I spent Saturday morning helping to plant trees with some coworkers in Detroit, and as it just so happened, the Greening of Detroit assigned us to work on the same street where my wife and I used to live.
It had been years since I had spent any real time back in the old neighborhood, and it showed me in subtle ways how much the city is changing.
Back then, we rented a beautiful 100-year-old house full of restored, original wood floors, trim and moldings and a big backyard where I grew vegetables and we enjoyed fires year-round in the chiminea using wood I foraged from vacant lots.
Those were happy, relatively stress-free years, before the mortgage and kids and financial pressures of adulthood. The city back then was experiencing flickers of a comeback, though nothing like what it’s seeing today. Kwame Kilpatrick was serving his first term in office, and crime was always a reality, though usually a low-level buzz in the background.
But the economy was worsening, and by the time we decided to leave the city to buy a home, every one of our immediate neighbors had been victimized by crime. Mostly it was break-ins, but our next-door neighbor one day answered a knock at the door to find a man pointing a gun in her face; the assailant then cleaned out her home of most of its valuables. My wife and I began to feel like sitting ducks, and in the end, we left for the same reasons every else does.
So on Saturday I paid extra attention to the surroundings to see what had changed. Mostly, things look the same.
A big apartment building down the street is now gone, having succumbed to arson at some point, and a couple of the old Cass Corridor artist residents had passed away. A couple who live a few blocks over, and who were friends with our landlords, have taken over one of the deceased artist’s homes and are fixing it up as their own studio space and renting the upper unit on Airbnb. A blighted multi-unit house on the far end of the street that once seemed destined for demolition has been restored.
Some of the other changes revealed themselves more gradually. As the late October air warmed to almost 70 degrees and the street came to life, I realized there were several young white women now calling the neighborhood home. And I saw some people — again, young and white — riding bikes or out for a late-morning run along the bike lanes that have since been added.
Anyone who’s been around Detroit long enough knows the feeling of disorientation. It happens a lot nowadays.
It’s when you’re sitting outside on the patio of a bar on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit and you suddenly realize that not only is the once-barren street now full of people, it’s full of white people. Or it’s when you walk along Canfield Street and see well-coifed people wearing expensive brand-name clothes walking out of the Shinola store toting fancy shopping bags.
It stands apart from everything you thought you knew about Detroit.
For me, it happened later Saturday, when I stopped to run an errand at a store in
the Cass Corridor Midtown. While there, I ran into the owner, who told me he was looking for a new location for his store. The rent has become prohibitive, he said, and his taxes have risen by well over 200 percent. Some longtime businesses in the neighborhood, he mused, will probably be closing.
Later, a friend told me that houses in his Detroit neighborhood were selling for upwards of $350,000 in private sales. “It’s all out of town money,” he explained. “This isn’t people moving from the suburbs to Detroit, it’s people moving from San Francisco and Chicago and New York to Detroit.”
Is this sudden influx of young white people a good or bad thing? The answer is hardly cut-and-dry. But it’s jarring when set against Detroit’s entrenched patterns of economic decline and white flight. And like Nolan Finley, I worry about what it means for the city’s soul when you walk into a Detroit restaurant and you feel like you could be in downtown Birmingham for all the well-heeled white people in attendance.
Detroit, after all, is the quintessential Chocolate City. A place that is more than four-fifths black and where nearly 40 percent of residents live in poverty. The place has had a tortured history to say the least when it comes to race relations.
One of the things I loved about living there was how eye-opening it was to live in a place where I was a minority, to walk into a bar filled with people of different colors than me. I never felt threatened. For the most part, Detroiters are down to earth, friendly and real in a way they aren’t in the suburbs. (Back then I worked deep in Oakland County and felt a tangible sense of relief whenever I crossed back below 8 Mile.)
On balance, Detroit remains a desperately poor, blighted and violent city. It badly needs more investment and more residents, and it needs to diversify racially — which, yes, means attracting more white people, among other racial groups.
The worry is that in rebuilding, we end up repeating the same mistakes of the past, walling ourselves off from one another and separating into communities of unequal opportunity.