Detroit's Downtown Revitalization? Bring Some of That Out to the Neighborhoods.

by | April 30, 2015

By Mark Caro

The transformation of Detroit into an energetic, high-tech, pedestrian-friendly destination feels a world away from a desolate East Side stretch where 64-year-old retired Chrysler worker Dmetris England was eating breakfast at Maison's Fine Food Diner, a storefront that stands next to the big cow's head in front of an abandoned dairy.

How does he feel about all of that downtown development?

"Great," England said. "Just bring some of it to us."

There's the rub in the Detroit comeback narrative. People love talking about the city in terms often reserved for battered sports figures, but there's no one Detroit. Its deep divisions across racial, socio-economic, educational and sprawling geographical lines have factored into its decades of woe and mistrust, with the 1967 riot, the auto industry's collapse, the crumbling school system, raging violent crime, political corruption/mismanagement and the national financial meltdown contributing to the exodus of whites and middle-class blacks.

So while many in downtown and Midtown are hailing the upcoming M-1 light rail line service as something that will boost the local economy while bringing people together, Yusef Bunchy Shakur, an ex-con turned community activist, sees it as just another project serving others.

"If that's not a farce I don't know what is a farce," Shakur said, complaining that in a city with perhaps the country's worst public transportation, such a limited service will connect primarily white people in downtown and Midtown. "These folks don't care about the neighborhoods or the communities."

Quicken Loans founder/chairman and M-1 backer Dan Gilbert said the mostly privately funded light-rail line is meant to be a start. "There's more people living and working even in the neighborhoods than downtown, so neighborhoods have to be part of this (comeback) and participate," he said. "Otherwise the thing stagnates, there's no question."

To Mayor Mike Duggan, the measure of the city's progress is simple: "My goal is to have the population grow (to) more than it was the year before, and that has not happened around here since the 1950s."

Yet even that equation is tricky to longtime community activist Maggie DeSantis, president/CEO of the Eastside Community Network. "It's not clear to me yet that we are focusing on strategies that make life better for existing Detroiters as opposed to attracting new Detroiters," she said.

The word "gentrification" often comes up in such discussions, though some see this as a cart-before-the-horse problem, given how far Detroit must go before its real estate demand comes close to exceeding supply. A November 2013 Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study ranked the 55 most populous U.S. cities in terms of gentrification, and Detroit came in 55th. (Chicago was 7th, Boston 1st.)

Even with Midtown's development and high occupancy rates, longtime Midtown Detroit Inc. President Susan Mosey said the total number of people in that neighborhood who have had to be relocated over the years _ "and we've assisted them to locate into better units" _ is seven.

"The city quite frankly was so abandoned and has such a lack of normal operating market dynamics that any kind of normal functioning market dynamic that starts to reappear is all of a sudden cause for total panic," Mosey said, nonetheless adding that as the remainder of the neighborhood's vacant buildings are renovated and developers raise rents, residents on fixed incomes could be threatened.

DeSantis noted that people have been moving into relatively stable neighborhoods such as her West Village on the near East Side but not the vast areas with minimal city services, high crime and blight _ and the new arrivals tend to be those less deterred by school and safety issues. "Who's moving in are hipsters," she said. "These are not families."

Many ideas are being promoted to change these dynamics. Gilbert touts a plan to offer developers 300 free platted lots to start construction within 90 days on homes that will have Federal Housing Administration financing, and in exchange they must build a K-12 charter school and a 7,000-square-foot Detroit Police Department station to sit in the middle of the neighborhood.

"This concept has been broached and put in front of developers both national and local, and there's a huge interest in that," Gilbert said. "That's not the only idea."

The looming issue, in DeSantis' view, is one of scale given the city's sprawling 139 square miles, many of which continue to deteriorate. "If we don't get a hold of the open-space problem and use it to create jobs and opportunities, the blight is going to defeat everything else in the neighborhoods," she said.

Back at the East Side diner, England and 74-year-old retired Ford worker Calvin Stephenson said they could see signs of progress. For instance, as of late 2013, less than half of the city's 88,000 streetlights were said to be working, but since Duggan took office in early 2014, the lights have been flickering to life, albeit 65,000 lower-energy LED lights set to be installed by the end of 2016.

"People are more upbeat," Stephenson said. "For a while everybody was like, you know, you get sad. 'I wish they'd tear this house down.' 'I wish the lights would come on.' And then everything is coming back now."

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