How should the descendants of residents displaced by the construction of Interstate 375 through majority-Black neighborhoods near Detroit’s downtown benefit from the highway’s reformation?
Charity Dean, president and CEO of the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance, posed the question Tuesday to the city’s power players during the annual Detroit Policy Conference.
Dean challenged business and community leaders to consider bold solutions to address wealth inequality caused by discriminatory policies like redlining, which once prohibited Black people from acquiring land, and the destruction of the city’s thriving Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods with I-375’s construction.
“In the 50s and 60s, our government policy continued to widen this wealth gap,” Dean said during her speech focused on empowering Black-owned businesses. “We thought it would be a really great idea to have I-375 in an area that was thriving with Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurship and Black people. The folks are gone and now there is a freeway there.”
The state government is working on plans to replace the one-mile stretch of highway with a six-lane boulevard with amenities for pedestrians and cyclists. The transformation also will open up $50 million worth of land. A community advisory committee was recently assembled by the Michigan Department of Transportation to weigh in on the changes and how they will reconnect neighborhoods.
The future of downtown Detroit was the main theme of this year’s policy conference, with several presentations focused on how to make the area more equitable and inclusive for long-time residents.
Dean, the city’s former director of Civil Rights, Inclusion, and Opportunity, on Tuesday posed a handful of strategies to “rectify” the loss of generational wealth due to discriminatory policies.
“When you look at downtown Detroit, it doesn’t look like it did 10 years ago,” Dean noted. “Even among everything that’s happening in downtown Detroit, in a city where (77%) of the population is Black, less than 10% of the businesses downtown and 3% of the buildings that are in downtown Detroit are owned by Black people, in a Black city. To understand why, you have to understand the systemic issue at play.”
Dean said descendants of entrepreneurs and homeowners displaced by I-375 could have the first opportunity to purchase land that was occupied by the failed urban renewal project. Dean also advocated for having developers contribute to a racial equity fund, or a 0% interest loan for Black-owned businesses.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Dean is “absolutely right” about the damage caused by I-375, but the city doesn’t have complete control over how to fix it.
“This is really a state issue,” Duggan said. “The first thing that happens is the feds have to decide to give the land (opening up under the reconstruction project) back to the state. That hasn’t happened yet. Once that happens, the state has to decide what to do with the land.”
MDOT selected two dozen people to serve on its community advisory committee. The members also will have a say in what should happen with the project. Construction is planned to start in 2025, thanks in part to a $104.6 million federal grant.
“Our question is how do we recognize the damage that was done,” Duggan said Tuesday. “The terrible thing that happened was, particularly in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, the property owners got checks but the majority of African American business owners and residents didn’t own the property. They were tenants.”
City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents District 6 on Detroit’s southwest side, said she’s supportive of efforts to address the generational wealth lost in those neighborhoods. She also noted that the state is managing the project, but said the topic could be tackled by the city’s reparations task force once it is established.
“It’s possible, it’s just I have questions around what does that look like in action, given that this is state-driven,” said Santiago-Romero, adding discussions around what reparations could look like for those impacted by the devastation of the Black communities near downtown “would be a very good conversation for the task force.”
In regard to MDOT’s intentions, Santiago-Romero her office has not been reached out to yet or involved.
“I would like to be involved,” she said, “but what does that look like in action? Where can we fit in?”
MDOT officials in a Wednesday statement said topics, including the potential of a loan program or equity fund for those originally impacted by the construction of I-375, are suggestions that the state is open to discussing.
“…the environmental study, a land use framework plan and community enhancements plan were established to consider these types of proposals,” the statement notes. “We are still early in the engagement process for these plans and are willing to listen to suggestions and explore the feasibility.”
As for the potential of giving descendants of those impacted by the destruction of the once thriving Black communities priority in acquiring land, MDOT said: “Federal and state transportation funds were used to purchase the land so we must work within land disposition regulations.”
Land use and community enhancement plans tied to the project could lead to benefit options and those “will be developed with significant participation from the community over the next couple of years,” and, the statement adds, could be taken up by the local and government advisory committees for I-375.
“With this project,” MDOT officials wrote, “we have opportunities to capture benefits that are unique and could present an example of how things could be done in the future.”
Dean on Tuesday also cited a 2018 study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that stressed the importance of racial equity as a strategy for economic growth. The study cites highways that were routed through neighborhoods that were viewed as “less desirable,” at the cost of houses, churches and businesses. The study found Michigan stands to gain $92 billion in economic output by closing the racial equity gap.
“Not only is this racial wealth gap hurting us in Michigan because it’s morally wrong, it’s costing us money; $92 billion is at stake,” Dean said. “We have an economic imperative to get moving and get moving fast.”