, Corktown, Woodbridge and Downtown as the neighborhoods where poorer people are being supplanted by higher rents the most. Additionally, supporting Stone’s ripple effect theory, Mallach claims that “future gentrification elsewhere is likely to be slow and incremental, affecting mainly blocks right next to the ones that are already gentrified.”

So where does this leave neighborhoods like Conant Gardens? The slow, incremental crawl of development from downtown seems incredibly distant from the urban farms, vacant lots and boarded up homes that now comprise Detroit’s former working-class and middle-class neighborhoods. The aims of Gilbert, founder of a mortgage lending company, seem even more distant. This is all in great contrast to the “blank slate” idea of Detroit that the media paints. Yes, there are $5,000 homes in Detroit. No, they don’t seem likely to be developed any time soon.

Even if development continued at its current rate for another few decades, it would make two cities: One Black and one white. In order to form a sustainable city economy, Detroiters — and that means the majority African American families that have been sustaining the city for decades — would need to gain an additional 100,000 jobs on top of the supposed 30,000 to 40,000 they currently hold, according to Laura A. Reece, professor of political science and director of the Global Urban Studies Program at Michigan State University.

It’s unclear whether the development of downtown would ever be able to spur a turnaround like this. Public investment in education and career development has failed in the past, and who’s to say this where the money would go? The ball is in Gilbert’s court. Detroit’s Black middle class needs to come back, and it’s anchor people like Otiyah Ross-Chapman that are fighting for this. We can’t sit back and act like Detroit’s coming back when it’s not coming back for everyone. A sustainable city is not a segregated one. While the city’s downtown comes back and public funds accumulate, Detroit’s poorer communities need leaders to propel the next generation toward a more equitable future.