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Gentrification: Views From Both Sides of the Street

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The following excerpt is from "Farewell to Chocolate City" by Natalie Hopkinson, New York Times, June 23, 2012:

During the decades that Washington had a black majority, national
policy makers and investors left the city's aging infrastructure for
dead. So it is astonishing to witness the about-face that has
accompanied the influx of white professionals in the past decade. Now
there are urban-friendly transportation policies, lavish corporate
spending on education and billions in private real estate investment
and development. As residents finally get the city they have always
deserved, many black Washingtonians are feeling the rage of the loyal
first wife, kicked to the curb as soon as things started looking up.

This rage of feeling "kicked to the curb" is a fear with which I
empathize, and I fear that it is both an emotion and a reality that
will be facing many of my fellow Detroiters, especially as economic
forces and pressures are radically changing the demographics in a city
more well known for its combative stance than its open arms and
cooperative spirit. According to a 2010 Social Compact study funded
by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. updated in 2009 from a previous
one in 2006, Midtown, Detroit boasts the highest average household
income of new homebuyers at $113,788, followed by the Central Business
District at $111,509 and Indian Village with an average new homeowner
income of $111,200. Anecdotal evidence is not something to lend too much
credence to, but I recently attended a house party in an Indian
Village Home owned by a young white couple with a one-year-old daughter.
Apparently, they have eleven other families in their neighborhood with
small children that all gather together frequently. I am truly an
apostle, spreading the news of recent economic improvements of Midtown and
Downtown Detroit everywhere I go. But even I was shocked to hear the
young professionals with children were creating a mini-community in
Indian Village. And, of course, stories of a shift toward a new
economy based on entrepreneurial technology endeavors is no longer
fluff, as Dan Gilbert's purchase of the Madison resulted in filling
the building to capacity in short order. Whole Foods (despite the
normal ignorant cynicism) is scheduled to open on time, Somerset's
foray in to pop-up retail downtown in 2011 had such an overwhelming
response that they've renewed their commitment and expanded its
footprint as well.

At the same time this is happening, population in the remainder of the
city is plunging uncontrollably with many lifetime Detroiters voting
with their feet to move out to the suburbs. My parents sold the
childhood East English Village home back in the early 2000s. The
median income in the entire city is all of $28,357. And inevitably,
it's natural that many resent that things are getting better... but
that they're getting "kicked to the curb as things start to look up."
Well, the reality is that if the region's poorest residents can afford
to live in the flagship building on Main Street... well, it's probably
not going to be the type of real estate that attracts the brightest
and best from all of the world. That's not bad or good, it's just
logical. The nicest places to live cost the most, therefore if your
poorest citizens can afford it, it's probably not one of the nicest
places to live. Consequently, as new residents make the place nicer
and nicer, the poor are probably not going to be able to afford it
anymore.

But while I empathize with these fears -- and remember, some of these
fears are likely to come true -- it's hard for me to conclude that
Detroiters won't benefit from the new influx of outsiders who are
bringing with them the trifecta of: high income (i.e. city tax
revenue), low need for services (most of these newbies probably have
never heard of Department of Human Services let alone know what they
do), and access to the much needed capital that will help fund the
redevelopment of the city in an environment where capital is
impossible to come by. This means way more dollars on the plus side
and way fewer dollars on the minus side.

Yet this anxiety about which Natalie Hopkinson writes is a real, visceral,
and normal human reaction when being presented with one-two punch of
increased uncertainty and decreased power to protect yourself from it.
For example, what is a normal reaction when an elderly parent is being
told that they need to move into a home for assisted living? What is
a normal human reaction when you tell your parent that they can't
drive a car anymore? Or when you hear that mass layoffs are coming to
your department -- but they won't tell you who or why for the next 12
weeks? Or that your company was just sold to another company?

Despite the fact that Detroiters will get the benefits of newfound
energy, enthusiasm, and even money, it's unrealistic to expect a group
who is scared of the unknown and having power stripped away to welcome
untrustworthy outsiders with open arms.

So for those coming in...

(1) Acknowledge that your track record for making life difficult for
the marginalized is pretty piss poor. No, maybe not you, personally.
But people who look like you. For example, I once was asked to give a
series of educational presentations to a group of employees working in
a factory. Upon entering the shop room floor, the reaction was pretty
cold. I asked my escort what was wrong. He responded, "Well, you're
wearing a suit. The last three times someone with a suit came to talk,
it's been bad news for the average joe around here." Is that fair?
Of course not. But we all need each other -- and remember, you're the
one who holds most of the power in this dynamic -- so try not to let
the ego bruises get to you.

(2) Recognize that the difficulty of change is universal, regardless
of socioeconomic class. It's even more difficult when the change is
perceived to come from outside. A friend of mine was telling me about
how the churches in her "district" were being required to reorganize
and merge for financial reasons. The mergers were not equal
partnerships; one congregation was being absorbed into another one.
Hers was the one being absorbed. You'd think that two congregations
from the same denomination would combine with nary a skipped beat.
Well, no. As expected, the one being absorbed is filled with
resentment and distrust. For those of you coming into town, just know
that through no fault your own, you'll be creating a whirlwind of
change in your trail. This change is likely to be a net positive. But
there'll be plenty of people in your path for whom that won't apply.
And they don't get to control a whole lot about how it's happening.

(3) Accept anger and resentment as a normal reaction to when power is
lost without taking blame personally or reacting to it. You know the
worst thing you can do when people are resentful and angry at you? Get
sucked in to a tit-for-tat. No one wins. Everyone loses. And since you
probably have more to lose, you'll probably end up the worse for it.
Do I think it was completely stupid for Malik Shabazz to threaten to
"burn the city down" in the face of an impending consent agreement
with Lansing? Of course. But if you fixate on that, start a war of
words, raise the level of hostility, and take your eye of the ball?
It'll get ugly. Chill out. Let people voice their legitimate fears and
feelings. Listen carefully, and try to understand. Remain tranquil and
detached from the bluster of panicky words. It's been awhile since the
City Council signed the controversial agreement to turn over budget
oversight to a jointly appointed board. But I haven't seen rioting in
the streets. Let's keep it that way.

(4) Positively reinforce and welcome those segments of the local
community that are on your side, instead of just assuming that we are
"all alike." Nothing pisses me off more than hearing about how
everyone on City Council is corrupt or an idiot. First, the council is
made up of nine individuals. Believe it or not, they don't all vote
9-0 on everything. Hell, the controversial agreement had a 5-4 vote.
Rather than focus on the four you disagree with, get with the give you *do*
agree with and help give them political cover. Will I ever side with
90 percent of what Councilwoman Watson believes? Probably not. But that
doesn't mean that everyone in the city thinks what she thinks. And as
much as I disagree with her, I don't believe she's an idiot. If 90 percent of
her constituents were flooding her telephones with demands to accept
the agreement, she probably would.

On the flipside, in my opinion, the old-time Detroiters who are
already here don't need to make this any harder on themselves either.
What can they do?

(1) Embrace the investor community instead of scaring them away with
hostility. Hey, Shabazz, wouldn't it be great if me and two of my
buddies worked to snatch up 20 houses for $5,000 each, spend some cash
to fix them up, and rent them out for $400 per month? Wouldn't that
get rid of blight? Save the city $100,000 in demolition costs? Give 20
more people a functional, livable place to live? Well, guess what. NO
ONE will be buying up or fixing anything if they're afraid that you're
just gonna burn it down anyway. I didn't think you really meant that.
But I also don't have a whole lot of memories prior to 1987. Anyone 20
years older than me is already scared of having stuff burnt down
before you actually THREATEN TO DO IT on live television.

(2) Change social norms to put high values on education and academic
performance. The new demographic of people coming into the city is
smart. They value education. They generally relate well to other
people who value education. Don't you want your children to grow up
and be doctors, engineers, and innovators? Guess what! So do they! And
in fact, they generally are sympathetic to your lack of education if
its outweighed by your desire for a strong education for your kids!
But as soon as you appear to care more about who controls the
educational system than whether or not they're getting good teaching?
You just encouraged them to put one foot out the door to get the heck
out of here.

(3) Demonstrate a willingness to participate in the city's improvement
rather than fight it at every turn. You know what's been great? Seeing
community involvement at Detroit Works. It shows that you genuinely
care and are more concerned with finding solutions that soothing egos.
Let's put problem-solving over pride... something Detroit (and
Detroiters) are not always known for doing.

(4) Communicate zero tolerance against dysfunctional and criminal
behavior rather than providing justifications for it. Several years
ago, Council President Cockrel shouted at Councilwoman Conyers during a council meeting, "I
have the floor! I don't want to hear you any more. Be quiet." Conyers
responded, telling Council President Cockrel, "You're not my daddy,"
and repeatedly calling him "Shrek," a reference to the grouchy, bald
cartoon ogre. So then when asked about it by a news reporter, Conyers
response was, "This is Detroit. This is just how we are. We don't mean
anything by it. You say what you say and move on." Now obviously, it's
a mistake to say that she represents the majority of Detroiters'
views. At the same time, going forward, it would be nice to hear eight
other council members respond by saying in no uncertain terms that
this behavior and this attitude is destructive to Detroit and to
Detroiters. When someone mouths off about threatening to burn the city
down, the absence of anyone unequivocally rejecting these statements
makes me feel the jitters. I'm not the only one who feels them,
either.

This feeling of being "pushed out" of the city usually manifests
itself in the controversial term, "gentrification." But it's hard for
me to worry about gentrification when you can literally buy a home for
$10,000. We have a long, long, long, long, long way to go before the
poor are pushed out of the city limits by rising prices. Now will they
be displaced from one neighborhood and into another? Yes. I realize
that this sucks. And yes, I realize that I have no idea how much it
sucks to be pushed to move out of your home by economic forces. But
remember, you can buy a home for $5,000-$10,000. You might have to
move out of one neighborhood, but you'll get to move to another one
not far away. And still well within the city limits. And, in fact,
Detroit is 140+ square miles. 90 percent of it will not be affected by
gentrification for 10-20 years, even if we're being optimistic.

But what's important here is not the "spoken" concern of
gentrification. It's the "unspoken" concern of how a community will
cope, react, and adapt to a loss of power. Dealing with the dynamics
of that requires sensitivity whether it's the archdiocese forcing two
churches to combine, whether a company buys out another company, or
when the demographics and social classes of a city are in transition.

When we were growing up, my family was not from the power-broker
class. In fact, it was an uphill battle for most of my childhood. My
favorite sandwich was grilled cheese made with authentic, USDA
government cheese. (And if you don't know what that is, then... you
don't know what that is.) As the first immigrants in our immediate
family, we were the landing ground for everyone else who came
afterwards. At one point, I recall twelve of us living in our
childhood home for an entire summer. I wouldn't say we were poor... but
I can honestly say that I've lived on both sides of the line.

I humbly submit that if everyone can try to see the other perspectives
as we go forward, we'll be able to move through this difficult and
painful transition more quickly and to everyone's greater benefit.
It's gonna be rough waters, and some people are going to have to
change more than others to keep up with it. But we can definitely do
this. In fact, we really don't have a lot of choice, so we might as
well give it our all.