Renaissance or Gentrification?

There is a conversation going on in Detroit on the issue of long time businesses being forced out of business by the escalating real estate prices (such as Henry the Hatter). The downtown Detroit area is booming in a way not seen since the 1950s. Occupancy of renovated buildings is over 90%, and renovations of long abandoned buildings is exponentially increasing. In fact, the demand for space in downtown exceeds the rate of renovations. The result of the extraordinary demand is that prices for square footage has also increased, in some cases doubling. This has caused long-time area businesses (most of which are owned by African-Americans) to be forced out of business. Many of these businesses were the only lifeline for the downtown area during the bleak decades of the 80s and 90s. This has sparked a conversation of “gentrification” and questions about the racial politics of the real estate boom. There is no question that many, if not most, of the movement of people living downtown and businesses owned are white. One could not notice this fact after the reversal of nearly 40 years of “white flight” from Detroit. What was initially welcomed as a positive development of young, white professionals moving into Detroit has now become questioned as poorer African-American residents are being forced to move due to escalating prices. However, I don’t think that what is happening in downtown Detroit is “gentrification,” or necessarily a bad thing, for long-time Detroit residents.

Those of us who never abandoned Detroit as a place to work can’t deny that large areas of the downtown area have not only become safe, they have become destinations. Parks and plazas from Grand Circus Park to Lafayette Park to other hidden gems have been transformed from a center of pan handling, drug dealing and other less desirable activities into places with vibrant stores, living spaces and foot traffic. They are clean, safe and active areas. Many of the buildings long abandoned have been renovated and are filling up as soon as available. This is not “gentrification”, which is the taking of existing properties through artificially inflating prices. It is the investment in, and renovation of, unusable spaces into viable residential and business properties.

The rise in real estate value may have forced some businesses who are unable to compete to relocate, but the rise in real estate value has benefitted African-Americans far more than the loss of a few long-time businesses. For example, the rising prices of real estate has raised the value of homes near the downtown area. The increase of businesses has provided Detroiters with more choices and better prices. Businesses forced to relocate are really being forced to improve their business models, in a process that is much more normal.

That said, it is also true that the transformation of the downtown area is also unsustainable until the renovations include neighborhoods with quality schools. Detroit remains a kind of commuting destination rather than a true urban center. At this moment, most people moving to the downtown area are young, single professionals. This makes it a two-dimensional renaissance. Until the possibility of raising a family in the area evolves, then much of the African-American middle class which moved to the near northern suburbs of Southfield, Oak Park, etc. will not join in the renaissance.

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