Gentrification. Argh, the very sound of the word evokes a visceral sensation in my gut.
It seems to be the topic du jour among Detroit’s civically engaged minority. Meanwhile, the masses are dealing with real life issues like unemployment, illiteracy, foreclosure, lack of public transportation, water shut offs, violent crime and poverty in all its manifestations as well as homelessness, hunger and more.
I’ve come to realize it’s a privilege to be able to pontificate and not have to be engaged in these struggles firsthand. I’ve also come to believe the “G” word is kind of a distraction.
We’ve got our best minds thinking, writing, examining, dissecting, researching and fighting against gentrification. Those same thought leaders could be applying their intellectual prowess to some of the less sexy, but more complex and widespread issues, negatively affecting us and our neighbors.
But, since we’re already here, let’s discuss it …
Gentrification, as a concept, is easy to dismiss. Its by-products are not.
Lack of economic opportunity.
Inequitable access to resources.
The valuation of one’s culture above another.
And, finally, lack of understanding.
I’ve heard many people say “I know Detroit, I read all about it…”
Reading Internet articles, attending a lecture, even volunteering for a day at a local non-profit doesn’t make you knowledgeable about a place, its people, or its problems. You actually have to talk to people who live there.
Well, you can’t know a place without understanding the historical context that shaped it.
Do your research. Reading Internet articles, attending a lecture, even volunteering for a day at a local non-profit doesn’t make you knowledgeable about a place, its people, or its problems. You actually have to talk to people who live there.
Detroit looks the way it does today, not because people stopped caring, but because of a history of systemic racial and economic segregation that has shown itself through practices like redlining, predatory lending and general disinvestment. There are residents living here today who lived that history and can tell you about it firsthand. Find them and learn about it.
DETROITERS NEED A HERO
Detroiters don’t need a hero. They need resources.
Odds are any social or economic ill a well-intended outsider decides to address in a Detroit neighborhood is already being worked on by the people living in that community.
This doesn’t mean there is no place for outsiders or newcomers in the transformation equation. It simply means, in lieu of seeking to control and direct initiatives because of a perceived intellectual superiority and unjustly disproportionate access to resources, one should seek to serve as a conduit for those resources and offer information and instruction only when asked. This allows the “saving” to take place from within the neighborhood.
THE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT MYTH
Genuine engagement values the contributions of all participants equally.
The current processes of development seems to value the contributions of the planning expert more that the contributions of the neighborhood expert. An individual with a master’s degree in planning should be no more valuable than an individual with decade’s worth of life experience living in that particular neighborhood.
Genuine engagement is a two-way street. There should be talking and, more importantly, listening on behalf of all involved parties.
Engagement is an ongoing process, not a one-off. If a community development project is to be sustainable, there needs to be a framework put in place that ensures continued communication from both sides – the entities with access to resources and the entities possessing the insider expertise.
DETROIT IS NOT A BLANK SLATE
The Detroit is a blank slate theory has been debunked in numerous articles. Everyone should know better by now, but still the narrative persists.
Since when is 700,000 a small number of anything … especially people? Granted it’s a lot fewer than Detroit’s 1.8-million peak population in 1950, but to characterize a place that has three quarters of a million people in it as “blank” is severely shortsighted. The city as “blank slate” theory negates the cultural contributions and shared life experiences of all of those people.
In lieu of attempting to impose his or her version of what a place should be like on those already here, a newcomer should seek to incorporate him or herself into the existing cultural framework.
Let’s face it, if our city really is a blank slate we wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. There is something about our “Detroit-ness” that made people take notice and want to be here too.
ATTRACTION VS. RETENTION
Typically, you hear Detroit needs to attract and retain residents to thrive. That’s true, but what are the incentives put in place to retain current residents?
Granted there are various organizations and foundations already working in that realm, but there are still gaps. With current unemployment at 14 percent, training programs for displaced workers should be as popularly curated as relocation programs.
We also need to do everything we can to raise the tax base from within if we want to retain residents, as well as attract new ones.
DETROITERS ARE ACTUALLY BEING “DISPLACED”
Many Detroit residents have been displaced in one way or another.
In once forgotten about, now desirable downtown neighborhoods, a la Capital Park, displacement comes in the form of eviction notices for older, long-time residents, followed by building upgrades, raised rents and an influx of new, younger, wealthier tenants.
In outlying, once thriving, middle-class Detroit neighborhoods entire blocks are now vacant due to foreclosures and escalating crime. Loss of income, lack of economic opportunity, outdated property assessments and policies have converged causing a crisis that may leave nearly 40,000 structures vacant and 100,000 residents with no place to live.
Vacancy begets vacancy.
Moving forward, we need to challenge ourselves to remember all gentrification encompasses and the negative impacts disproportionately bestowed on particular groups of people.
A battle against gentrification would be a complex war to wage. A movement toward equity and inclusion, however, would curtail all of its negative outputs and ensure a more balanced transformation.
Editor’s Note: Lauren Hood is the director of Live6, a nonprofit planning and development organization whose mission is to enhance quality of life and economic opportunity in Northwest Detroit. She specializes in ecosystem development with a strong focus on a community engagement. Live6 partners include the University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and the Kresge Foundation. This piece originally appeared on honeysucklemag.com (now blckneon.com)and is reprinted with permission. View the full article here.
Author photo courtesy of Lauren Hood. All other photos by Paul Engstrom.