Frost: Detroit’s growth must be inclusive

Bradford Frost

Decades from now, 2015 could be remembered as Detroit’s pivot toward inclusive growth. The exit from bankruptcy should prove the ultimate nail in Detroit’s six decades of decline. And with it, 2015 provides the unique opportunity to finally shift Detroit from a past tense to a future tense city: a Detroit with greater promise than past glory.

Yet, instead of embracing this transformative moment, we seem to be caught up in a new language of division that pits Detroit against itself, and makes the nascent success in revitalizing the greater downtown a lightning rod of distrust. Instead of seeing these developments as the dominoes toward harvesting Detroit’s long term potential, we’re cleaving by the expectation that something good for part of the city must mean something bad for the rest of it.

Not without its merits, this argument hoists Detroit’s egregious structural and intergenerational poverty, the persistent opportunity disparities for low-income residents, and the severe blight, joblessness and crime across the city as proof-positive for a sharp zero-sum disposition where a dollar invested anywhere is immediately suspect. And yet, instead of seeing how job-rich places with greater density and new residents breed life and broaden opportunity in Detroit, we find ourselves breeding further discord.

Of course, the central issue here is race. Race (and, often, the intersection of race and poverty) is the psychic wedge underlying cries against anything “new Detroit” and the guiding anxiety when disproportionate numbers of white residents (like me) are profiled as the principal beneficiaries of Detroit’s revitalization.

Take Midtown, the bellwether of Detroit’s momentum rising story. Midtown’s 35 percent poverty rate actually exceeds the city’s overall poverty rate, at 33 percent; the district also suffered a net population loss of 25 percent since 2000, and, at last count, still had 18 percent structural vacancy.

Meanwhile, since 2000, Midtown has been able to attract over $1B in new investment, placed over 45 new businesses since 2010, and annually achieves 97-99 percent occupancy rates of its redeveloped housing stock. Over the same time, Midtown’s share of upwardly mobile and, yes, white residents has certainly increased, but not enough to stem the dual tides of persistent high poverty and net-population decline.

So, while race and poverty are central to discussions about Detroit’s redevelopment process, Detroit’s challenge in Midtown and elsewhere is categorically not “gentrification.”

Arguments on this front are really just coded debates about Detroit’s identity — whose claim on “Detroit” is sincere enough, raw enough or pure enough? These emotional turf battles are, at best, legitimate exchanges about the soul of the city as it changes and, as often, the hostile response to the commercialization and commodification of the one thing many of us thought wasn’t for sale: Detroit’s grit and authenticity. But, whatever the “gentrification” or “greater downtown vs. neighborhoods” debates reveal about our city’s current state, they equally obscure the central issue in my mind.

I’ll name it: Any holistic review of Detroit’s revitalization efforts in 2015 and beyond that somehow seeks to improve the city without bridging Detroit’s alarming race and equity chasm is a colossal waste of our precious time.

Only time will tell, but let’s embrace this challenge wholesale. Let’s shift from Detroit’s divisive bunker mentality and pivot towards a collective mobilization for the city’s inclusive growth story.

Inclusive growth starts by arguing for strategic investments into job-rich and high-density centers that connect Detroiters across the city to genuine economic mobility pathways. Attending to specific equity and inclusion metrics along that development process, including affordable housing policies, integrated workforce strategies, and compassionate responses to any displacement outcomes, would not eliminate but could ameliorate the hostile suspicion that Detroit’s revitalization process is predetermined. It also means Detroit must both welcome all newcomers and work diligently to provide low-income and disadvantaged residents equal access to quality homes, safe and vibrant districts, good jobs and worthwhile educational supports.

This tale of “two Detroits,” just within Midtown, is instructive of the fragile dynamics of encouraging inclusive growth moving forward. Midtown Inc., the economic development agency of the district, shepherds this process by working tirelessly to preserve 30 percent of the housing stock for low-income residents, and engages in significant local-hiring partnerships with new businesses and advocates for clean, safe and vibrant neighborhood amenities. Is it enough? Perhaps, but it’s a worthy start toward outlining the model for Detroit’s inclusive growth trajectory.

Detroit’s 60 years of decline can’t be remade in a single pivot to the future. But what’s most likely to hamper Detroit’s next chapter is an insular fight we can avoid. In my 10 years here, everyone I’ve met working to revitalize Detroit aspires to do so while securing meaningful progress tied to the race and class disparities that have dogged this city for too long.

Detroit has a unique opportunity to redevelop with racial equity and inclusion as the centerpiece to our story. It’s a process. It will take time. In 2015 we must commit to harvesting tangible pathways for all residents to share equally in Detroit’s promise. While we can’t achieve those aims by handcuffing every investor or entrepreneur to unobtainable standards, we can align our efforts towards these mutually reinforcing objectives through intentional programs, incentives and creative financing tools to forge Detroit’s revitalization across a wider mix of the city’s diverse population and neighborhoods.

Inclusive growth must be central to Detroit’s future prosperity. Residents across Southeast Michigan must pivot to that narrative, nurture and embrace it. Let’s start Detroit’s next chapter with an inclusive growth agenda — one that welcomes all who choose to build here while concretely bridging the racial equity divides that have hampered other cities’ efforts to meaningfully renew. If we attend to these complementary aims, Detroiters will proudly look back and note that the city didn’t squander this historic moment by recreating past divisions but instead pivoted forward, inclusively toward our shared future.

Bradford Frost is director of the Detroit Corridor Initiative.