Joseph P. Williams, MSN, January 22, 2020
Standing outside an upscale coffee shop in the city’s Midtown district, Juan Elizondo eagerly confirms it: Everything you’ve heard about Detroit is true.
A freshly-brewed latte in hand, his salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a ponytail, Elizondo, 38, grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, then served overseas in the Army. When he left the military, he came back to Motown, “because there’s definitely a spark here.”
“There’s been a rapid metamorphosis” from the bad old days, when Detroit was shorthand for urban decay and crime, says Elizondo, who works for a developer on a $7 million hotel project nearby. Exhibit A for the rebirth, he says: “It’s right here, in Cass Corridor.”
It’s a stark change for Detroit – one driven by upscale white people like the customers sitting in the exposed-brick, art-covered confines of Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company.
An analysis from U.S. News & World Report, based on recently released U.S. Census data, shows Motown is the second-least racially diverse city of 300,000 or more. African Americans make up 80% of its 670,000 residents, one of the highest percentages of any city in the nation.
Yet as Detroit’s fortunes are changing, so, too, is its racial composition. From 2010 to 2018, Detroit saw the biggest growth in racial diversity of any city analyzed by U.S. News, a trend fueled largely by an influx of white residents. Drawn to the Motor City by its anything-is-possible buzz, experts say, the newcomers stay because of below-average costs of living – particularly cheap housing – along with low business start-up costs and gritty Midwestern street cred.
But the gentrification that’s driving Motown’s urban-renaissance narrative, analysts say, is actually creating a tale of two Detroits.
A Tale of Two Motor Cities
The new, renaissance Detroit is a small oasis of redevelopment in the densely-populated city center, marked by chic made-in-Motown boutiques, farm-to-table restaurants, new construction, renovated housing and jobs – amenities that have drawn college-educated whites, young people and empty-nesters like a beacon. This population, experts say, gets the lion’s share of limited city resources, including redevelopment dollars, police patrols and garbage pickup.
The other Detroit, however, is a complicated, majority-black, 139-square-mile metropolis grappling with crime, poverty and urban decay. Still fighting back from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, and the collective psychological trauma of a takeover by the state’s white power structure, this part of Detroit hasn’t seen much redevelopment or reinvestment, experts say, and probably won’t in the near future.
While renaissance Detroit downtown is booming with retro diners, electric rideshare scooters and a streetcar line partially funded by billionaire Dan Gilbert, the other Detroit’s close-knit neighborhoods of tidy brick homes rub shoulders with blocks of abandoned houses and vacant lots – part of an estimated 20 square miles of empty land within city limits. Residents here cope with blight, broken schools, a poverty rate several times the national average and a slow-moving middle-class exodus.
Yusef Shakur, an African American community activist and lifelong Detroiter, says there’s an agenda behind the disparity: Monied interests, like Gilbert and the wealthy Ilitch family, founders of the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain, want to reclaim and recolor the city.
“What it tells me is there’s this narrative, and the narrative is of erasing black people,” says Shakur.
President George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, each sent billions of federal dollars to bail out struggling car manufacturers, but Detroit’s vast housing market, heavy on single-family homes and awash with subprime or inflated mortgages, didn’t get that kind of lifeline.
Yet it was the stunning downfall of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a charismatic young politician and the third black man to hold the office, that put Detroit on the ropes.
In 2008, after a series of City Hall scandals – including a whistleblower lawsuit that ended with a $6.5 million judgment against the city – prosecutors indicted Kilpatrick for lying under oath and abusing his authority to cover up an extramarital affair with his chief of staff. The mayor pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, resigned from office and went to jail, but an even bigger bombshell was about to explode.
Federal investigators in 2010 charged Kilpatrick and members of his inner circle, including his father, with bid rigging, taking kickbacks and ordering shakedowns over city contracts while he was Motown’s mayor. Officials said the crimes, including a failed billion-dollar Wall Street pension scheme, funded Kilpatrick’s baller lifestyle and scuttled Detroit’s already-shaky finances, accelerating its historic slide into bankruptcy.
The aftermath wasn’t pretty. In 2013, the same year a federal judge sent Kilpatrick to prison for 28 years, Gov. Rick Snyder, a white Republican, forced the majority-black, fiercely Democratic city into state-managed receivership, a bitter pill many Detroiters still resent having to swallow.
Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost a quarter of its population, dropping it from from the 10th largest city in the country to the 18th, according to census data. Indeed, The New York Times reported that more people left Motown – 237,500 – than the 140,000 who fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, making the city smaller than Austin, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan professor of urban planning, housing and economic revitalization, says African American residents who held on through Motown’s hard times tell her they feel excluded from the rebirth, especially in redone neighborhoods where, until recently, whites were rarely seen.
Gentrification “may not be pushing (black) people out, but making them feel like, ‘This isn’t my home anymore, and I don’t feel comfortable here anymore,'” says Dewar, professor emerita at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “It’s not necessarily (rising) property values and higher rents. It’s residents feeling like they no longer belong because young white people are coming to the neighborhood in much greater numbers.”
Matthew Miller, who is African American, describes it as more of a paradox.
The influx of whites “is happening under the guise of Detroit’s rejuvenation – I think all of this is kind of driven by this ‘white-savior complex’ narrative they’re pushing,” says Miller. “It’s good that parts of the city that were less than savory are being revamped. But unfortunately it’s coming at the expense of people that have been here for a long time.”
Bottom line, says Miller: when it comes to the Motown Miracle, it’s hard to separate race and capitalism. And that, he says, usually means a zero-sum game – whites advance as African Americans are left behind.