Revitalization Or Gentrification? How A Rebuild Is Changing Detroit’s Culture

How are Black residents coping with displacement?


Detroit, better known as Motor City, is called such because it was the mecca of automotive innovation and industry leaders for a period in history. The “Big Three” of American automotive, General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler call the city of Detroit, Michigan home and have shaped the city’s economy and culture’s past, present and future.

It was also a center of the racial integration of Black Americans into popular music. Motown Records, founded in 1958 by Barry Gordy Jr. and named after a play on the Motor City moniker, would help spring many Black R&B, Soul and Doowop artists into crossover success. 

Whereas previously, Black artists were often overlooked and copied without receiving their due credit, Motown Records’s artists such as Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Diana Ross, Four Tops and countless more would help to create and popularize the “Motown Sound” that would come to define much of the 1960s and beyond. 

Due to its history of experiencing both booms and busts while figuring out how to claw its way back, Detroit has also earned the“Comeback City” moniker. The city experienced urban degradation in the late 20th century as a result of the car industry’s decline and the city’s fast suburbanization.

In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy, making it the biggest US city to do so. However, the city recovered its losses fast and was able to alter its course in recent years. Detroit’s tenacity has helped it navigate numerous similar economic crises throughout its history, giving rise to catchphrases like “Detroit versus everyone” and “Nothing stops Detroit.”

When Does Revitalization Erode Culture?

Due to its contributions to music, art, architecture and automobiles, Detroit is one of the most significant cultural centers in the United States. It is the genesis of Techno, the home of the Coney Island restaurant and the birthplace of the modern automobile. Due to the influence of so many groups, it is challenging to attempt to characterize Detroit’s culture in words. 

Black, Eastern European, French, Greek, Middle Eastern and many other cultures have come together to form a melting pot that has produced a pulse and heartbeat that must be felt to be understood.

You can visit one of the many casinos or restaurants in GreekTown, or take a trip to Hamtramck for paczkis or Yemenese cuisine. Mexican town is one of the major cultural touchstones of Southwest Detroit. Regardless of where you go, reminders of Detroit’s history are everywhere. 

Once a hotbed for the Gothic Revival movement, you can find many homes that are still standing after more than 100 years. 

An old church with Gothic architecture sits abandoned with boarded windows and doors welded shut. Hagen McMenemy

However, the Comeback City is suffering from success, in a way. In recent years, the efforts to revitalize the city and incentivize transplants from other parts of the state and country to move here have seen some side effects.

If you had visited Detroit in the mid 2000s or early 2010s, you wouldn’t see many of the bustling businesses, quirky brunch spots or nonstop foot traffic in the downtown or midtown areas. What you would find, however, is a lot of derelict buildings abandoned for years. You’d also find a plethora of poverty and food deserts.

But, you’d find many people still hanging on to hope and doing their best to survive in a once bustling metropolis that the country had left to rot. 

Gentrification is the process in which a previously poor, typically urban, is changed by an influx of businesses and wealthier people moving in. This process typically improves the facilities and housing in an effort to make the area inviting for further businesses. 

Detroit’s revitalization has seen the city improve in a lot of ways. However, the human cost of revitalization efforts such as these is the people who were already here. The ones forgotten about that kept persevering either by choice or necessity because they are squeezed by external factors such as policing or simply cannot afford to remain. These people are often displaced when cities or neighborhoods undergo an economic transformation and their absence has an impact on the culture. 

While Detroit may have become more refined and presentable to the rest of the country, it may be losing a piece of its heart during the process. Not only that, only certain areas are benefitting from the influx of capital. While the downtown area has seen heavy restoration and has come to be called the “new Detroit” by some locals, mere blocks away are areas that still lay in ruin.

This stark contrast only underlines some of the problems that occur with gentrification in that it not only displaces residents who can no longer afford to live in or are wanted in the area but also creates pockets of wealth that a smaller percentage of newer residents benefit from.

Recently, one of the last holdout houses, or an existing property that is not part of the new real estate development, burned down outside of Little Caesars Arena. Raising the eyebrows of many residents, it opened the area for new development. 

A vacant plot of land in front of Little Caesars Arena and its surrounding development. Hagen McMenemy

Needless to say, this is a microcosm of the struggle between the remnants of an older, storied Detroit and the new vision for the city.

To get a better understanding of all of this, I spoke with a Detroit native named Edmon Hogan to get an insider’s perspective on the changes occurring in his city and whether or not the soul of Detroit can coexist with the new Detroit being created on top of it.

One Detroiter’s View

Edmon Hogan is 28 and Black. 

“I love Detroit because the culture is unmatched. You can’t get it nowhere else–the beautiful architecture– just everything about it,” he said when asked what makes the city special. 

“The thing about Detroit that makes it different from other cities is the culture. You can’t see the Detroit style or the Detroit people anywhere else. Detroit has a specific way of doing things,” said Hogan.

When asked what Detroit was like before the revitalization, he said that he really noticed things changing around 2013 and 2014. From his perspective, things weren’t completely hopeless like the city’s image would have you believe. However, he did say that it was in need of a little love.

“It definitely needed some uplifting. It was definitely a lot less Manhattan-ish than it is now,” he said. 

When asked how Detroit got to the state it was in before these efforts, Hogan explained that it was mostly a consequence of the automotive companies shifting their labor and withdrawing operations from the city. 

“Once the automotive industry fell, everything else just kind of fell with it,” he stated. 

Like many other cities, Detroit was in need of some assistance that other parties may have preyed upon and that the extremely low property values played a part in this.

Detroit is a city with a predominantly Black population, that at one point was nearly 85%. 

However, in recent years this has decreased to 77% while the white population has increased from 10% to nearly 15% since 2010

“I feel like right now there’s a blend … but as time goes on it feels like more of a clash as the people who are the heart of Detroit want to conserve and keep their people here,” Hogan said when asked if the change in demographics points more towards diversity or segregation.

A building sporting an advertisement for an Irish whiskey brand towers over typical metropolitan hustle and bustle. Hagen McMenemy

The notion of old Detroit potentially being replaced by a new vision for the city, Hogan said that the people and entities that are coming into the city are definitely trying to change the image of the city by replacing or washing out its culture. 

Hogan shared his thoughts on some of the public safety initiatives and surveillance practices such as Detroit’s controversial Project Green Light and if they negatively impacted Detroit natives more than others. 

“Any time the city introduces those policies or programs, you know who it’s directed at. It’s people like me that are always the most affected by them,” he said. 

In regards to whether or not the cost of these projects is worth the tradeoff of altering the city’s culture, Hogan said it’s something of a double-edged sword. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s worth it but we did need something. Without it, who knows what the city could have continued to spiral into? But it’s never good when you develop an area and don’t look out for the people that are already here.” 

There may be a way to revive cities or neighborhoods without negatively impacting that native population. Hogan said that there are already some initiatives to help current residents afford to purchase homes at discounted rates, likely referring to Side Lot Sales from the Detroit Land Bank Authority. 

“But I think programs like this need to be done on a larger scale. How much of a difference does that make when taxes increase beyond what someone can afford or if the cost of living goes up so much that people can’t afford to remain,” he stressed.

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