Gentrification talk in review

It began with a tour of the gorgeous 1895 vintage Beaux Arts Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center and ended with food and lively conversation in the basement at the soon-to-open COLORS restaurant.

In between, of course, is why we were all there: to talk, listen and tweet (and watch the tweets projected, along with charts and other information, on the wall next to the panel) during a solid two hour discussion on gentrification, and what it means in Detroit.
The "we" was impressive. About 400 people registered and it appeared as if about 300 showed. All seats were taken. More stood at the back and the sides of the room.

It was a hot-button issue or no issue at all depending on who you talked to. The panel -- including Noah Stephens, Burney Johnson of MSHDA, Malik Goodwin of Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and Lori Robinson, B.L.A.C Detroit Magazine and Siwatu Salama-Ra of the East Michigan Environmental Council -- debated the topic head on, and engaged questions from the audience and from moderator Jeff Watrick (MLive), but few sparks flew. It was, as one observer noted afterward, an "emotionally intelligent" discussion. Summarizing the event in MLive, Watrick argued that Detroit was in fact experiencing "de-gentrification" due to "the deterioration and decline accompanying the abandonment of once stable areas by middle-class or affluent people."

Before the panel got started, two presentations set the tone for the discussion. The first was by Meagan Elliott, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology & Urban Planning at University of Michigan, who talked about the roots of the term (coined in the 1960s in London to describe the migration of well-to-do "gentry" into low-income neighborhoods) and how it applies in Detroit. "Talking about gentrification has a great deal to do with racial equality," she said. "In 2000, Detroit was the most racially segregated city in the U.S. and as of 2010, it's the most fourth most segregated, which is still pretty terrible."

Elliott also said that people criticize her research in Detroit by asking "how could you think about studying gentrification when there is so much vacancy in Detroit?" She answered that by saying there is a "big difference between vacancy and affordable housing" and that gentrification can be more than about "physical displacement." 

Demographer Kurt Metzger of Data Driven Detroit screened slides that showed significant vacant sections of the city. He said the city has lost population in nearly every demographic category, remains at around 82 percent African American with no appreciable gains in the white population. He pointed out that Hispanic communities have seen an uptick in population and that density in and around Hamtramck (largely to the east and north of the city) is due to Middle Eastern and South Asian immigration. He pointed to the map and said "there is a reason Hamtramck should be part of all our planning."

Metzger also said 185,000 African Americans left the city from 2000 to 2010 and that only 11 percent of the city's 18-34 year olds have a college education.

There were some memorable contributions from the panel, like this from Stephens, who called Detroit "not a blank canvas, there are pre-existing conditions. Newcomers can contribute with their drive and their income." This was in response to a point raised regarding some newcomers to the city not respecting Detroit's style.

Robinson talked about the need to "uplift and educate the people who live here and incorporate them into the revitalization of Detroit." Robinson talked about the event while a guest on WDET's Craig Fahle Show.

Questions from the audience addressed quality of education, crime, race and whether Detroit was "the new Brooklyn." Not many bit into that morsel, as it turned out.

Tweets from the audience were collected and put into a slideshow by HuffPost Detroit.    

The speaker series was Presented by Model D, WDET 101.9 FM, MSHDA and the Arts League of Michigan.

Walter Wasacz is Model D's managing editor. He tossed out the first pitch in this discussion here in 2005.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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