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Yes, there is room for black people in the new Detroit

Oct 30, 2014

Recently, Suzette Hackney of POLITICO wrote an article that asked the question, “Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” Her account begins at the corner of Agnes and Parker at a local restaurant where she describes seeing “designer dogs” and “tattooed millennials."

From her piece: 

The whole scene was a far cry from when I lived in the adjoining apartment building in the early 2000s... but this is the new Detroit.

I live in the neighborhood she describes, and even though Craft Work could be considered a “hip” establishment, I'm a little sad the area she described was reduced to a gentrified stereotype.

How a place is perceived

Shortly after Detroit filed for bankruptcy, there were two kinds of reactions coming from the media.

  • Locally, pensions and the fate of the DIA ruled the day’s news.
  • Nationally, Detroit was declared a crime-ridden-ground-zero, with few people actually coming to town to report.

Bankruptcy meant different things for different people, but one thing was for sure, change was in the air.

That summer, I started an interview project to document what the future meant for the letterpress shop in Eastern Market or the artist in Woodbridge, because I felt like nobody was asking.

After a year of driving back and forth from college to metro Detroit, I decided it was time to move to the city after I graduated, so I ended up in West Village.

Hackney’s description of West Village, located on the edge of downtown, sounds like another version of Midtown.

Her description does not fit my experience.

To me, West Village is a community of diverse and humble people. In fact, the day before her article was published, there was a block party on Parker Street and my neighbors seemed particularly unconcerned with race or any other blanket assumptions the media seems to chalk up to Detroit’s “new” identity.

I was admittedly surprised to see so many white faces at an occasion I typically associated with people of color. Growing up, block parties were something my family and I attended in the summers. My grandma's neighborhood on the west side of Detroit brought together everyone for food, fun and music.

But the racial mix of the block party didn’t bother me. I’m part of a generation where multiplicity is the norm. What surprised me more about West Village is the hodgepodge of socioeconomic backgrounds the area attracts.

On my street, there are students, white families, black families, and 20-somethings. My roommate is a graphic designer and the guy across the street is a Jheri-curl wearing mechanic.

Behind my house are rows of classic Detroit mansions. Around the corner are redeveloped condos, but on that very same block burned-down houses surround them. Minutes away, there’s a school, a liquor store that tends to attract unsavory characters, and some halfway houses.  

There are many "Detroits"

By comparison, Midtown is where the application of the “next” Harlem or Brooklyn might be applicable.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but we have to remember that each of Detroit’s neighborhoods offers something different.

Corktown has a gritty charm to it.

Hamtramck is slowly experimenting with urban farming.

Eastern Market continuously promotes the intersection of goods and commerce.

Midtown provides food, shopping and culture.

Downtown is for business and sports.

In her piece, Hackney says changes in the central business district seem to be getting all the focus:

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.

While I agree that Detroit’s largely black community of unemployed, poor, and uneducated shouldn’t be left behind or overlooked, it seems unfair to me to say that just because small businesses have sprung up downtown, that it somehow means we're losing sight of rebuilding other neighborhoods.

I see a "renaissance" happening.

Mayor Mike Duggan is doing a good job of improving the quality of life for Detroiters. He's systematically removing blight, lighting streets and cutting down on emergency response times. But Rome was not built in a day. Detroit has major problems that span over decades. There is no quick fix. Detroiters have long understood that it is up to them to fill the gaps, and every day there's a new startup or nonprofit receiving funding to meet the need.

For those who don’t have the luxury of starting their own business, we need more companies like Whole Foods to take a gamble on Detroit, even if their ideas are met with controversy. A Whole Foods in Detroit led to decent jobs and a place where the community can find healthy food options. 

There are a lot of smaller businesses popping up in Detroit, but to have a positive effect on the job market there needs to be significant investment from a larger industry or several major government works projects like the bridge to Canada – but these ventures can sometimes bring controversy.

The influence of "outsiders"

Part of that controversy includes the displacement of longtime residents and brick-and-mortar businesses, while outsiders with deeper pockets establish new businesses. The next time you're looking out your window on the way to a Tigers game, understand that these new buildings came with a price. People and businesses were displaced and they had to go somewhere.

Maybe they find an alternative or they don't due to a lack of resources, but every time someone is displaced we lose the charm of a neighborhood we are so eager to rebuild. It's not just blacks who are affected. There are people of all races who make up Detroit who've been pushed out, or have the potential to be. 

Perhaps we should carefully consider what a "new" Detroit means to each of the cities' diverse communities at every level. The "comeback" isn't limited or defined by economic investment at a macro level; there are startups, businesses and restaurants happening at a micro level that have a seat at the table too.  

Hackney argues that most of the startups, businesses and restaurants we often read about in the paper are largely white-owned and I agree. But I’ve also noticed they’re mostly male-led, and this isn’t a Detroit thing, it’s a societal thing. There’s room for blacks in Detroit and there’s certainly room for women, but let’s be honest, both groups have always had a disadvantage.

One large piece of Detroit’s comeback has to do with personal responsibility; looking inward to say, "how can I best serve the city?"

I’m not writing this article from afar. Detroit is where I live.

- Tifini Kamara, Michigan Radio Newsroom