young, white, and in detroit: gentrification implications

http://current.com/e/88996181/en_US
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

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detroit is gotham without a batman

batman_truck

Michigan’s “third” world city, as it is often referred to, is a place where community stands out over commerce. It is best known as a place you would not want to visit and best recognized (on the big screen) through scenes of armageddon and the end of the world as opposed to its architectural prowess; qualified as “the nation’s finest.” Since the race riots of 1967, and earlier, the city has never been able to recover its image. Continually in movies and the news Detroit is marked as a pit of a city resembling in some parts a war torn city where bombs have reduced neighborhoods to rubble. Where is this gothic city’s batman? How is it that Detroit matches the “third” world?

I will answer the second question first.

Since August I’ve been living and working in Detroit focusing on youth empowerment and community service/ engagement. What I have seen has been this common image of a destroyed Detroit, but I have also had the privilege of seeing some of the incredible initiatives launched by the communities and people of Detroit. I have to disagree with the many who would say Detroit is “third” worldly. The majority of its population may fall far below the poverty line, but it is absurd to describe the city as a “third” world.

The recent Time Warner “Assignment Detroit” journalists “embedded” in the city have taken to writing similarly scathing articles of Detroit and have perpetuated the destroyed image of Detroit. Example from the New York Times: Ruin with a View. There are a few organizations attempting to recover and reclaim the image of Detroit from these corporate story weavers, notably Inside Detroit tasked with getting more people to know about Detroit: “they know it, they love it.”

Many people that I have worked with talk about the similarities between the developing “third” world and Detroit. Poverty has many similarities and often looks the same from the outside, but poverty has many stories and the circumstances are never the same. My friend Cory recently described what is and has been happening in Detroit as a man-made disaster. I couldn’t agree more. It is no hurricane, flood, or earthquake, but definitely comparable: from rapid industrialization, capitalism, racial tensions and white flight to relying on a solitary automobile industry, even the long running political climate in Detroit has been a contributing factor. “Third” world is just another negative descriptor for the city and an attempt to glamorize the city’s economic decline.

Stay tuned for the my answer to the first question this week (to be continued. . .)

* Note: I am not really giving “answers,” but my thoughts based on learning about and being located in Detroit over the past year. I wouldn’t dream of giving Detroit answers after just one year.

why are there no doctors?


(photo: empty waiting room at Zonke Clinic 2, no doctor)

Over the past 8 years Africa, international development, and health care have been the focus of my work and studies. Just last year (it’s been a year already?) I completed an internship in South Africa at a center for children and youth affected by HIV/AIDS called VVOCF (Vumundzuku-bya Vana ‘Our Children’s Future’). The internship was a completion of my ‘field experience’ requirement for my International Relations major at James Madison College and was supported by the Young People For internship program. The paper that I wrote as an investigation, analysis, and report has been by far my most rewarding piece of academic work, but also my most depressing.

To work with a community on difficult issues is one thing. To witness harsh realities while working within that community is another. But to know the historical and present reasons behind those issues and harsh realities is yet another – and it is painful only be able to watch. Sure you could argue that I and others spent time working with the community at VVOCF, but in truth all we can do as outsiders is watch. We will never live long-term in the community and we will never fully understand the issues that we study and claim to know so well.

My blogging well in South Africa took a hit because of the lack of internet access and since then has been limited to posts of some of my academic papers for classes. What will follow this post will be a series of posts copied and pasted from my final, field experience paper. I hope that it can be a resource for others. I also hope that it is a deeper look into an issue faced by a community with plenty of room for further research, learning and understanding.

There will be roughly a dozen posts on the health care system in South Africa: effects of apartheid, impacts of HIV/AIDS, issues in Zonkizizwe specifically, and conclusions. Be sure to check back later today for the first post.

community organizing as an outsider

Previous posting and following day’s entries: eruptions from fault lines: race is class

19 May 2008

Nothing seems weird to me (as many might think it should). As I look out across the settlement, across rows of RDP housing and sheet metal ‘peoples’ housing, across the open hazy sky dotted by tall, almost prison-like lights, across a silence broken only by crickets, the occasional rooster and the fighting dogs – nothing seems odd or out of place. Nothing screams at me, “you should not be here!” Yet again I feel “at home” in an African community abroad, and I can’t help but ponder, why? Is my family and home so bad? Is the USA so undesirable? Is there a welcoming atmosphere here that I am overtaken? The question remains unanswered, but will gain an answer as I open dialogue with my family when I return.

the dilemma of organizing
The difficulties of community organizing as an American ‘developed’ worlder: when is it ok to step in on community decision making? when is it ok to correct obvious, but mis-taught information – and how do you approach the correcting process? when is ti too over-reaching to make suggestions and execute programs? Evaluate!

We went to the library today – very nicely built, small inside, very slow internet, very very slow. . .

Vumundzuku-bya Vana ‘Our Children’s Future’
the children are the future and they are the only ones to hold the key, but there are many needed, required, to fashion such a key that will unlock the great, looming, double oak doors of the positive future if nothing else than there is love and those who pass will know the love of their friends, family, and community, but there is a greater purpose and potential here, one that cannot pass unmolded, the challenges are many, the obstacles great but no challenge is insurmountable without a helping hand, the hands in need are many – the hands held too few.

agency in community development

Previous entry: a first glimpse: zonke

13 May 2008

South Africa is much the same and different as many African countries that I have visited. Same in the sense of the smell of burning oil and gasoline, shipping containers as buildings, the red dirt, the friendly people, passenger vans as taxis, crazy driving, dogs for security, chickens and goats roaming everywhere, and the seemingly common practice of taking things as they come. The differences and nuances come in the country’s history – white minority oppressive rule. White people are not unheard of in this area of Africa and South Africa specifically – uncommon, but not unseen. You get a sense that you are always being watched, but in a different way than what may be experienced in other African countries without such a history. It is more of a, “why are you here” look instead of the, “oh! You are white.” The history of white oppression and the current issue of white organizations taking away from the communities makes the dynamic similar in skepticism, but different in why.

Today there was a meeting of the parents and guardians of the children at the center. I was not surprised to see that the majority of the guardians in attendance were women. The meeting was excellent in that it is incorporating the families and parents with the work of the center, since everyone is working towards the same goal – the children’s future. ‘China’ and another man [Mr. Ndaba] came today – they both work for the Library system and are self-proclaimed educators. For the success of the center it is also vital for the teachers to be interested and involved in the activities of the center. Parents, guardians, librarians, educators, teachers – the center requires a community coalition invested in the children’s future if it is to be a success as well as a strong positive for the future of the community.

In a sense community development has been hindered by the negation of education. Bantu education Acts left the black majority behind and now its effects perpetuate into inadequate schools in remote informal settlements and townships.

We had a tour of Zonkizizwe. There are 2 clinics for the 6 zones of Zonkizizwe Proper. Health services are free, provided by the government and are much used by the residents. I hope to be able to closer look at the health impacts of development and education in Zonke. It seems a pressing issue for many families and children is nutrition [malnutrition] and access to food. I have not yet been able to tell the extent of HIV/AIDS in Zonke, but that will be essential to understanding health and development in South Africa.

As much of what I have seen in African communities there is an incredible potential and energy to make change and improve for the future. The key is now facilitate that for those communities to actualize it themselves. “It takes a village to raise a child” – this idea really seems to be at the root of the African heritage and essential to future understandings of development in Africa. (This is a large generalization, but the basic idea of family structures and how that plays out is important all across Africa when working in development).

Back to the meeting: it was a great way to get community feedback and evaluate progress, programs, and potentially identify actions for the future that can be implemented. The issue I see in coming in the near future is employment. We can only do so much to supplement education, we cannot run schools. When students don’t pass the test for university there needs to be something in place to give them the skills to get trained and employed. My thinking now cuts to the idea of green-collar jobs/ green jobs/ green economy in the US to fight poverty, promote conservation, and cut crime and unemployment. A similar model must be able to work here. We hope to also start a book club in conjunction with the libraries and maybe the schools – this will be important to fostering and sustaining the coalition of teachers/ educators.

29 August 2008 Reflections:

The guardian meeting helps to build a community coalition that is dedicated to one another. People in the community who may have been facing issues alone can now come together and see that there are others also facing the same issues. The meeting also makes a family of those benefiting from the center. This also serves as an evaluation of the center’s activities where guardians can say what is working, what isn’t, or give suggestions of things they need. What is really important as part of these meetings is that the suggestions of the children and youth served by the center are used for everything. Their ideas, suggestions, and needs are utilized in decision making since it is their center – no one else owns it. As a very related issue, the center is starting a Young Intern program to train youth at the center to become the next staff members. So those who directly benefit from the center will soon become the next staff who will be able to give suggestions straight from experience.