Black people are leaving the Blackest city in America, according to the latest census data. But why would Black residents leave an area en masse where history, culture and opportunity collide?
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“The reality of the situation is that living in Detroit is not easy,” said Michael Gray. “Oftentimes, all of the things that Detroit has that are special and unique, other people take, and they buck, and they try to put it somewhere else.”
Gray, a 32-year-old documentary filmmaker, said he worries where Detroit’s longtime Black population fits into the new vision of Detroit.
“On a Saturday, beautiful and sunny day, it’s packed out on Jefferson, bumper to bumper, and you see all the bikes come across and the ATVs, the (cars), and the noise and the lights, and to some people, that situation is, ‘I want to get away from that,’ but you have to realize, that’s the culture,” he said.
Initial 2020 census data show a decline in Detroit’s population over the past 10 years, with a 9 percent uptick in white residents and an almost 16 percent decrease in Black residents. Many Detroiters, and Mayor Mike Duggan, refute the new data, citing an abnormal count during a global pandemic. The low count will mean the loss of a congressional seat and could cost millions in federal funding. Others see the new information as proof of the negative effects of displacement and gentrification and the need for intentional investment in Black neighborhoods.
The growing visibility of white people and some of their vocal complaints about Black culture in Detroit is startling and a turn-off to some Detroiters.
“When I used to go to Belle Isle as a kid, I would never see many white people there,” said Ja’Nye Hampton, 22. “Now, you drive through the neighborhoods and they complain so much that streets are being closed and blocked off — they’re so entitled.”
Hampton is the founder and owner of Detroit Flower Co., a floral shop on Detroit’s west side. The Cass Technical High School graduate grew up at Joy Road and Schaefer, and owns a business at 6 Mile and Greenfield.
“One of the biggest things for me when I got my brick-and-mortar space was to have it right in the heart of the hood,” Hampton said. “I really wanted to be in Detroit, like, it had to be in Detroit.”
Hampton said she tries to collaborate with other Black entrepreneurs and encourages Black women to have pop-up shops within her floral business to increase community support. She says there’s opportunity for Black businesses to thrive in Detroit, but investments have to follow and residents have to stay in the community to reap the benefits.
Who is ‘new’ Detroit for?
Gray grew up in one of Detroit’s first neighborhoods gentrified through urban renewal: Black Bottom, now known as Lafayette Park. His parents worked for the City, and he attended private school in Grosse Pointe until high school, where he went to University of Detroit Jesuit on the city’s northwest side. Now, he can’t help but question new white Detroiters’ interest in the city today given the blatant racism that the parents of his former classmates in Grosse Pointe displayed when he was a child. Gray remembers when his friend’s parents wouldn’t allow them in Detroit, so seeing white people now move into the city is “wild” to him.
Residents in neighborhoods along Detroit’s lower east side say they’ve seen an increase in white residents and new rental housing developments with high rents. So much so that some new, non-Black Detroiters even filed a lawsuit to ensure fair housing.
“It’s really hard for me to understand why on Kercheval and Van Dyke, there is a new massive apartment complex that is serving, who?” he said. “And I really hope that what the mayor is saying, what other people are saying about mixed-income housing for the city, is really true because I really do believe when you’re talking about urban development, you’re talking about creating better equity.”
For decades, City leaders and emergency managers have talked about a “new Detroit” of financial stability, population growth and safety. Businesses that have experienced massive growth have touted a new vision of the city with white-washed billboards that omit the city’s predominantly Black population.
“You have all these things, like, we’ve been fighting, we’ve been struggling, we’ve been grinding for so long, and then all of a sudden, it’s like some people are able to come in and thrive, like, that’s the feeling right, whether it’s true or not,” Gray said.
Those changes are obvious in areas like Downtown and Midtown, where there are new restaurants and bars, increased walkability and new housing. But advocates for equitable economic improvement want to see intentional investments in neighborhoods where most Black residents reside. So far, Duggan has rolled out the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, which does just that, though it’s reach is limited to only 10 neighborhoods across the city.
“Areas where we have seen concentrated investment continue to grow white,” said Anika Goss. “Even if the numbers appear to be smaller, in percentage, it’s still the places that are most stable are also growing in white upper-middle class population.”
Goss is the executive director of Detroit Future City, an economic development think-and-do tank in Detroit. The think tank published a report on Detroit’s vanishing middle class in 2019. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit’s Black population decreased by about 200,000 people, as Black middle-class families continued moving to suburban cities like Southfield, Oak Park and Eastpointe, and Redford Township.
Areas like Downtown Detroit, Midtown and just east of downtown in neighborhoods like Lafayette Park and Indian Village now have higher concentrations of white people, and are also home to newer developments that have enhanced walkability, things to do and overall safety.
However, Goss said the new census data shouldn’t be interpreted as Detroit is “growing more white.” She said Detroit still has, and will continue to have, pockets of highly concentrated Black residents who could benefit from future place-based funding for a more balanced Detroit.
“When you look at the Avenue of Fashion, the Livernois to 6 Mile area, it shows a real opportunity, where you can actually begin to invest in Black neighborhoods economically, both from commercial and residential infrastructure,” she said. “It’s this sort of comprehensive strategic investment in these Black neighborhoods, and they remain Black and they are thriving.”
The “Live6” area encompasses historically Black neighborhoods like Bagley, Fitzgerald, University District and Martin Park on Detroit’s northwest side. Over the last decade, the area has been revamped through both City and private investments to support small businesses, the development of streetscapes along Livernois and McNichols for improved walkability, and refurbished homes. The Live6 Alliance was created in 2016 to support economic mobility in the area through a diverse partnership.
Dense pockets of Black residents outside of Downtown are no surprise to longtime Detroiters like Roslyn Ogburn.
“Detroit isn’t segregated, (Black residents) just stay together,” Ogburn said, noting the many Black neighborhoods in Detroit.
A mother of five, Ogburn said four of her children have left Detroit for educational and professional opportunities. But she remains in the city, and says she invests her time and energy here. The 44-year-old is a Block Club President, an advocate for environmental sustainability and home ownership.
She was dismayed by the census data and said she believes the pandemic definitely affected the city’s count. Ogburn now worries about the effects of the state losing a congressional seat and the “top-down, systems approach” that has plagued decision-making processes for the city.
“We can’t just have a white man envision everything for us,” she said, noting Duggan’s continued success in local elections.
Quality of life is one reason Philip Carter began looking for a home in neighborhoods like the University District and farther west in Rosedale Park.
Carter, who grew up in Rosedale Park, has lived in Mt. Pleasant, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, but says nothing compares to home in Detroit. The Renaissance High School graduate said he always dreamed of working for one of the Big Three auto companies, and when he received a job offer, it was a “no brainer” to return to Detroit.
The city has changed since he was a teenager in the early 2000s. Hanging out Downtown at the time was not allowed, whereas now, he says there are lots of activities for residents no matter their age.
“The first time I came downtown was for prom night and then graduation,” he said.
High cost of living remains a concern
Now, at age 32, Carter says he’s house-hunting in Detroit. The nostalgia of living in a community where everything he needed growing up was in a 5-mile radius and still having family in the area is a big draw to him. Carter can see the future potential of the city, but said he fears his fellow Black Detroiters are about to miss out.
“I feel like this is the time when the city is about to start reaping the benefits, but Black people are leaving,” Carter said. “We’re about to be replaced by white people who are buying homes in Rosedale Park and University District, and the value of this ownership is going to go ridiculous in the next few years, I think, and Black people are not going to benefit at all.”
The median list price for a home in Rosedale Park has increased by an average of $21,100, or 14%, with an average of 53 days on the market compared to 145 days in the past year.
Although Carter wants to purchase a home in Detroit, he’s dismayed by the lack of safety in some neighborhoods and the high cost of living associated with being a Detroiter.
He’s not the only one.
“Car insurance was very high,” said Briana Moore, who has seen several friends leave Detroit. “If you live in a Detroit ZIP code, and even if you had a good driving record and are over age 25, living in certain ZIP codes made it difficult to get a reasonable car insurance price.”
The Motor City had the highest car insurance rates in the country in 2019. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill into law that slightly decreased rates in 2020, but Michiganders still have higher rates than most Americans. Detroiters pay higher water fees than the metro area for the same water, are subdued to higher levels of pollution, and have been overtaxed and lost property that had significantly decreased in value over the last two decades. The stain of 20 years of emergency management over the public school system was just removed, but many parents have already fled the city in search of better schools in other districts.
Moore, 26, lives on the line of Redford Township and Detroit at Joy Road and Telegraph. She’s stayed close to home and recently started a family of her own with her fiancé and 8-month old son, Aiden.
She found work in Farmington Hills prior to the pandemic and is now a stay-at-home mom. Moore, a Mumford High School graduate, said she’ll stay in Detroit due to the nearby familial support, the familiar environment and the little things that remind her of home.
“The best coneys is in the city, there is no lie about that,” she said, laughing. “You already know which coney island it is, people still have their little fights about which is the best coney, but at the end of the day, you’re going to go in the city.”
Moore said Detroit reminds her of summer block parties in the neighborhoods and going to her favorite cornerstore for snacks. She was happy to see some improvements to school buildings, and said there’s community activities and education available, but it’s not widely known, and she wants to see more effort in communication between providers and the community.
“When you really live in Detroit, you can see the good that’s here and when you’re on the outside looking in, of course there are things that look bad,” she said. “But when you’re actually here, you’ve been around, you know there’s more good than bad.”