AREAS OF THE city where houses like this one exist, where children are endangered, also need the attention of Detroit’s revitalization team and their funders. – Andre Smith photo
It’s time for reality talk. I’ve been in many meetings, forums and unending roundtable dialogues about where Detroit needs to be in the next decade.
Everyone seems to have an answer about the problem with Detroit and for the most part, the response to decades of strategic urban segregation, mass unemployment, extreme poverty and violent crime has been to get more “hipsters” into selected areas of the city and make it a cool place to live and play. If we do so, according to some self-described urban thinkers, the city will come back without explaining what will, in fact, trigger the comeback.
That is why I couldn’t agree more with Detroit native Thomas Sugrue, the scholar and author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” when he urged business and political leaders at the just ended Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference to focus on areas where the city has strength. He urged them not to chase an empty shadow with the hope that creating more enclaves of hipsters in the city will ultimately save Detroit. He warned attendees to be aware of what he calls “hipsterfication.”
“There’s a lot to celebrate, but such enclaves have not played a significant role in urban revitalization because they don’t scale up,” Sugrue said in his keynote address at the 2014 Detroit Policy Conference.
And gentrification doesn’t scale up either.
Sugrue, the David Boies professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in a bold address said we should be looking at Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Public Schools and other institutions that are more likely to remain in Detroit because of their decades of commitment to the city during challenging times. These institutions will continue to play a major role in public sector unemployment, according to Sugrue.
“Without meds, eds and public sector employment Detroit would not have much of a middle class,” he said.
Wayne State University has a new leader, Dr. M. Roy Wilson, who is now expanding the university’s engagement and redefining its urban mission with a clear-cut vision, which will be critical to bringing Detroit back.
Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System, is also a committed player in the turnaround of the city with the health system’s planned expansion in Detroit where it is headquartered.
For those who have been actively promoting and funding new initiatives to bring jobs and redevelopment to downtown Detroit that many of us have applauded because it increases tax revenues for a city with a dwindling tax base, Sugrue’s warning against “hipsters” might sound like a Christmas Scrooge. But he actually isn’t.
What he is saying is that we can’t only rely on a burgeoning class of young White artists migrating to the city to rescue Detroit.
We can’t afford to create two Detroits — one for the well off and the other for the rest of the masses of poor and despondent who have either very limited access to opportunity or simply no means to upper mobility life.
The success of a comeback Detroit cannot be defined in terms of how bright the lights are in the downtown and Midtown areas. It should be a success story that is holistic and seen in terms of giving life to all the areas that give the city its unique geographical definition.
Our failure to look at the city from this prism would mean encouraging the same old and tired attitudes, false hopes, leadership failures, antagonistic attitudes toward regional cooperation and lack of a cohesive vision that produced the Detroit that is now begging for serious transformation beyond downtown and Midtown.
Often when the issue of social equity rises up in conversations about transforming urban areas with grinding poverty, illogical critics would label those making the case for such as advocating for a welfare program or a handout to those we like to call on to pull themselves by the bootstraps.
Let’s be clear. I’m not asking that we give a handout to everyone who is poor and locked out of needed opportunity in this city. I’m not suggesting that Midtown and downtown should be responsible for the fate of Detroit’s east side, west side and other geographical locations where growth can be spurred.
What I’m saying is that it is time that we open the conversation to include all of Detroit, taking into consideration all of the factors that have been responsible for holding the city economically and socially hostage for decades. It is time we begin to add new voices to Detroit’s revitalization conversation beyond the usually scripted narratives with analysis that stops short of mentioning areas that are in need of a real facelift.
Downtown will take care of itself. Sugrue put it this way: “Downtown redevelopment is absolutely necessary, but far from sufficient to create a healthy, revitalized Detroit.”
What I’m recommending to the economic class is what we use the same zest, dynamism and courage that’s been used to create a “Taj Mahal” out of Midtown and downtown and other selected areas, and extend that to the rest of the city. If we believe in one Detroit, let’s work to create opportunities for distressed communities because they too are part of this city’s fabric and long historical narrative. In fact, they are critical to the city’s survival.
Too often, we loosely use the phrase “working together,” but hardly do these two words reflect efforts on the table to revitalize Detroit. We are not working together if our efforts are only focused on one segment of the city. We are not building a new Detroit if our view of a renaissance city is limited to the surroundings where power and wealth are concentrated, and not the other areas that need a boost.
Because of the frustration resulting from the seeming unwillingness to examine the city from the many vantage points that make up Detroit, phrases like “playground for the rich” have been used to describe efforts to revitalize Midtown and downtown.
Without having any idea or willingness to acknowledge the origins of the crisis that have brought the city to this low point, some call the “playground for the rich” phrase divisive, a convenient and an apparent attempt to avoid further probing of the issue of social inequity and the underlying theme of abandonment and neglect that comes with it.
We are approaching a critical moment where development of our downtown area is at an all time high. The velocity ratio of the downtown and Midtown revitalization is so high that it’s hard to even keep track of the latest development packages.
At the same time that downtown is busting economically, we are also witnessing what I call the forbidden underclass, the mass of people in this city who have no means to opportunities. The areas in which they live have either been neglected or ignored in the big conversations about what places in the city need development.
Their zip codes don’t even come up in the databases that matter. They live in a different Detroit than the one that has been documented in studies about streamlining the city. Their children are dying in the cycle of violence and they feel trapped in the ghettos of Detroit much like the documentary “Chicagoland” about the untold story of Chicago’s sorry education crisis mixed with violent crime.
In this world of the forbidden underclass, there is rarely any hope because entrenched poverty and the need for a requisite response never merits the front pages or the panel discussions on television.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t know what the problems are. We don’t need a three-year study to come to the same conclusion that was arrived at decades ago. All we need to do is to go into those neighborhoods and soon we’ll realize that what those neighborhoods need are opportunities to grow.
Yes, council-by-district will address some of the issues I’ve raised here. But often as we’ve learned, the economic class doesn’t wait for the political class when it wants to get things done or take care of its own needs. And in this particular case, and as it relates to Sugrue’s warning, we need an intervention of the economic class to provide opportunities for these communities, just as we’ve seen with other areas of the city where the bright lights are.
We’ve seen all kinds of positive and economic interventions in the last four years in Detroit. Now is the time to intervene in the places that are suffering the most.
I have no doubt in the commitment of those who have anchored the developments in downtown and Midtown. The intervention in providing police and ambulance trucks for the city was not only timely but also essential to the well-being of the city. It was the first of its kind in the country to see that level of commitment in a major urban center.
And now we can go beyond that to begin to impact lives and change communities. Not the communities that are already changing before our eyes, but the ones that need change, where poor children seem to have no future because their life stories are punctuated by violent crime in their environment.
None of us would wish such a life for our own, and yet the future of Detroit begins and ends with these children. Anyone who wants to make a lasting contribution to Detroit and its future must first invest in communities where these children call home. Because that is Detroit.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming book on Detroit “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and the president’s faith posture with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.bankolethompson.com.