Finley: More on the Two Detroits

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column asking where were the black people in downtown Detroit.

My observation was that downtown's restaurants and bars — as well as its office spaces and lofts — had a mostly white clientele, and that two Detroits were emerging, one white and hopeful and dominant downtown, and the other black and desperate, trapped in deteriorating neighborhoods.

I worried about the resentment those conditions would breed, and suggested we might want to do more to encourage African-American participation.

Few things I've written over the past 14 years have generated as much reaction.

Some readers, both black and white, were angry, chiding me for injecting the racial divide into the positive narrative of Detroit's rebirth, and saying I was seeing only what I wanted to see.

A Chicagoan who did some work for The News last fall e-mailed that he'd noticed the same thing while he was here, and couldn't figure out why. That was a common response.

From the young, white professionals who are doing such great things in downtown, Midtown and Corktown, I got a strong sense that they were tired of being told they don't belong.

The most vocal reaction was from African-Americans who felt they were being ignored in their own city, pushed out, not welcome. If anyone doubts that resentment is building in this community, read the comments attached to the column.

Some blamed the media for focusing too much on the newcomers and looking past the long-established black-owned businesses downtown. That's a fair point.

Others complained that the folks loaning money for start-ups in Detroit — the venture capital funds and banks — are almost exclusively white, and thus less likely to lend to blacks. The day my column ran, there was a story in the newspaper about a new investment firm forming to support entrepreneurs in Detroit; all four of the executives pictured were white. Common sense would suggest in a city with Detroit's demographics, investors would want more input from African-Americans.

One of the more revelatory conversations was with the head of a downtown accounting firm, who said only about 1 percent of certified public accountants are African-American. So financial firms, the staple of downtowns, are hard-pressed to assemble a representative workforce.

You can't hire employees who don't exist.

Skill training and education were common themes of those who approached the issue from a solutions-oriented viewpoint. Decades of a failed education system in Detroit have left too much of the population unprepared to take the jobs being created by downtown's new high-tech and financial firms.

Those workers are increasingly choosing to live downtown, and too few of them are black. We can keep fighting about how to fix the schools, or we can finally fix them.

There's not an easy answer or a quick fix. But the worst thing we can do is pretend this new strain of segregation in Detroit is not something we should think about.