By Lauren Hood
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. 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 it’s manifestations, homelessness, hunger, etc.
I’ve come to realize lately, that it’s a privilege to be able to pontificate and not have to be engaged in one of these struggles first hand. 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, when those same thought leaders could be applying their intellectual prowess to some of the less sexy but more complex and widespread issues that are negatively affecting us/our neighbors.
But, since we’re already here….
I know Detroit, I read all about it…
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, it’s people, or it’s problems. You actually have to talk to people that are already there. We are conditioned to be apprehensive about talking to people we assume are “different” from us, it’s o.k. to have reservations, but if this is your chosen line of work, you have to challenge yourself to go beyond that initial fear of the unknown “other” for the sake of the service you mean to provide. Detroit looks the way it does today, not because people stopped caring but because of a history of systemic racial and economic segregation that shown itself through practices like redlining and predatory lending and general disinvestment. There are residents still here today that lived that history and can tell you about it first hand. Find them, and learn something.
Detroiters need a hero (savior)
Detroiters don’t need a hero, I, we, they need resources! Odds are that any social or economic ill that an albeit, well intended, outsider decides to address in a Detroit neighborhood is likely already being worked on by people from within that community. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for outsiders or newcomers in the transformation equation, it simply means that 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. Thus allowing the “saving” to take place from within.
The Community Engagement myth…
“You’re welcomed to join us”. Said the group of people that had been planning an activity (or community strategy) for sometime, when a long time resident approaches, and wanting to appear inclusive, “You’re welcomed to join us” mutters one of the group members in a pseudo sincere way. When you’re a valued member of any group, you’re included in all of its decision-making processes; you’re not an afterthought. You’re there from the very beginning. For starters, 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 Masters degree in Planning should be no more valuable than an individual with decade’s worth of life experience in that particular neighborhood. Secondly, genuine engagement is a two-way street. There should be talking and more importantly listening on behalf of all involved parties. Thirdly, engagement is an ongoing process, not a one-off. If a community development project, of any sort, is to be sustainable over time, 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.
Blank Slate Theory
This has been debunked in numerous articles already, 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 less than our 1.8 million-peak population in 1950, but to characterize a place that has 3 quarters of a million people in it as “blank” is severely shortsighted. The city as “blank slate” theory negates the all of the cultural contributions and shared life experiences of all of those people. A newcomer should, in lieu of attempting to impose their version of what a place should be like on those already here, seek to incorporate him or herself into the existing cultural framework. Let’s face it; if this were really a blank slate, we wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. There was something about our “Detroit-ness” that made people take notice and want to be here too!
Attraction vs. Retention
Of course the city needs both to thrive and typically you hear the words used together when describing different initiatives to help move us towards our transformation. But really, what are the incentives put in place to retain current residents? Information on several attraction programs and fellowships importing the nations “brightest and best” from other states and Michigan suburbs is relatively easy to find. A web search of retention programs yields far fewer results. When companies relocate to the core, the masses rejoice based solely on the number of new jobs coming into the city. Corporations aren’t so willing to reveal numbers, but one can guess that only a small fraction of the those new positions are ultimately filled by long time residents. The argument will be made that current residents don’t have the education or skills necessary to compete in the new marketplace, and the conversation usually ends there as if individuals are personally responsible for a deficient educational system and the subsequent lack of opportunity to gain relevant work experience. “Fixing” the school system is something that needs to take place at a policy level, individuals working toward change can however work outside that system and begin thinking about supplemental programming. Granted there are various organizations and foundations already working in that realm, but there are still gaps and with current unemployment at 14%, training programs for displaced workers should be as popularly curated as relocation programs. The tax base argument always follows the “attraction” discussion, and rightfully so, but the attention should not disproportionately focus on attraction when we clearly aren’t doing all that we can to raise the tax base from within.
No one is actually being “displaced”
Displacement can take many forms. 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 policy have converged causing a crisis that may leave nearly 40,000 structures vacant and 100,000 residents with no place to live. Long time residents who have chosen to stay in the city while watching their neighborhoods hemorrhage residents through multiple rounds of suburban flight, are finally fleeing themselves as those home invasions they heard about a few blocks over, then down the street, finally made it to their own address. Vacancy begets vacancy, it’s contagious, and we should be paying more attention to displacement, in all its incarnations
Gentrification as a concept is easy to dismiss. It in and of itself, it is not a problem. Displacement is a problem. Lack of economic opportunity is a problem. Inequitable access to resources is a problem. The valuation of one’s culture above another is a problem. Exclusion is a problem. All of these problems are a by-product of that fun to muse about, “G” word. Moving forward, we should challenge ourselves to, when we hear the word, remember all that it 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.
Lauren Hood specializes in ecosystem development with a strong focus on a community engagement. She is the newly installed director of Live6, a nonprofit planning and development organization whose mission is to enhance quality of life and economic opportunity in Northwest Detroit.
Prior to joining Live6, Lauren spent her career in leadership positions in economic development for the City of Highland Park, as the Director of Community Engagement at Loveland Technologies, and Principal of her racial equity consultancy, Deep Deep Detroit. She serves on the Board of Directors of Preservation Detroit and as a Mayoral appointee to the City of Detroit’s Historic District Commission. She speaks regularly on panels and conducts workshops on community engagement and equitable development. In addition to being a regular guest columnist in local Op-ed pages, she is active at her alma mater, University of Detroit Mercy where she received a Masters in Community Development and undergraduate business degree.