I never meant to end up in Detroit. I’d always assumed that, after graduating college in the early 1990s, I’d leave Michigan for San Francisco, or at least Chicago, someplace dense and walkable, with decent public transit. But Detroit is where I got a job, so Detroit is where I went. When I first started working in the city, I moved in with a friend in a sterile apartment complex in a northern suburb. For the next few years, I made my way through a series of flats in marginally hip inner-ring suburbs, searching for a semblance of the environment I craved. And the more time I spent in Detroit, the more I grew to love it.
Yes, the city spans 139 square miles, made up predominantly of single-family homes. It has wide, radial streets that feel more like highways (and are—Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, is Michigan’s Highway 1). Its population has dropped precipitously, from a peak of nearly 2 million in the 1950s to just over 1 million in 1990, and only 670,000 today. The auto companies that made their fortunes off the city have largely abandoned it, leaving swaths of vacancy and poverty in their wake. But as empty buildings and wide-open fields drew flyover photographers, theorists, and ruin porn purveyors, I came to learn that what lay beyond the lens was a city rife with history, creativity and a sense of community I have known nowhere else but the small mid-Michigan town where I was raised. Eventually, I moved to the Cass Corridor (later rebranded Midtown)—though bisected by Woodward Avenue, it’s still the most walkable neighborhood in the city—and more and more, Detroit became home.
Still, in 2002 I left to pursue my San Francisco dream. But by then, Detroit had taken hold. I kept searching for a similar sense of connectedness in the Bay Area, but never found it. So, in 2014, I returned home. By this time, Detroit—or, more accurately, parts of Detroit—were enjoying a much-publicized upswing as it emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. This transformation was mostly confined to downtown and the neighborhoods near it, and largely due to the investment of home-grown mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and his Quicken companies, which relocated from the suburbs in 2010. The socialist in me finds Gilbert’s fiefdom abhorrent. The realist in me feels more conflicted. Because if not Gilbert, then who?
It would be difficult to describe the level of disinvestment downtown before his arrival. I can tell you that for several years in the 1990s I worked in the Albert Kahn–designed First National Building, which Gilbert now owns, and was thrilled when a Subway opened in the back of the half-vacant ground floor. It was a sorry replacement for Star Drugs, the pharmacy and lunch counter that had occupied the front of the building my first couple of years there, but it was something. Today, Star Drugs is a Shake Shack. The Bank of America where I routinely incurred overdraft fees is one of the city’s multiple single-moniker farm-to-table restaurants (Marrow? Republic? I honestly can’t remember.) Next door to that is a coffee roaster. In the back of the building is a hair salon. Personally, I don’t have much use for most of these new amenities—I live walking distance from downtown and rarely go there. But many others do.
Before the pandemic, downtown’s commercial vacancy rates were at their lowest in decades, long-empty prewar skyscrapers were being redeveloped as offices, boutique hotels, and lofts, and a host of new restaurants and bars kept the area bustling late into the night; what Covid recovery looks like remains to be seen. There are key developments that pre-date Quicken’s move, too. Campus Martius, near the foot of Woodward Avenue—a green space in the 19th century, but mostly asphalt in the 20th—has been restored to a spectacular mid-boulevard park. A riverfront once used primarily for surface parking and cement plants has been reclaimed for a 3.5-mile RiverWalk. The Dequindre Cut, an old commuter rail spur, has become a nearly 2-mile walking and biking trail connecting the city’s public market to the waterfront. In a city that sorely lacks spaces where people can mingle across age, race, culture, and class (our public transit system is bifurcated and broken), the RiverWalk and the Dequindre Cut are two of the best things to happen to Detroit. Every time I’m there, which is often (the Dequindre Cut is outside my front door), I rejoice at the energy and diversity I see in a city that was just named the most segregated in the U.S.
But the injustices inherent in all this redevelopment are stark and troubling. Just as I moved back, low-income seniors were being forced to leave high-rises where they had lived for decades as the buildings were turned into high-end residences for Gilbert’s millennial workforce. Longtime, predominantly Black-owned businesses that had stayed loyal to the city were now priced out or evicted to make way for chain stores, fancy restaurants, and WeWork. And the playing field isn’t even close to level. Gilbert has been given massive tax breaks unavailable to anyone else, quite literally: a new state incentive has been awarded to only four properties to date, all his. (Though, to be fair, the Ilitch family, downtown Detroit’s other real estate scions, have been handed massive tax breaks for their two stadiums and a host of other projects, and delivered laughably less than Gilbert has.)
“Do you think Detroit will gentrify the way San Francisco has?” a friend asked me not long before I left the Bay Area. “The city is so big, I don’t see how it can,” I naively answered. I hadn’t grasped then the size of Gilbert’s empire nor the degree to which he had been given carte blanche to redevelop Detroit in his own image. Nor was I considering “psychological gentrification,” a term coined by Detroit gallerist George N’namdi to capture exactly what is, indeed, happening here. “You go into places, you’re not seeing yourself as often. The different types of business that may be coming in, they may not be catering to you. I think that’s what you can kind of see,” N’namdi told Detroit’s Metro Times in 2014, speaking about a city where nearly 80 percent of the residents are African American.
I am white and not a native Detroiter, but I witness and experience this, too. When people ask me what’s different about Detroit now, there’s one thing that stands out more than any other: When I pass people on the street, I can tell, with frightening accuracy, who will—and who will not—look me in the eye and say hello. I didn’t even know how reflexive this exchange was until I started encountering people who didn’t comply. Detroit is, at its core, a Southern city, which comports perfectly for someone raised in a small town. “Don’t they know the code?” I always think to myself. But they don’t. They haven’t bothered to learn.
When I first moved back to Detroit, I inherited my parents’ standard poodle, Max. Max pranced, rather than walked, so because of him—and because of Detroit—we made friends everywhere we went. Children would run up and ask, “Can I rub him?” Groups of young men would break their swagger and ask to take photographs with him. In one of my favorite encounters, just as we were nearing home after a Sunday morning outing, two SUVs pulled to the curb. “What kind of dog is that?” a man in the first SUV called to me. “A standard poodle,” I answered. He leaned out the window. “It’s a standard poodle!” he yelled to the woman driving the SUV behind him. “I know!” she yelled back, annoyed.
I only had one uncomfortable encounter in the four years I had Max. We were walking on the RiverWalk on one of the first warm days of spring. People were everywhere—families, clusters of kids, runners and cyclists, couples of all ages. Suddenly, a small, off-leash dog ran up to us. The dog’s owner, a young, white guy, came running up, and I was poised for a brief, friendly exchange. But the guy had a second, larger dog on a leash, and that dog lunged at Max, who backed away, shaking. “My bad,” the guy said, and I screamed at him with a fury that shocked me, telling him he had no business being down there. I’ve always thought that my outburst was a result of being protective of my dog. But in retrospect, I realize that I was also enraged by the guy’s arrogance (“my bad” does not equal “I’m sorry”)—and the arrogance of all the newcomers who never think about the implications of their presence here.
We have a choice in Detroit right now. We do not have to give in to the arrogance. More than $800 million dollars in federal Rescue Plan dollars are headed our way (so, if not a corporate oligarch, our federal government, a much better proposition). The Mayor’s Office recently held a series of hearings to learn about residents’ priorities for the funds. Home repair grants, restitution for residents whose homes were overassessed, recreation centers and libraries, and a universal basic income pilot were all put forward. But it turned out the city had set its own priorities prior to these meetings. While some of the neighborhood priorities did make the cut, albeit in amounts smaller than many advocated for, almost half the funds are still earmarked for filling budget shortfalls. Another significant chunk is going toward blight removal, a signature project of Mayor Mike Duggan’s that has garnered an FBI investigation. And now, after epic flooding that decimated homes and shut down every major freeway, observers are noting that updating our woefully aging infrastructure is nowhere on the list. That residents were listened to at all feels like progress, I suppose. But Detroiters have had to settle for far too long.
The story of my confrontation on the riverfront does not end with me scolding a newcomer. As the guy turned away, three teenagers came walking over. “What happened?” they asked. “Are you OK?” Even though they were kids, this was not terribly surprising. Looking out is what Detroiters do. And that is when things will be truly different in Detroit: when the city takes care of Detroiters the same way we take care of one another. ##
I was fortunate, while writing this essay, to come across Marsha Music’s 2015 poem “Just Say Hi (The Gentrification Blues),” which helped clarify some long-germinating thoughts. George N’namdi’s interview on “psychological gentrification,” which I return to frequently, is here.
Featured image: In true Detroit fashion, the transformed alleyway known as The Belt abuts a parking garage, which also features internationally known muralists and street artists across its 10 stories. Both were developed by mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert in partnership with a new downtown gallery. Not seen here is Gilbert’s highly visible private security team nor the approximately 500 surveillance cameras he has installed across downtown. All photos by the author.