Does the ‘New Detroit’ have room for native Detroiters?

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Janet Webster Jones working in her store, Source Booksellers.

DETROIT — On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, Janet Webster Jones, a lifelong Detroiter and owner of Source Booksellers, recalls a time when black Detroit residents were unable to invest in their own city.

“Detroit went through a period where outside investors would not come to Detroit for reasons of race and fear of a place where people don’t look like them,” explained Jones. “And the banks wouldn’t give any money to the black and brown Detroiters who wanted to invest in the city.”

Jones felt that this had to do with representation in the bank system.

“There was a time when we had absolutely no bank tellers of color,” she recalled. “Then Dr. Charles H. Wright went on a campaign to get banks to hire black people as tellers at least, which is the lowest level of employment.”

However, despite the adversities faced by blacks in Detroit, many still managed to create independent communities. The most noteworthy was Paradise Valley.

Paradise Valley was home to over 360 bustling black-owned businesses including theaters, hotels, restaurants, churches, taxi services, business clubs and apartment buildings.

Some of the most famous names in music, film, politics, social activism and sports spent time in Paradise Valley. When listing off those who lived in the neighborhood, familiar names included Joe Louis, Coleman Young, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin and more.

Paradise Valley survived racism, segregation, and the Great Depression; however, it could not withstand the grips of urban development.

At the tender age of 40, Paradise Valley was destroyed to make way for the Interstate 75 freeway, despite being one of the most successful black business districts in U.S. history.

Countless black residents and business owners were forced out of the area and those who had the means began scattering to nearby neighborhoods.

Others who could not afford to do so were relocated to public housing projects, namely the Brewster-Douglass Projects.

Today, nothing remains of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. However, lifelong Detroiters like 80-year-old Jones, remember the time when a thriving black community built their own little empire from the ground up in Detroit.

During the time of Paradise Valley’s demise, Detroit was being pushed and pulled in different directions. This was mainly due to rising tensions between black and white inhabitants. The tension eventually manifested itself in the 1967 race riots.

Janet Webster Jones at her bookstore, Source Booksellers.

“The ’67 uprising and civil disobedience were called a riot in the papers because people were behaving in a riotous way,” said Jones. “However, there was so much that preceded that.”

What Jones was referring to could be the decades of discrimination, police brutality, subpar social services and segregation faced by black Detroiters.

“When you have ineffective policies and programs, it causes the kind of destruction that Detroit experienced,” explained Jones. “Then you add in the race-class piece and you’ve got a problem.”

Despite the ever-visible repercussions of racism in Detroit, certain pivotal moments of the city’s history are often omitted from the conversation.

Many who weathered the turmoil that occurred in Detroit are still licking their wounds and were never able to make a full recovery.

“During the last 40 to 50 years since the ’67 riots, there are people who have lived here all along,” said Jones. “Some have lived hand to mouth; some have lived half-okay. People have made well with it but we had a whole country that regarded Detroit as a nothing; it was considered the worst place in the free world according to newspapers.”

However, today Detroit is redefining itself in hopes of earning back its title as one of the most thriving metropolitan centers in the nation and everyone wants to be a part of it.

A city reborn

In recent years, investors began pouring into the core of the city, buying up properties and opening businesses.

These properties include both blight and formerly occupied spaces.

Dr. Mark Wilson, a professor of urban planning at Michigan State University pointed out the importance of the types of properties that are being bought and sold.

“Are [buyers] taking over vacant buildings and fixing them? Or are they buying properties that are filled with renters that are then displaced?” he asked.

“If buildings are being fixed up the downside is not as great, but if people are being displaced then you have problems.”

In the case of Paradise Valley, families were displaced and the fear is that it will happen again to low-income, predominantly black Detroiters near Downtown and Midtown.

Maisie Rodriguez, a newcomer to Detroit feels her presence is contributing to the further displacement of Detroiters.

“What I’m thinking of is people being pushed out of the building that I live in. I don’t know if they shot up the prices for us in addition to all of the older residents,” she wondered. “Now they know one person can afford it so they assume others can pay it, too.”

Street view outside of Cass Collective in midtown, in a building that was formerly a part of the Motor City Match program.

Rodriguez was onto something. According to a data set from RentCafe, the rent in Detroit rose by 9.3 percent in just one year.

Detroit was also among the worst cities in terms of rent to income ratio, second to Hialeah, Florida. Detroiters pay an average 48 percent of their income on rent, according to RentCafe.

As the prices of rent and taxes rise, low-income residents are left with few options.

However, individuals who are able to afford the cost of living reap the many benefits of residing in Downtown Detroit and Midtown, including proximity to their workplaces, social events, museums and sports games.

Many of these newcomers are young professionals from the northern suburbs, many of which are white.

In 2015, Detroit saw an increase of over 8,000 white residents–the biggest increase since 1950, according to U.S. Census information. This number has steadily grown and will continue to grow, according to future estimates.

Nabeele Najjar, a 23-year-old college student living in the Boston-Edison District of Detroit, has noticed the changing social landscape around his home.

“There are more students moving in and I definitely see more white people,” said Najjar.

Najjar was born and raised on the east side of the city before moving to Boston-Edison five years ago.

A book on display at Source Booksellers in Midtown.

Similar to Rodriguez, he worried for low-income and predominantly black Detroiters being pushed out of the city.

Clifford Broman, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University and a Detroit native can attest to the class discrimination that comes with gentrification.

“[Gentrification] is a very difficult social issue because you need the economic revitalization in Detroit but on the other hand you’re forcing out poor people,” said Broman.

“If you don’t improve conditions so people of means want to live there it’ll never be revitalized but when you do that, you are going to drive out the poor.”

Changing demographics

Although it is too early to tell what the socioeconomic demographics of Detroit will look like in the future, long-gentrified places such as Harlem, Washington D.C. and Chicago give us an idea.

In D.C., there has been a dramatic shift in racial demographics.

Since 2000, the black population has decreased by 7.3 percent while the white population has increased by 17.8 percent, according to census data.

There were also noteworthy changes in income statistics.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 30 percent of D.C. residents made below $25,000. By 2014, that number shrunk to a little over 20 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of households making over $150,000 more than doubled.

As the rich arrive and the poor leave, where does that leave the middle class? In the case of D.C., it disappears.

The number of households making between $25,000 and $74,999 has dwindled considerably, leaving the region with a shrinking middle class.

Some will ask why wealth entering an underprivileged city is a negative thing.

New businesses mean more jobs for Detroit residents and with more suburban newcomers, the city receives more taxes for public services, right?

Sort of.

The wealth entering Detroit remains in the hands of the wealthy and concentrated downtown and midtown, with low-income inhabitants moving further from the city’s center.

This does not address poverty, it simply relocates it.

On the east side of Detroit, it is not uncommon for an entire block to contain only one home.

Although there is economic revitalization happening in the city, most jobs seem to be going to suburbanites rather than Detroiters.

According to a 2017 study, the number of suburbanites employed in Detroit has gone up by 17.7 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Detroiters employed in the city has dropped by 35 percent.

Many possible explanations have been cited for the disparities in employment, one of which is the lack of skills and education necessary to obtain the jobs moving to the city.

However, judging by the lack of improvement in Detroit’s public school system and social services, lifting low-income Detroiters from poverty and welcoming them to the “new Detroit” does not seem to be a priority for city officials.

Standardized test results for students within Detroit’s public school system are shockingly low and due to the influx of charter schools and open enrollment in suburban schools, city and state government does not feel pressured to improve DPS.

This was made even more evident in the 2016 lawsuit filed against Gov. Rick Snyder by seven Detroit schoolchildren who attend the poorest performing schools in the city and their families.

Nabeel Najjar having a drink at Northern Lights Lounge in New Center.

The lawsuit alleges that the state of Michigan has denied students the right to literacy due to the devastating condition of schools and lack of resources.

The lawsuit mentions three Detroit Public Schools and two charter schools in the city, both of which have closed down.

So, when people argue that jobs are coming into the city, many will remember the condition of the schools that are supposed to be educating Detroit’s children, who we hope will be filling incoming jobs.

Ongoing efforts

Detroit officials are not in an easy position when it comes to the rapid changes happening in the city. Many people are unsatisfied with the perceived lack of effort of the city to keep Detroit in the hands of those Detroiters who have stayed all these years.

However, there are many initiatives that have gone unnoticed and remained out of mainstream media.

Jill Ford, the special advisor of Mayor Mike Duggan and head of Detroit’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives, was asked about efforts to assist Detroit entrepreneurs to start their own business in the city.

Ford was enthusiastic when discussing the Motor City Match program which awards match grants to businesses that are starting or expanding in Detroit.

“Each quarter we make $500,000 of match grant funding available to entrepreneurs that will start or expand in vacant spaces in Detroit,” said Ford.

A business vendor at Cass Collective, working on his pieces.

“We have deployed about $4 million in grant funding and over 20 businesses that have opened throughout the city with help of this program.”

On the Motor City Match website, there is a map that shows available spaces for businesses to open throughout the city.

Many of these spaces are long abandoned buildings waiting to be brought back to life.

“People can come to Motor City Match to get help writing their business plan, to find the right space for their business … and also getting technical assistance dollars to help pay for getting the renovation done,” said Ford. “And they get a chance to compete for up to $100,000 of match grant funding.”

On its website, Motor City Match lists two program objectives: providing a benefit to low and moderate-income persons and removing slum or blight.

For building owners, there are also guidelines which include having a structurally sound roof and being free of outstanding blight, among others.

According to Ford, many longtime Detroiters are taking advantage of the Motor City Match program.

“You see … a lot of people who are native Detroiters, who have wanted to start a business,” she said. “And they found that through Motor City Match they have the opportunity to realize that dream and share it with the community.”

Another program through the Detroit Development Fund works to support entrepreneurs of color with loans for business owners who may lack sufficient collateral.

Merchandise on display from another vendor at Cass Collective.

On the website, a quote from Duggan is front and center that reads, “For Detroit’s comeback to be a true success, there must be opportunity for the Detroiters who stayed.”

Ford also listed different programs working to employ Detroit’s youth and to get them thinking about their futures, such as Grow Detroit’s Young Talent.

When asked about whether or not she feels that gentrification is happening in Detroit, Ford’s answer was vague.

“I think the best way to know what’s going on is to spend time going down there,” said Ford. “Get a chance to go to the coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques that are throughout the city.”

People like Janet Webster Jones and Maisie Rodriguez see the changes in Detroit every day.

Maybe that’s why they’re worried.

  • Saied Rouhani

    The greatest philosopher once said “…the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” I don’t think what’s going on in our country or in Detroit is any different.