Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?

Suzette Hackney, Politico, September 28, 2014

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this month, I watched from the picture window of one of Detroit’s new and hip West Village eateries as children whizzed by on scooters, smiling couples walked their designer dogs and tattooed millennials chatted among themselves while smoking both electronic and tobacco-laced cigarettes.

The corner of Agnes and Parker streets is a vibrant microcosm of Detroit’s so-called urban pioneer movement. And inside the restaurant named Craft Work, the long high-top tables and bar stools were nearly filled to capacity with folks sipping on specialty cocktails and noshing on warm chickpeas and fish tacos. The whole scene was a far cry from when I lived in the adjoining apartment building in the early 2000s, when darkened gas lights helped obscure the vacant store fronts of the former retail strip. There were no pop-ups to attract people, and the limited foot traffic was mostly from those who lived in my building or the one across the street, and were walking to or from the secured parking lots.

But this is the new Detroit.

I’m not writing this letter from afar; I live 45 minutes south of the city in Toledo, Ohio. Detroit is where I lived, worked and played until two years ago, when I left the city to accept a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan. I was a newspaper reporter in Detroit from 1996 to 2012. I worked for both dailies, but spent most of my career at the Detroit Free Press covering City Hall, crime, neighborhoods and the run-up to the appointment of the city’s emergency manager, who in July 2013 filed bankruptcy on behalf of Detroit and last week handed back management of the city to the mayor and city council.

I still own a home in an inner-ring suburb, less than a mile from the city proper. My network of friends remains in Detroit, and in many ways I still consider the Motor City my home base. But I must admit that leaving Detroit has given me a chance to step back and observe with a journalistic eye the city’s transformation, a luxury often not possible when I was reporting on murders and the city’s budget crisis every day.

Every time I return to the city, the landscape has changed: Where once was a vandalized shell of a building, there’s a new coffee shop here or a high-end clothing boutique there. Whole Foods opened in Midtown last year, the first national food retailer to invest in the city in years. The market is boosting local businesses by carrying Detroit-made products on its shelves. And the upscale Shinola hawks its thousand-dollar watches, leather goods and bicycles in a renovated century-old automobile warehouse near Wayne State University. A new hockey arena, entertainment district and streetcar system are coming online. Most of this development is occurring in downtown, Midtown and Corktown–areas that have seen significant progress in the last decade–and trickling into neighborhoods such as West Village, located on one edge of the city’s central business district. There’s a palpable energy; Detroit’s decades of urban decay are finally giving way to reinvestment and revitalization.

Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?

Newlyweds Michael and Tia Hilson are long-time Detroiters, living in the low-income MarketPlace Court apartments near Eastern Market. Michael is 29, has a 5-year old daughter and works as a manager for various musical acts from metro Detroit and elsewhere. He questions why millions of dollars are being spent on a streetcar system instead of investing in education and job training for future generations.

“They could take this money and put it in [Detroit Public Schools],” he said. This development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”


Detroit is now a place where, in its most bustling parts, the faces are often young and white. Eighty-three percent of Detroit’s 688,701 residents are African American, according to the latest Census figures–the city has been majority black for more than three decades–but you’d be hard pressed to believe those numbers because, well, the black population seems less visible now. National media outlets have been criticized for parachuting into the city, and only showing white Detroit. But if we are painfully honest with ourselves, the growing majority of startups, businesses and restaurants attracting such broad attention, are mostly white owned. Dispatches from Detroit as the latest urban comeback story don’t often include scenes from deep inside the city’s distressed neighborhoods. Such ruin porn, as it’s called, would defeat the purpose.


I’m excited about this new Detroit, but I am also deeply troubled. I am concerned that there is not more of a conversation about Detroit’s poor, black and under-educated residents. I’m worried about the widening gap of segregation by income. I’m fearful that in our desire to see one of the world’s iconic cities remake itself into an attractive hub for the tech savvy, the artistic and the upwardly mobile, we’re losing perspective of the need for sustainable jobs and an affordable quality of life for the majority of those who don’t live in downtown or Midtown and will never have more than a tangential connection to those areas.


Billionaire Dan Gilbert, a name that’s becoming as synonymous with Detroit commerce as Henry Ford’s was back in the day, has purchased 60 buildings in downtown Detroit. He’s creating an incubator of innovation, anchored by Quicken Loans, his online mortgage company. Gilbert has hired his own security force to ensure that his employees are shielded from violent crime and his properties protected from graffiti and vandalism. And instead of waiting on state funding, Gilbert is financing a $1.25 million road construction project that will help improve access and traffic flow to the downtown area and to Greektown Casino-Hotel, which he owns.

“It’s not an illusion that these parts of the city are getting more resources,” Trent said of downtown and Midtown. “The question becomes, Is it the chicken or the egg? Are these places now getting more attention because the racial makeup has changed, or are the racially-diverse residents commanding more attention?”


“Detroit is making progress, but I think the question is ‘progress for who?’ and ‘who is being left behind?’” Michael Whitty, a retired University of Detroit Mercy professor of management and labor relations, and a city researcher for the past 40-plus years, told me. “The positives from the city filing bankruptcy won’t reach the most disadvantaged stratum of Detroit. They won’t even get the most entry-level jobs.”

{snip} What makes Detroit so complex is its history. {snip} Metropolitan Detroit became and remains the nation’s most segregated–a black and poor city surrounded by white and more affluent suburbs. Now there’s a new ring of white affluence in the city, creating almost a reverse Oreo, with black Detroit as the filling.


{snip} I’m frustrated and angry–both at residents for not working to be better, and at a city that let so many of them down. I don’t know what the long view is for Detroit, but I don’t see substantive policies that will do anything other than make Detroit a nicer place to live in poverty for most residents. Urban pioneering alone will not change Detroit, and I can’t shake my feelings of unease. For so long, even as I helped expose all the problems of the city, I wished and prayed for a better Detroit. I just always hoped it would be a better place for all.

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