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Amid Detroit's Rebirth, Many African Americans Feel Left Behind

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 1/22/2020 Joseph P. Williams

DETROIT — Standing outside an upscale coffee shop in the city's Midtown district, Juan Elizondo eagerly confirms it: Everything you've heard about Detroit is true.

A freshly-brewed latte in hand, his salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a ponytail, Elizondo, 38, grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, then served overseas in the Army. When he left the military, he came back to Motown, "because there's definitely a spark here."

"There's been a rapid metamorphosis" from the bad old days, when Detroit was shorthand for urban decay and crime, says Elizondo, who works for a developer on a $7 million hotel project nearby. Exhibit A for the rebirth, he says: "It's right here, in Cass Corridor."

It's a stark change for Detroit – one driven by upscale white people like the customers sitting in the exposed-brick, art-covered confines of Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company.

An analysis from U.S. News & World Report, based on recently released U.S. Census data, shows Motown is the second-least racially diverse city of 300,000 or more. African Americans make up 80% of its 670,000 residents, one of the highest percentages of any city in the nation.

Yet as Detroit's fortunes are changing, so, too, is its racial composition. From 2010 to 2018, Detroit saw the biggest growth in racial diversity of any city analyzed by U.S. News, a trend fueled largely by an influx of white residents. Drawn to the Motor City by its anything-is-possible buzz, experts say, the newcomers stay because of below-average costs of living – particularly cheap housing – along with low business start-up costs and gritty Midwestern street cred.

But the gentrification that's driving Motown's urban-renaissance narrative, analysts say, is actually creating a tale of two Detroits.

A Tale of Two Motor Cities

The new, renaissance Detroit is a small oasis of redevelopment in the densely-populated city center, marked by chic made-in-Motown boutiques, farm-to-table restaurants, new construction, renovated housing and jobs – amenities that have drawn college-educated whites, young people and empty-nesters like a beacon. This population, experts say, gets the lion's share of limited city resources, including redevelopment dollars, police patrols and garbage pickup.

The other Detroit, however, is a complicated, majority-black, 139-square-mile metropolis grappling with crime, poverty and urban decay. Still fighting back from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, and the collective psychological trauma of a takeover by the state's white power structure, this part of Detroit hasn't seen much redevelopment or reinvestment, experts say, and probably won't in the near future.

While renaissance Detroit downtown is booming with retro diners, electric rideshare scooters and a streetcar line partially funded by billionaire Dan Gilbert, the other Detroit's close-knit neighborhoods of tidy brick homes rub shoulders with blocks of abandoned houses and vacant lots – part of an estimated 20 square miles of empty land within city limits. Residents here cope with blight, broken schools, a poverty rate several times the national average and a slow-moving middle-class exodus.

Yusef Shakur, an African American community activist and lifelong Detroiter, says there's an agenda behind the disparity: Monied interests, like Gilbert and the wealthy Ilitch family, founders of the Little Caesar's Pizza chain, want to reclaim and recolor the city.

"What it tells me is there's this narrative, and the narrative is of erasing black people," says Shakur, a fierce advocate for "the neighborhoods" – Motown-speak for the city's sprawling single-family residential areas established by blue-collar and professional-class families.

A former gang member-turned-community activist who's in constant motion even during a phone call, Shakur likened it to a game of Motown Monopoly, with billions of real-life investment dollars on the board. Players like Gilbert, co-founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers, the Ilitches and auto-industry royalty like the Ford family compete for control of desirable properties, like Midtown and the Cass Corridor, while down-at-the-heels, predominantly black areas like Brightmoor – where boarded-up homes seem to outnumber occupied ones – go wanting.

"Downtown is like Boardwalk. It looks good if you're there, but African American people don't feel welcome or invited to the party," he says, pointing to upscale establishments that anchor the area. While the neighborhoods are suffering, he says, billions of dollars are showered on the city center to build high-rise condos or entice new businesses catering to affluent whites.

The Brakeman/Penny Red's, a beer hall-chicken shack mashup, would seem to qualify. There, a fried chicken sandwich and a pint of local microbrew will set you back $25, about the same price as a sack or two of groceries, or perhaps a week of bus fare.

"I can go down there," Shakur says. "But can I afford it?"

To be clear, "We're not against development," Shakur says. "We're against development being imposed upon us" without having a say in what happens, or getting a fair share of the resources.

Set against the city's checkered racial history, the frustration of old-school Detroiters like Shukur stands out in sharp relief.

In its mid-century boom years as an American industrial powerhouse ("As General Motors goes, so goes the nation" was a popular catchphrase), Detroit was home to nearly 2 million people, including a burgeoning African American population. Descendants of refugees fleeing the poverty and violence of the Jim Crow South, black Detroiters left imprints on the city and the nation.

Sixties R&B deities Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Diana Ross all hail from greater Detroit; most of them recorded for Motown Records, the storied hometown label founded by native son Berry Gordy. The Motown Museum – aka Hitsville U.S.A. – and techno music, invented by black Detroiters in the 1980s, both draw international tourists.

Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a close friend and powerful ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil-rights icon Rosa Parks settled in Motown in 1957, fleeing death threats in her native Alabama. Detroit's signature public sculpture is the right fist of fabled heavyweight Joe Louis, part of the still-thriving Motor City boxing scene; The Champ's legendary knockout of German rival Max Schmeling in 1937 stunned Hitler's Nazi movement and struck a blow against American racism.

But black Motown's success came despite decades of segregation, destitution, political marginalization and heavy-handed police. In the summer of 1967, African American neighborhoods erupted after officers raided a speakeasy on 12th Street. Some 43 people died in the chaos, and anxious whites raced to the suburbs: From 1970 to 1980, Detroit's white population plunged, collapsing its municipal tax base. Over time, crime, failing schools, auto plant layoffs and foundry closings fueled a decades-long exodus.

Then, beginning around 2007-2008, triple body blows staggered the city: the Great Recession, the near-bankruptcy of the auto industry and the bursting of the U.S. real-estate bubble.

President George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, each sent billions of federal dollars to bail out struggling car manufacturers, but Detroit's vast housing market, heavy on single-family homes and awash with subprime or inflated mortgages, didn't get that kind of lifeline. Underwater homeowners who couldn't refinance simply walked away; criminals, arsonists and squatters filled the vacuum. Scrap-metal scavengers picked empty houses clean, adding to the decay.

Yet it was the stunning downfall of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a charismatic young politician and the third black man to hold the office, that put Detroit on the ropes.

In 2008, after a series of City Hall scandals – including a whistleblower lawsuit that ended with a $6.5 million judgment against the city – prosecutors indicted Kilpatrick for lying under oath and abusing his authority to cover up an extramarital affair with his chief of staff. The mayor pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, resigned from office and went to jail, but an even bigger bombshell was about to explode.

Federal investigators in 2010 charged Kilpatrick and members of his inner circle, including his father, with bid rigging, taking kickbacks and ordering shakedowns over city contracts while he was Motown's mayor. Officials said the crimes, including a failed billion-dollar Wall Street pension scheme, funded Kilpatrick's baller lifestyle and scuttled Detroit's already-shaky finances, accelerating its historic slide into bankruptcy.

The aftermath wasn't pretty. In 2013, the same year a federal judge sent Kilpatrick to prison for 28 years, Gov. Rick Snyder, a white Republican, forced the majority-black, fiercely Democratic city into state-managed receivership, a bitter pill many Detroiters still resent having to swallow.

With Detroit's public art collection up for sale to help pay its debts, a last-minute bailout plan, featuring contributions from wealthy philanthropists, helped City Hall balance the books. Still, austerity budgets hollowed out Detroit's police department, hobbled its schools, left snow-covered streets unplowed and garbage uncollected. And the population keeps tumbling.

Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost a quarter of its population, dropping it from from the 10th largest city in the country to the 18th, according to census data. Indeed, The New York Times reported that more people left Motown – 237,500 – than the 140,000 who fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, making the city smaller than Austin, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina.

These days, the city is on more stable financial ground – the municipal budget has been in the black for several consecutive years – and the flood of residential departures has slowed to a relative trickle. But city schools are still in bad shape, the Detroit Police Department has turned to closed-circuit TV cameras to augment a still-understaffed patrol force – with businesses footing part of the bill – and it's not hard to find abandoned property, even in up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Attracting high-salaried young newcomers who can stimulate the economy, build up the school-age population and fill city coffers with tax revenue is critical to Motown's recovery, says Jeffrey Horner, an urban planning professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. That seems to be the strategy of Mike Duggan, the city's first white mayor since 1974, but the areas that have benefited from it so far, Horner says, "are pretty small" for such an enormous city.

"You don't have to go very far to come into a lot of segregation and disinvestment," says Horner, noting that few whites have migrated past downtown to the far-reaching, hardest-hit neighborhoods. "They're moving back to these nice areas," like Corktown or the Cass Corridor near University of Detroit Mercy.

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based urban policy think tank, agrees, adding that at the same time there is "some outflow of African American families," particularly middle-income households. Black families that can afford it, he says, are leaving for better schools, lower taxes and more security – the same reasons whites fled the city in the 1960s and 1970s.

Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan professor of urban planning, housing and economic revitalization, says African American residents who held on through Motown's hard times tell her they feel excluded from the rebirth, especially in redone neighborhoods where, until recently, whites were rarely seen.

Gentrification "may not be pushing (black) people out, but making them feel like, 'This isn't my home anymore, and I don't feel comfortable here anymore,'" says Dewar, professor emerita at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. "It's not necessarily (rising) property values and higher rents. It's residents feeling like they no longer belong because young white people are coming to the neighborhood in much greater numbers."

Matthew Miller, who is African American, describes it as more of a paradox.

A lifelong Detroiter, tall, bespectacled with shoulder-length dreadlocks, Miller, 29, had stopped at UFO, a trendy hipster bar a few blocks from Corktown, for a Coney Island – a hot dog loaded with different toppings, a Motown specialty. In UFO, the options include house-made ketchup and vegan chili, $6 for a dog with the works. Establishing a retro theme, vintage Gumby claymation films and schlocky '60s sci-fi B-movies are projected on a wall.

The influx of whites "is happening under the guise of Detroit's rejuvenation – I think all of this is kind of driven by this 'white-savior complex' narrative they're pushing," says Miller. "It's good that parts of the city that were less than savory are being revamped. But unfortunately it's coming at the expense of people that have been here for a long time."

And yet, not long ago, "I did not want to go to downtown Detroit," says Miller, taking a bite of his hot dog. "There were too many bad things happening. Too many cars getting broken into. And now, to see (white) people – it shows how much things have changed for the better, in terms of safety, but then you have Henry the Hatter being displaced," he says, referring to a longtime, old-school haberdashery, popular with black residents, forced to make way for renovation.

Bottom line, says Miller: when it comes to the Motown Miracle, it's hard to separate race and capitalism. And that, he says, usually means a zero-sum game – whites advance as African Americans are left behind.

"This city has always been about race," he says. "But it's also about economics."

Copyright 2020 U.S. News & World Report


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