In 1995, a 25-year-old version of myself sat down and typed a letter -- most likely on an electric typewriter -- to then-Detroit mayor Dennis Archer from a rented house on Honore Street in Chicago’s Bucktown. I had just read something about Detroit being "America’s first former city." I was content and fairly bored in Chicago, a city that was, by my way of thinking, pretty much built, and I wanted to both be near my family, and do something that mattered….much like some of the people moving to Detroit today.
My parents were born here, as was I, before they became another statistic in the city’s story of white flight and abandonment. I had a built-in affinity for the place, even though I really had little personal experience with it.
For nearly 20 years I kept a carbon copy of that letter to Sir Dennis, and it is with great embarrassment and trepidation that I share portions of it with you today. Why would I do something so ill-advised? Because in that 25-year-old version of myself, I see both the sincerity and arrogance of those who are now moving here to participate in the shaping of what’s next for Detroit.
To begin, I remember the letter as something of a pitch-for-services. My hope was that Archer would drop everything to me hire me, a 6-foot-1, 135-lb white guy who was living in another city and had mustered a grade point at Michigan State hovering around 3.0.
"With the new political atmosphere of Detroit, and the positive steps I feel you have taken in improving the city, I have felt compelled to write you. Not only to commend your efforts, but to look at how I can get involved!"
Shouting at someone in a grammatically challenged letter is no way to get a job. Needless to say, he never called me back. Still, I had some ideas and sage council…
"Unfortunately, you are in the position of having to rebuild a once thriving city. Fortunately, you have the ability to make decisions that can positively impact every citizen’s future. One obvious way of doing this is luring businesses back into Detroit, which you have started to do. I also feel that it is important to market Detroit to young people with skills, vision and experience to work in conjunction with existing communities to rebuild."
I think I was on to something, but I’m trying to recall if the insinuation that the communities themselves lacked vision and experience was intentional. Am I being hard on myself? Who knows. I go on to talk about inclusivity and neighborhood development, but do so with my doe-eyed perch of privilege without recognizing what was already on the ground:
"…..I stand firm in my belief that this (Detroit’s resurgence) must be done by including, and not excluding, those who already reside in these neighborhoods. A large part of this ideal is bringing educated and skilled people to live and work in these communities, to assist in education, provide role models, and help bring together the fragmented disillusioned city that you have inherited."
"Provide role models?" "Fragmented disillusioned city?" Huh. "Ideal?" Who talks like that? Spike Lee recently said something along the lines of, "you can come but come with some mother-fu@*$ing respect." So, I guess I was down one on that score.
Although the mayor didn’t respond, I did move here one year after I wrote that letter. And maybe the best thing to happen during that time was not many people followed me. There just weren't droves of new young people coming then and I was able to, very slowly, understand the real challenges and joys of the city. It was hard to get pizza, my cars were stolen (4 total), people "borrowed" stuff from my garage…often, and my neighbor barbequed naked. I dove into a rich cultural scene and spent lots of time going from Casa de Espana and the Kress Lounge on Michigan Avenue (both unfortunately gone now), to the Majestic Theater and Bakers Keyboard Lounge, and back again.
I found my own role models who had been here much longer than me, and had the "experience and vision" to teach me not to be an ass. I met neighbors who held down the block, community leaders, gardeners, business people, church people. I fell in love with the place at a pace where I could respectfully begin to understand how I fit in.
As the pace of today’s newcomers picks up, I fear many of them don’t have the benefit of slower growth (at times negative growth) that I experienced. I fear that, without some thought, parts of Detroit may soon look like the bland suburban landscapes that young people are now looking to escape, while pushing out some of the people I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know.
The New York Times recently wrote a story about the policies and practices that cities are adopting to "protect a group long deemed expendable -- working and lower-middle class homeowners threatened by gentrification." Richmond, California lawmakers are looking at ways to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages and help homeowners keep their homes. Philadelphia’s Homestead Exemption allows some homeowners to reduce the assessed value of their house for tax purposes, while the Gentrification Protection law focuses on further projecting homeowners from increases to their property tax bills. Also cited in the article is our own current mayor Mike Duggan, who said property taxes would be cut by up to 20 percent to levels that more accurately represent the value of homes in the city.
With only 8.9 people per acre in Greater Downtown (compared to 31.7 people per acre in center cities like Philadelphia), and in spite of capacity at 97 percent occupancy in that same area, development is still subsidized and there are below-market rates in some of Detroit’s most populated areas. Many would say the city still has some catching up to do before thinking of such things.
It's now, however, when the market pressures are less, that we need some urgency for education (in order to create and nurture new talent) and policy innovation that considers equity and inclusivity. If we wait, the money will further brush the conversation to the side, along with the diversity that makes us interesting now and marketable in the future. Short-term lost taxes aside, this is a longer game that needs to have the ear and understanding of many people beyond the mayor alone, including the funders and developers driving projects.
It's not necessarily the people who have been here that need to be convinced. They should, however, be central in the discussion and recognized for everything they accomplished while Brooks Patterson was gathering up blankets and corn in Oakland County. From my own experience, it’s more likely the people who are moving here, many truly wanting to do something important, who can really benefit from looking at things from someone else’s perspective. It’s the 25-year old version of myself -- who has the passion and often sincerity of purpose, but lacks information and connection to the people who are most impacted by the development -- that needs to figure where and how they fit in. I'm still working on it myself.
Hopefully it’s never too late.
We like the way West Villager JIm Boyle thinks. Here's one of our favorite features ever, from late 2012: Did the Gories Save Detroit?