It’s interesting to read about whether Detroit’s recovery will be mired in the racial morass of gentrification. As Detroit continues its emergence from bankruptcy, a number of red flags are up. Is the residential recovery limited to the “core” — Detroit’s midtown and downtown areas? Will the neighborhoods ever come back? And will a sustained recovery serve all Detroiters, or only a select few?
As we approach our 4th year back in Detroit, I think these questions are legit, even when they’re directed at us. After all we are white and we are not poor. At times, this makes us the source of some suspicion. I get that.
Years ago, Detroit’s economic growth was carried on the backs of various Eastern European descendants mixed with African Americans migrating from the deep south. Nowadays, we need to be open to new strains of immigrant migration if we are expecting our population and economic fortunes to rise.
When Kay and I first moved to Detroit after 25 years in Ann Arbor, we did so without any grand ambitions. We just wanted to simplify our lives. Although we can’t necessarily say we downsized (our pre-war condo is physically as big as our home), we did get rid of half of our “stuff,” the accumulations that come with 25 years of raising kids. It was more about getting out of yard and home maintenance, and the complications that come with midlife. But now it’s so much more than that.
It’s become an opportunity for us to re-energize our lives as a couple now that our boys are independent and living successfully on their own.
Living in Detroit has also become a matter of choice, and becoming part of a larger narrative about our city. After all, five years ago it was a bit more surprising that middle aged white people would choose to move back to Detroit. At the same time many African Americans without means feel they have no choice but to stay. We’ve developed our own gauge for this– it’s often measured in the number of times we see the word “aghast” flashing on the foreheads of folks as we tell them where we live now.
Once having moved here, we’ve found it easy to plug into the rich and diverse mix of urban life downtown. Every day we are reminded of how lucky we are, and every day we meet interesting new characters gritting it out in the city with pride, resolve and determination. It gets tiring at times to drive everywhere because public transportation is spotty at best. And in driving everywhere it’s sometimes difficult to stomach the sheer mass of blight down major thoroughfares like Gratiot, Michigan Avenue and Woodward. We’ll begin to know Detroit’s comeback is real this time when Woodward Avenue sports more than liquor stores, wig shops and the offices of bail bondsmen. And when more of the neighborhood parks and libraries are bustling with activity again.
Often, when someone asks us about living in the city, their first question is “Do you feel safe?”
The truth is– no it’s not safe! Public safety remains a huge issue. A few months ago, a young man was shot in broad daylight right down the street from us, and the only strange comfort lies in the fact that it appears to have been a targeted hit on a convicted drug dealer heading off to prison the next day. Scant comfort that none of us needed to have been worried on this particular occasion. Then there are the countless other weird, and depraved murders and mishaps that regularly make the headlines in Detroit.
But when are we supposed to play it safe? Detroit wasn’t safe back in 1967 when the riots erupted (or in 1943 before that). I remember as a kid living under the anxiety of nightly curfews, and the arrival of the National Guard on the streets. It wasn’t safe in 1991 when a distraught juvenile dropout walked into my grandmother’s bedroom and strangled her with her stockings. It was years before I could stomach the thought of visiting Detroit again, much less living here again. Clearly, larger forces have conspired to bring us back to the city of my youth.
We are back in Detroit for a reason.
And even though at times we wonder what that reason might be, we are getting a solid idea it has to do with that midlife yearning to be part of something greater than oneself, and to start giving back in greater measure. When we first started our married life together in New York City, I remember walking down Fifth Avenue, and seeing all the wealth and abundance, and feeling this anxious need. Now, I can’t look anywhere among my current surroundings without seeing a profound need, and I feel useful and alive. Able to help in some small way. This happens every day, and it’s profoundly energizing.
Still, we know full well Detroit won’t be safe for sometime to come. We have to start by getting comfortable with the idea that if we don’t start helping those who need a hand up, our safety will continue to evade us. Generations of young people– African American, Muslim, Hispanic, foreign born, transgender, urban, and etc. will continue to become radicalized not because of some purported, distorted religious ideology, but rather because they don’t see a way forward. It would be wrong to suggest we live in the middle of a war zone, despite telltale signs that make it suspiciously similar in appearance. After all, many of the disenfranchised appear ready to take up arms. When people don’t see options and opportunity it’s easier for them to sign up for the revolution. Safety doesn’t lie in the suburbs either, as recent events across the country suggest. Cinemas, schools and public places are often destinations for the unhinged and unstable to unload. This means that the age-old logic in the region that we could just ignore Detroit and it would go away is fallacious. Public safety, and economic development go hand in hand. If we’ve learned nothing after numerous economic false starts, it is that you can’t have one without the other.
We have to get creative solving some of our city’s more intractable problems like multi-generational poverty, and under education in a city that has so poorly served students for so long we’ve induced an epidemic of underemployment and under achievement. Right now, if you are male between the ages of 14 and 17 living in our neighborhood, you stand a 1 in 4 chance of getting your high school diploma. Your odds increase by 2 to 3 times if you are a class A felon, convicted of murder or sexual assault. That’s because our educational interventions for adjudicated youth are more effective than many of those available at our public schools right now. This is a sad fact that should be mobilizing us all.
Better to be sorry about the fact that we’ve made it easier in recent decades for the haves to have more, and the have nots to have no chance at all. Somehow the five digit code representing our zip code says more today about the chances for a decent education than anything else.
The alternative doesn’t have to mean a hand out, nor the massive public assistance required to create some imagined great society. But we do need to come up with a blueprint for a good enough society where none of us would be embarrassed to show our faces and everyone would have a fair shot at a decent life.
Ultimately, this means bringing all the right players together in a room and dealing cards from the top of the deck, ones that haven’t already been marked. Isn’t it about time, after all?
Far better sorry than safe. Safe is vastly over-rated.