When I was growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I and other young kids in schools learned a very clear, simple narrative about the city. Henry Ford and the Model T created a thriving metropolis with architecture that garnered it the moniker “The Paris of the West,” whose factory workers earned a good wage and supplied the U.S. with the tanks, jeeps and planes it needed to win World War II. However, growing racial tensions led to “The Riots” of 1967 and an outpouring of white people from the city into the growing suburbs. After that, we learned, Detroit descended into economic chaos and physical ruin.
As much as people might try to explain Detroit, the diversity of narratives within the sprawling city make it truly impossible to tell one unified story about its rise, fall or potential recovery. The 143 square miles that make up the city contain some of the most dynamic and complex space in the country, and to try to fit the history of Michigan’s most populous city under any kind of universal umbrella narrative will inevitably distort the truth. Henry Ford was scarily anti-Semitic, racist violence disrupted the war effort and made factories dangerous places for Black residents to work and the “white flight” narrative typically forgets the fact that there were and are many strong, solidly middle-class neighborhoods within Detroit’s borders.
Lately, the narrative we’ve all been hearing about Detroit has been a comeback story. Billionaire Dan Gilbert and other investors are buying up and renovating dozens of properties downtown, the Detroit Red Wings are getting a new arena and a weekend night out in the city will put you in the company of hundreds of young people having fun at the wealth of new nightlife options.
However, many problems still linger in The Motor City, especially for those who live outside the revitalized Downtown and Midtown areas. It was less than two years ago that Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and only one year ago that the city shut off water for residents who couldn’t pay their bills.
Additionally — and perhaps most troublingly for the long-term future — groups and programs that work to revitalize Detroit have a significantly white makeup, according to researcher Alex Hill, despite the city overall being 82.7-percent Black or African-American at the time of the 2010 census. “In Detroit problems are seen as being caused by black people, but the solutions are being powered by white people, neither of which are true,” Hill stated in his report.
The unequal racial demographics that make up Detroit’s elite decision makers is what originally inspired Detroit community developer Lauren Hood to engage herself more in social justice in Detroit.
“People that look like me weren’t involved in all of the revitalization efforts,” Hood said. “At the community level, yes, there were tons of long-term residents and tons of people of color at those meetings, but when you get to the decision-making meetings with power players, people that have money, developers, there were never any, or very few, native Detroiters and black people in that picture.”
Hood’s organization, Deep Dive Detroit, spearheads discussion sessions and other events where native Detroiters of all different backgrounds can talk about race, inequality and other social justice-related topics. These events amplify the voices of longtime Detroit residents and people who are involved in the community, those whose stories are often passed over and go unheard in favor of young recent arrivals to the city.
Aaron Foley, a Detroit-based writer and journalist, noticed that the influx of young people and the changing population of the city can create some tricky situations. His upcoming book, “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” is meant to show newcomers how to avoid hurting or offending longtime residents.
“Detroit is definitely open for new residents, new businesses, hot new locations and whatnot,” Foley said. “But because there’s so much history — you got race and class and social and economic status — a lot of people trip over these things, and it can be awkward for people.”
Hood said the audience for Deep Dive Detroit’s events is often these new arrivals: young people curious about social justice.
“(The people who come) are kind of conscious and aware. They’re not really sure how they want to get involved in helping move the needle towards equity, but they know that they should,” Hood said. “I know a lot of people would come into the room and be like, ‘Ha, look at all these young hipsters,’ but at least these hipsters are in a room where they’re going to learn something that could actually help move the needle a little bit, ’cause there are others who don’t even think they need to hear these stories, or don’t want to be involved and don’t care, ’cause they don’t have to be to be successful here.”
The main area where these two disparate groups — longtime Detroiters, often people of color; and typically white young people who have just moved to the city — don’t see eye to eye, according to Hood, is in access to opportunity. Longtime minority residents can get passed over for jobs and grants in favor of white outsiders.
“If you’re a person who just got here and suddenly you find access to all this grant funding and all these other people that are doing things and getting notoriety for it and getting funding for it, if you just got here and you see that, you’re like, ‘Well, why haven’t these people that’ve been here been doing this all this time?’ ” Hood said.
“If I had just got here and I went to a certain kind of school and spoke a certain way and looked a certain way, I could have access to a lot of funding for projects,” she continued. “But if I’ve been here in the trenches doing the same kind of work for years and years and years, I’m not as likely to have access to or be awarded funding.”
When decision-making groups lack diversity, they can’t fully understand their area; the money they spend can end up disproportionately benefiting small groups of privileged people. The M1 Rail Line, a streetcar system funded by private investors that’s currently under construction on Woodward Avenue, will only serve a small percentage of Detroit’s residents. While a city and its businesses’ investments should certainly target visitors in addition to residents, some Detroiters are skeptical that the M1 Rail is the best use of money for their city.
“I definitely wish that more of that money could have been used towards the bus system,” Foley said. “It’s not that I’m against the M1 Rail … (but) you have that question mark of how far it’s going to go … Why couldn’t we have spread that money out?”
“Maybe it’s the backbone of a larger system that will grow out of it hopefully, but I don’t know, the current plans don’t excite me that much,” Hood said.
And while city officials point to progress since the bankruptcy in areas such as police response times, these changes may only be affecting areas like Midtown and Downtown. Many longtime Black middle-class residents — a major tax base for city — are leaving for the suburbs due to a lack of safety in their neighborhoods (including Hood’s parents).
“Response times are better if you’re in Midtown and Corktown. If you are on the East Side, they still won’t come to your house,” Hood said. “When my parents got held up, Channel 4 News was there before the police were there.”
There’s also a sense that Detroiters don’t necessarily need all the help that outsiders are offering.
“People treat Detroit now like a place you go for Peace Corps,” Hood said. “Like you’re just going to go there, create some project that will help a few people, and then you leave and go to the next thing.”
So what does need improvement? One answer that is regularly mentioned is community benefits agreements. These agreements would require developers and businesses using public money to agree with the community on certain conditions, such as hiring a majority of local workers. While these agreements have faced opposition in the Michigan Legislature, they have support in the community.
“As long as that gets people working, so we can all get back on our feet here, that’s definitely a benefit,” Foley said.
George Galster, professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, proposes another solution. While he thinks a type of community benefits agreement is appropriate for developers who use substantial public money, he cautioned against “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” by attaching too many strings to developments.
“It’s very tricky, because the climate in Detroit is still very tenuous,” Galster said. “There are not a lot of deals that can be done for developers that are all that attractive, so I think the city has to be very careful in how much it tries to extract from developers.”
Hood disagrees that businesses wouldn’t come if restrictions were too tight.
“That’s bullshit,” she said. “We’re hot right now. Have you read all the articles? We don’t need the people that wouldn’t come here. Keep them. I think enough people would still come here with one.”
Galster says the key thing Michigan needs to do is institute an urban growth boundary, which would contain new construction within high-density areas to “stop sprawl in its tracks” and force developers to use vacant land or older structures in Detroit. This boundary would create a more compact city, one with a reduced carbon footprint that can be more easily served by public transportation.
One thing for sure: Detroiters think the necessity for action has become much greater than it was even just a few years ago.
“In 2012, in talking to people, there wasn’t the sense of urgency there is now,” Hood said. “People are like, ‘Oh my God we have to do something now,’ whereas maybe a couple of years ago people were like, ‘You know, we’re going to have some issues in the future — prices are going to go up, new people are going to be coming in, there’s going to be some displacement,’ but now there’s this sense of urgency about it.”
Detroiters also want to be sure that what they love about their city stays the same.
“We have a lot of power in this moment,” Hood said. “We just have to harness it and move it in a different direction. We don’t want to turn into Brooklyn, or Oakland or D.C.”
And despite the remaining problems and uncertainty about the city’s prospects, Detroiters are proud of their city and mostly upbeat about potential solutions. Galster, a fifth-generation Detroiter, said he has “the best job in the United States,” and still lives in the city.
“I think it’s important to vote with your feet, if you will, to try to be part of the solution that you’re talking about in your classes and in your studies,” he said. “I feel very, very fortunate at this opportunity to do what I like doing best in the place that I care about the most.”
In his essay “We love Detroit, Even If You Don’t,” Foley described his feelings for the city as “a twisted love that runs the gamut of emotions: Joy, disappointment, hurt, anger, fear, elation, delight, apprehension, courage, resentment, cynicism, stubbornness, optimism and confusion.” And though he has thought about moving in the past, Foley said that desire has lessened lately, and he’s optimistic for the future.
“Now you can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I want to be there to see the light,” he said. “I can see the future. I can see things are finally coming along, and I want to be a part of it.”