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The Gentrification of Detroit—Again

April 25, 2011

The American branch of my family has deep roots—five generations—in Detroit, a city that has been sitting on the narrows of the Detroit River since 1701. Now a comparative ghost town, there are hints of another new cycle of interest in downtown development in the city, and God knows that property there can currently be had for a song.

In 2002, Wayne State University sponsored a symposium on gentrification. Disagreement existed among the participants about whether Detroit could be “revitalized” without driving the current population out, but many admitted, looking at the arc of history in Detroit, that if the capitalists came back, eventually the poor would be displaced.

While a Cass Corridor resident called for change in which “there’s a place for decay,” one Wayne State professor commented, “The dynamics of gentrification, unfortunately, is that housing prices go up…taxes go up. I don’t see how you can avoid the dynamic of the market.

Recently, Rapid Growth Grand Rapids, an online publication with a parent-company mission “to focus on growth, investment and remarkable people leading communities into the new economy,” put together a road trip. Young Grand Rapidians from a variety of professions, some of whom had never set foot in the state’s largest city, took a look at its “revitalization” efforts. The purpose of the trip, said Rapid Growth’s Tommy Allen, was for attendees to look for ways to “partner on projects to change the face and reality of our state.”

They visited a bakery, a few bars, the College for Creative Studies, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, a pet grooming and day care facility, and an urban farm, among other sites. They were wined and dined at one of downtown Detroit’s best restaurants. And judging from their comments, the attendees did seem to gain a different perspective from their encounters with entrepreneurs they met on the trip.

What was less clear was how much context the visitors had of Detroit’s cycles of gentrification, which have occurred many times since its founding.

Detroit’s history shows population shifts and forced neighborhood changes happening over and over: the ribbon farms of the French settlers being seized up by lumber barons for their huge riverfront mansions, as the farmers are driven out of the city (only to be driven out again by people building summer homes in the Grosse Pointes). Woodward Avenue turning from a collection of workers’ homes and small, owner-run businesses into a Fifth Avenue of large stores, posh churches, and upscale restaurants. The Cultural Center changing from a working class neighborhood to streets with large, upper-class homes, a museum, a library. Improvements? Yes, for those with money. For the workers, it represented a constant challenge—where to live so that one could still be close to one’s work, when neighborhoods became too expensive for them? Where to shop, when affordable greengrocers’, bakeries, and clothing shops transmogrified into lavish department stores filled with furs, pigskin gloves, imported pâté, and French perfumes?

And every time the rich tired of a neighborhood, moving on to places more fashionable, then it was the working class who faced slum landlords, the disappearance of jobs, the increase of crime that occurred in their formerly stable neighborhoods.

Of course, some of this change was inevitable—after all, what major city still has farms within its limits? But what’s significant is that in every case, in every cycle of change, it’s the elite who decided what neighborhood to co-opt and alter, and the workers and poor simply had to accept and somehow adapt, often without the resources to do so successfully.

There were periods when it worked for a short time. A balance was struck, not too many people seemed to be disenfranchised, and uneasy peace was declared. We can see this kind of teetering balance in some Grand Rapids neighborhoods today. But the balance never seems to hold for long, as Detroit’s history proves again and again.

People today are most familiar with the highlights of Detroit’s 20th century transformations—the arrival of immigrant and minority workers, many finding jobs in the car industry; the White flight to the suburbs; and the hilarious early attempts at “renaissance.” When the Renaissance Center was completed, the opening gala in 1977 was attended by 650 people so terrified of being downtown that they only attended on assurances that they would be able to step right from their cars into the security-guarded building, without having to go into the parking lot or set a foot on a Detroit city sidewalk. My cousin, a Detroit activist, later commented, “And these were the people who were going to bring positive change to the city, with that attitude?”

Advertised as a “city within a city,” the tacit message of the Renaissance Center was, “It’s OK, White people—you don’t have to actually go into Detroit itself to work here. You can spend all your time inside a safe, secure, guarded fortress.” The concept was to have the building contain offices, restaurants, hotels, a shopping center. But business after business fled the building and Detroit. The entire complex was finally sold to General Motors for pennies on the dollar. It now serves as GM’s headquarters.

Even the Mackinac Center has admitted that the whole idea was a failure. But not the failure of the business movers and shakers who conceived it—oh, no. Rather, it was the city’s failure—for not having a better school system, better municipal services, and for putting “crushing  taxes and regulations” on businesses, all of which hampered the largesse that generous capitalists were willing to rain down upon Detroit.

In a smaller way, we see similar scenarios in Grand Rapids’ history. One example: shortly before the Amway Grand was completed, the leading power brokers on this side of the state insisted on a change with similar economic results as the Detroit Renaissance Center. They deemed it was crucial for the struggling retail presence in Grand Rapids’ city center to take out Monroe Avenue and turn it into a pedestrian mall. This would supposedly let downtown “compete” with suburban malls that were pulling shoppers away. Some long-time, small business owners downtown who had survived the shifts in retail traffic saw that they would lose their car-door-to-store-door advantage in this redesign. But the street was mall-ified in 1980 despite their objections. One by one, the remaining businesses failed.

Did anyone benefit from this Titanic of a decision? Yes, the people who always benefit: those with the economic means to buy properties at fire-sale prices. Later, Monroe Avenue was re-opened and the downtown was “revitalized.”

In the Detroit toured by the Rapid Growth road trip attendees, a number of residents are wearily aware that any improvements they make could, at any moment, be co-opted by capitalists looking to make yet another buck off the backs of the poor, the unemployed, and the low-wage workers left in their largely broken urban landscape. Commenting on a similar scenario in Washington D.C., Natalie Hopkinson wrote,

In the fanfare over the ‘new D.C.’ and drooling over retail, it’s almost as if poor people and their grievances have been put on mute. That was the problem with [Mayor] Fenty and some of his more strident ‘creative class’ supporters; many of them went about their business as though the poor were invisible or, worse, already gone.

Rayfield Waller wrote in a Michigan Citizen article that the “creative class” working to reinvent Detroit today are “white elites reoccupying inner cities that have crumbled in the wake of federal abandonment, infrastructure collapse, police brutality, loss of worker rights, government corruption, and joblessness.” He goes on to state that in his opinion, urban or neighborhood collapses like the one in Detroit are engineered economic ploys: “America’s response to rebellion, protest and riots by urban Americans objecting to the same corporate and government elites now funding  what is essentially a ‘cool’ class war of ‘creative’ elites against urban have-nots.”

Let’s face it. It’s not Detroit’s recent capitalist ventures—from the redo of the Book-Cadillac Hotel with its spa and $60-per-porterhouse-steak restaurant to the peppering of renovated “hipster” bars and Twitterati-approved coffeehouses—which are going to address the reality that Waller describes. But there are organizations in Detroit that are working for justice for the residents who are there, rather than campaigning to lure “urban pioneers” (read: customers with ready cash) from the suburbs to the city.

One of these is the Garden Resource Program Collaborative, which brings together 189 different organizations to support urban gardening and farming. The collective provides education for people who have never grown gardens before; it teaches beekeeping; it offers seed exchanges and lessons in canning and preserving food. According to its website, this food justice organization provided help and advice to nearly 900 community, school, and family gardens,

The Detroit chapter of the Michigan Welfare Organization is another group working to improve the lives of the city’s residents. The group acts as an advocate between low-income citizens and service organizations that stand in the way of people receiving the Medicaid, food stamps, and other assistance that is rightfully theirs. The chapter also intervenes in landlord-tenant disputes and utility company threats. In addition to fighting poverty, the group’s mission statement says it is building “an army prepared to battle for the economic and human rights of millions of disenfranchised Americans.”

Equally important is Moratorium Now!, a grassroots coalition of activists committed to stopping foreclosures, evictions, and utility shutoffs in the city’s metropolitan area as well as across the state. In a city where foreclosures still number approximately 4.5 the national average, this group is crucial to Detroit’s future. In 2010 alone, over 43,500 people in Detroit lost their homes to foreclosure.

The cost of gentrification—again—in Detroit will come at the expense of its already beleaguered population. At GRIID, we believe that a statement circulated in the city several years ago, printed on flyers and posted everywhere downtown, sums up the issue perfectly. It was titled “Detroit Artists Against Gentrification.” Unlike many observations on this topic, it is untainted by an agenda of promoting capitalist interests. It says, in part:

“Fuck ‘Cool Cities.’ We don’t want our art turning into someone else’s eviction notice….We recognize that the city must develop, the nature of things is change…But we don’t think just any development is good development, and we don’t think the end justifies just any means.

“We have seen what gentrification has done to other cities, displacing working class and poor people…In Detroit, it has faked progress, pretending to cure real issues of racism and poverty with fancy new buildings. Frankly we think it is boring and stupid. It is a cycle of destruction and reconstruction that could go on forever, but only benefits those who already have money. They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but that assumes that you have a boat.

“…We need to know that our voices are heard about the din created by all the bulldozers and the local shuffle of money changing hands. All the people in the city must have a say in what’s going on.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Carma permalink
    April 26, 2011 1:02 pm

    Too often, “revitalization” is taken to mean “gentrification”, but you show that there are alternatives that help the less well off.

  2. June 9, 2011 8:18 am

    KS-
    Very well written and informative about issues that the local mainstream media are not addressing (and neither are most of the alternative media here). I appreciate your incorporation of a quote from me in a very useful way, to illuminate your point of the need for the sort of community groups you are writing about. Thank you for writing this article!

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    June 9, 2011 2:07 pm

    Thank you for commenting, Mr. Waller. I thought your piece was remarkable. Because I have such a strong family connection to Detroit, I try to keep current with what is going on there, and this new assault of gentrification by capitalists and the self-named “creative class” on the people who have the most at stake is painful to watch.

    We have a similar, but much smaller-scale, situation going on in some of our neighborhoods here in Grand Rapids as well.

  4. Ariane permalink
    December 30, 2011 1:29 am

    “When the Renaissance Center was completed, the opening gala in 1977 was attended by 650 people so terrified of being downtown that they only attended on assurances that they would be able to step right from their cars into the security-guarded building, without having to go into the parking lot or set a foot on a Detroit city sidewalk.”

    Lol, was crime that bad?

    Interesting article, but it begs the question: What do you propose as an alternative to gentrification?

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