Before time-honored patterns of economic and community vitality were destroyed by bad policy decisions, the character of its diverse and thriving neighborhoods largely defined Detroit.
Today, as painful as it may be to admit, many Detroit communities aren’t eligible for recovery, indeed survival, without a fresh commitment to repopulation opportunities. The foundation of Detroit’s existence hangs by a thread. Neighborhoods bear witness to signs of decline that once were unimaginable. Pre-bankruptcy blight also caused residents, then businesses to flee.
Paralyzing social ills also turned off those who once found Detroit livable and hospitable. Traditional institutions such as the family, schools, churches, social and civic organizations no longer coalesce around shared values or peace efforts.
Reversing the population hemorrhage requires an upgrade of the resident base. A promising revitalization trend in recent years is the process of gentrification — a movement of working-class, middle-class or the more affluent into the city.
Why would this genteel class opt for core city living? Many are employed in the central business district and Midtown Detroit. While some, particularly those with families, continue to commute from the suburbs, the young gentry taking jobs offered by emerging high-tech and established businesses like Quicken Loans, need a place to live near where they now work.
However, hyping the growth in these sectors in isolation from what’s happening in outlying areas of the city is an exercise in deception.
It will be near impossible for distressed neighborhoods to undergo gentrification while retaining their social/economic group identity. Many exhibit behaviors deemed “unacceptable” to the gentry. New entrants, and small businesses alike, can’t be expected to fully commit when lawlessness puts at considerable risk both lives and investment.
Out of necessity “market rate” housing may have to take precedence over “low-income” housing in impoverished communities. The “underclass” may also face displacement as home improvements increase property assessments and home values.
Radical improvements in the life prospects of children are a must. Currently, there is a general lack of faith and trust in the ability of the education establishment to provide anything resembling safe, creative schools. Education restructuring is vital to recovery.
Attitudes too will have to be adjusted. For too long, community leaders embraced the politics of race with an undercurrent that “whites” were poised to retake the city. Going forward, public policy must be about economic, not racial accommodation. But that won’t stop diehards from expressing resentment or defying changes made to the cityscape.
One thing is certain: The city’s acquiescence to the imperative of gentrification is non-negotiable. Detroit is in no position to dictate the terms of engagement.
Bill Johnson is a freelance journalist and runs the Bill Johnson Group, a consulting firm.