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Two Detroits? Gentrification.

Mostly, gentrification has to do with displacement. Wealthier residents move into a community, changing property values and culture. The changes push out residents who have lived and invested for years and generations. Some believe gentrification is — by definition — violent, and, undoubtedly in some cities, gentrification has been ruthless. San Francisco, Harlem, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. are gentrifying places. African American neighborhoods, restaurants and the overall flavor have fundamentally changed, while the benefits — higher property values, better quality of life — don’t distribute equally. Gentrification is complex, contradictory and a very American process. In one infamous example, new residents wanted to end the drums in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. The Saturday night ritual began in 1969, around the time most cities — including Detroit — became mostly Black.

Lately, gentrification is a national conversation.

Yet, what will gentrification mean in Detroit? At worst, Detroit will be two cities. But the urgent conversation is how do we “hold” Detroit and make it a sustainable, equitable place to live.

Longtime Detroiter and entrepreneur Rufus Bartell of Simply Casual on Livernois says gentrification is random and planned. He believes the changes in Detroit are positive for African Americans, if planned. He urges people to think about convening a group of like-minded people to buy all the vacant houses on a block or otherwise “seize opportunity.” He says gentrification can be a “painful” discussion when we realize others have recognized value we don’t currently see. He also says we cannot be held back by lack of capital. He likens his own startup business to watching a man digging a hole. “Someone always pitches in,” he says.

Bartell is urging Detroiters to consider the city’s thoroughfares and the neighborhoods that anchor them. He favors “everything opposite of downtown and Midtown” and says Southwest Detroit and other areas that are building around culture are what we should model.  Detroit is underserved, according to Bartell.  “When people get to the end of their block, what kind of amenities would they like to see?”

Some will criticize this and assume people can only be victimized by gentrification, but Detroiters have to adopt the self-determination and economic development ethic rooted in Coleman Young’s 1970s Detroit.

In 2014, we must all prosper, move away from the sentimentality of lack, and force participation. Unlike Harlem, space is not scarce in Detroit. So, we should be looking at how development can reach the neighborhoods and how we get local people to own and control the development.

The businesses — many of them Black, small and/or underfunded — that have sustained the difficult times should become today’s inspiration and resource. The gentrifiers’ myth, though, is that nothing existed before. Detroit cannot adopt the old Christopher Columbus-model of gentrification. We need policy and resources that build equity, not recreate an urban trickle down scenario.

For those living in Detroit — newcomers or old timers — most would agree massive water shut offs, $45 parking tickets, rate hikes for DDOT riders, unconscionably high insurance rates, bureaucracy for small business owners are policy blunders and make Detroit an inhospitable place. There is an established pattern for gentrification, and we must do the opposite in Detroit.

As part of the Michigan Citizen’s ongoing State of Black Detroit discussions, the editorial board will pick up the topic of gentrification. “Two Detroits? Gentrification.” with panelists Phil Cooley, Lauren Hood, Khary WAE Frazier, Kirk Mayes and George N’Namdi will be held April 26, 8 a.m., at the Jam Handy. Limited seating. For tickets call 313.963.8282.


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