young, white, and in detroit: gentrification implications
Video from: Feministing – Detroit, Gentrification and Good-ass Political Hip-hop

“First-stage gentrifiers” are economically- and socially-marginal “trend setters”. Sociologically, these people are young and have low incomes while possessing the cultural capital (education and a job), characteristic of the suburban bourgeois. They often reside in communal (room-mate) households, and are more tolerant of the perceived evils of the city—crime, poor schools, insufficient public services, and few shops.

Am I a gentrifier? I’m young, educated, low-income, and living in a house with 3 other young people. Uh oh! Since moving to Detroit I have considered what socio-economic consequences I could have on the current population and cityscape. My fiance and I have had many discussions about gentrification and what it means for Detroit. The definition I will be using:

Gentrification denotes the socio-cultural changes in an area resulting from wealthier people buying housing property in a less prosperous community. Consequent to gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases in the community, which may result in the informal economic eviction of the lower-income residents, because of increased rents, house prices, and property taxes. This type of population change reduces industrial land use when it is redeveloped for commerce and housing. In addition, new businesses, catering to a more affluent base of consumers, tend to move into formerly blighted areas, further increasing the appeal to more affluent migrants and decreasing the accessibility to less wealthy natives.

I live in the University District, which like most of Detroit is now a majority black community, but that wasn’t always the case. The District has a long history from farmland to annexation with the city, to development as a model community where, “homes could never be sold to or used by persons other than ‘of white or Caucasian race.'” Following the riots of 1967 and full blown white flight to suburban areas, black families began moving into the neighborhood. I live in a home who’s family has a long history of living in the area, contributing to the community, and working with the labor movement.

Being a gentrifier in Detroit has a serious implication when tied to the city’s past. That implication is born of the history of racial segregation and violence in the city of Detroit and the Detroit metro area. Public policy and popular perception of black people systematically marginalized and segregated populations based on race. The extended outcome of those causes can be seen with Michigan’s “blackest” city: Detroit residing a stone’s throw away from its “whitest” city: Livonia. Because of this historical disenfranchisement of the black community in Detroit, gentrification is all that much more a hard topic in a city facing difficult economic development.

Young Detroit

Recently NPR carried a story from Model D, an online news magazine that seeks to create a new narrative for Detroit (they also wrote about gentrification in 2005). The story was about a Detroit neighborhood soccer (futbol) league. Initially I thought it was incredible, but then realized that this was a snapshot of the growing gentrification of Detroit as I noticed in the video that nearly all of the participants were young and white. Many were there for the excitement of working in Detroit for non-profits and other social ventures. A band of “first-stage” gentrifiers? On the flipside how is Detroit supposed to innovate and grow without an influx of young and creative people? How can Detroit bring in excited youth, who are often white and more established, without fueling gentrification or the continued disenfranchisement of the majority black population?

Gentrification is happening mostly in areas around Wayne State University, the historic Corktown neighborhood, and neighborhoods near the Riverfront. The argument that these empty places in Detroit aren’t displacing anyone lacks a long-term vision. The city is beginning to see an increase in the number of “first-stage” gentrifiers and simply what follows is a second and third stage where eventually the first and second stage gentrifiers are displaced themselves by lawyers, physicians, and bankers. While all stages of gentrifiers are displacing the “native” populations of these areas by way of their socio-economic power. Is gentrification a natural fluctuation of the urban landscape? Can gentrification do any good?

Is Gentrification Growth?

No, if you look at the face value of gentrification and its broad economic impact, then sure gentrification is growth. However, when you factor in community and the effects on people – gentrification never equals growth, rather displacement.

Nothing good can come of gentrification. There is a minimal increase in tax dollars being sent to the city government, but that has little impact when (for now) the business dollars are being invested and collected in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. Communities don’t grow and get stronger, communities are changed by economic force through gentrification.

Looking Forward

The important step for Detroit now is to strengthen its community organizations and engage would be gentrifiers to support neighborhood development. Downtown redevelopment only benefits those with social mobility and that is not the majority of the Detroit population. Detroit’s black community has seen years of oppression and gentrifiers come in with a load of unearned privilege and resources.

First-stage gentrifiers (young, white, educated) can change the course for Detroit and instead work to be “allies in development” – partnering for stronger community organizations in black communities and actively engaging in local community efforts: shopping locally, attending block club meetings, and utilizing their privilege to highlight the progress that has been happening by native Detroiters as opposed to outsiders coming in with grand ideas for development.

If Detroit (and Michigan) is going to make it there can no longer be a black and white divide. There needs to be engagement from both populations where black communities have strong neighborhoods and white migrants recognize their privilege and work to assist community development that is already getting started. Get to know your neighbors and community, don’t create enclaves of white privilege, and support your community leaders!

“Detroit’s future is its neighborhoods” – Reframe Detroit

6 thoughts on “young, white, and in detroit: gentrification implications

  1. Thank you for your comments on gentrification. I am a white activist with the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, white people in solidarity with the black Uhuru Movement based in the US, Europe and Africa.Yes, gentrification is one more way white people make money at the expense of black people. Gentrification goes hand in hand with the heavy-handed police containment policies responsible for police murders and the massive imprisonment rates in black neighborhoods.We support the Uhuru Movement's demands for genuine economic development for the African community and an end to police containment.For more info, see uhurunews.comPenny

  2. It’s already happening in Cincinnati’s Over The Rhine for some time now. It’s become cool. I want to say, that Cincinnati is taking major steps to make OTR inclusive, not exclusive. Interesting to walk by a property that is being renovated then hear from your friend that it is not a condo, but section 8 housing, next to a condo. There was no real local economy in OTR that I would actually need anything from, besides maybe a bodega and Finday Market. Now we have many new things to pick from, however I cannot afford to dine out at most of the restraunts or shop at any of the boutiques. I feel it is demeaning to generalize my peers and I as just “Young, white and rich with a load of unearned privilege and resources.” As if to say my parents pay for everything, they pay for nothing. Most of my friends are in same boat as I. I wish Detroit the best in figuring itself out.

  3. Wow. Twenty years ago, and living in Portland, Oregon, I could have been you! I was part of a first-stage gentrifier (unknown to me at the time, of course) that moved into a city in the throes of ” transformation”. By the time I left in 2002, just after a chi-chi French furniture store had opened, catering to the upper middle class, I left. It was no longer the place it was. If somebody had told me that a historically black neighborhood in Portland would also be gentrified (now ongoing) I would have laughed out loud, since that would go against everything Portland residents preach about “diversity” and “race”. However, these golden narratives are little more than a smokescreen for people going into neighborhoods and making a lot if money, while displacing people. Basically, it’s all bullshit, concealing a money-making agenda. Nothing more. The friends I had in Portland, are some of the most insufferable snobs now, all because they “invested” in their city. And after all was said and done, Portland is now 75 per cent white! How’s that for diversity?

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