Kyser: Can the ‘new Detroit’ be inclusive?

Janice Hayes Kyser

I recently went back to the city where I grew up. Not the city of my childhood, but rather the place where I became an adult. The city and its inhabitants taught this girl from the Pacific Northwest the true meaning of grit, humility and perseverance. The Midwest town on the Eastern time zone, the birthplace of the auto industry and Motown, is where I lost my Northwest naivete and found my African-American heritage. I affectionately refer to Detroit as my Historically Black College. Because of my metamorphosis in the Motor City, Detroit has and always will hold a special place in my heart.

As my former colleague at The Detroit News took me and my teenage son around Detroit, I marveled at a once down-but-not-out city, now teeming with hope and renewal. Not the faux progress Detroit mustered for the Super Bowl, but real, meaningful change. The kind of progress me and fellow members of a group called New Detroit envisioned in the early 90s.

Before my eyes was a city where white sand and white people mingled with African-Americans at Campus Martius. Where white and Asian workers from Quicken Loans and Compaq exited the People Mover and streamed into the Riverfront Apartments I called home in the early 90s. When I lived in the hermetically sealed towers on the river staring at Canada my neighbors were almost exclusively African-American professionals. The apartments, some of which have been converted to pricey condos, are now 100 percent occupied. There is a waiting list filled by those anxious to inhabit a city they wouldn’t step foot in just a few years ago.

When I was in Detroit, the city languished, while the suburbs thrived. It was a tale of two cities, separate and unequal.

That is why I was heartened by symbols that are part of the fabric of many cities, but were glaringly absent from Detroit, construction crews, a Whole Foods, a Starbucks on every corner and a healthy mix of people from differing pay grades and zip codes. The urban Wayne State campus is no longer an island. It is now the center of a community bustling with the buoyancy of youth and curiosity.

While I was heartened by Detroit’s new post bankruptcy rhythm and complexion, I could not help but feel a tinge of sadness. No doubt this chocolate city is changing. For the first time in 40 years this majority black city has a white mayor. According to those who call Detroit home, the day after the election it was as if Eight Mile had eroded.

I couldn’t help but stare at white tourists taking pictures of Joe Louis’ fist, the steel sculpture at the base of Woodward that to many suburbanites symbolized violence, fear and misunderstanding. That was not its intent. The Robert Graham statue was created to show the power of Louis’ punch inside and outside of the ring as he fought Jim Crow laws.

Detroit’s demographic shift is not unique. I have witnessed it in Chicago and Los Angeles. It is the familiar tune of renovation, gentrification and displacement. I am not against progress, integration or urban renewal, but I am against pushing the people who made Detroit an iconic city across Eight Mile because they can no longer afford to live in their town.

Long touted as the Renaissance City, it seems Detroit is truly coming back. It is a long awaited return. One I have been rooting on from afar. The troubling question is, who will be there to celebrate when it arrives?

Janice Hayes Kyser is a former Detroit News reporter and editor.