Gentrification and Race: Can We Have a Real Conversation?

Apr 28, 2015 at 3:46 pm

THIS MORNING, guys came into the soup kitchen full of news that Kelly’s Mission up the street (where a number of our guests find nightly shelter) had received an offer on the building. I wasn’t surprised. A few weeks back I got a similar call from a well-heeled real estate agent in Farmington Hills asking, should the conditions be right, would I consider an offer and sell St. Peter’s Church! He said, rude and presumptuous I thought, “I’m in the business of kissing frogs, and every once in a while one of them turns out to be a prince.”

St Peter’s parish is Corktown, first neighborhood westerly adjacent to downtown. For 60 years it has been the “Catholic Worker neighborhood,” home first to St. Francis House and now to the current Worker, Day House. For the last 35 years St Peter’s has hosted Manna Community Meal, the CW soup kitchen and now houses a water station providing emergency relief to any of the 36,000 people who live without water due to shut-offs.

We sit on Michigan Ave – one of Detroit’s “spoke streets” that as Route 12 and the Red Arrow Highway goes all the way to Chicago. Yes, Michigan Avenue along the water front in the Windy City is one and the same. It was once the Native American’s Sauk Trail, though to be honest the Potowatomi and Anishenabe peoples were themselves walking a game trail, one cut through the dense forest by mastodons and other creatures. Europeans turned it into a road, partly to accommodate military movements when the two waterfronts became fortified to claim and protect commerce and to enforce Indian Removal as statehood loomed.

St. Peter’s is kitty corner from old Tiger Stadium, now a vast hole in the world, soon to be filled with a mixed use development of Police Athletic League sports, upscale housing and shops. Supported by a Federal earmark of $3 million, its public announcement probably triggered the relator’s speculative kisses.

Before our very eyes Michigan Avenue, is being redeveloped and gentrified. Looking west toward Kelley’s there is among other things a new restaurant called Gold Cash Gold. Empty some years, it was once a pawn shop. The sign and the painted brick message are touched up and left as ironic nostalgia, acclaimed as a name, a quaint reminiscence of the days when people here bet their jewelry and their hopes on paying the rent and yet escaping debt to reclaim heirlooms of family memory. Now the menu suggests an appetizer: “Crispy pig ears, papaya chutney, house hot sauce, sorrel.” Local Detroit whole hog.

Corktown and Conquistadors

Some six years ago, following a meeting with a group of new community residents, most all white, who were pressing us to close the kitchen – because “feeding people was only enabling their addictions,” I received minutes of their meeting prior. They are reproduced here in part, not to vilify but to edify. Truly. I often use them in teaching urban ministry courses. They are, in the truest sense, “classic” and ought to be part of a case study volume. Names have been deleted.

Hi Conquistadors, [remember I’m not making this up].

INTERESTED… We’ve picked four projects to get started on. (and a secret one that can’t be discussed via email…how very mysterious).
1.The Music Festival
Hopefully, this totally radical indie rock concert will be held next year in front of the train station–in tandem with tour de troit, already a successful Corktown event. XXX will be leading the Music Festival Committee–and working with XXX, who is heading up the annual tour de troit…
2. Team Bagley Market
These folks will start organizing complaints against Bagley Market, as well as rogue acts of bad will. We hope to make their operation as difficult as possible until the day when we can afford to swoop in and buy them out to open our own specialty grocery. Would anyone like to lead this team?
3. The Bermuda Triangle
This includes (but is not limited to) activism to stop the free handouts in our neighborhood that facilitate the drugs, crime and general malcontent that thrives from St Peters to the Train Station to the Mission on Michigan. XXX and I are hoping to go talk to the people at the church next week and will give an update. We’ll try being nice first…

To exegete this memo, you need to begin with “conquistadors,” which of course is “only a joke,” but a revealing one with respect to white euro-centric imperial supremacy and particularly oblivious (or not so) to the Latino cultural context of Southwest Detroit. The other way in is through the pronouns, including the possessive ones. Who are “we?” and what, by whom, is claimed as “ours?” In the wake of the memo, I proposed that we have some conversations together about a different way to do things, about community and gentrification, but the use of the latter word was deemed “pejorative and offensive.”

One element of the current neighborhood redevelopment is the proliferation of bars, brew pubs, and distilleries. I now count 17 bars on or adjacent to Michigan. Some are so close that St Peter’s is required to sign off on their liquor licenses. It’s ironic for those so concerned about enabling addictions. One distillery funded by a $7 billion Parisian company, purports to be a local production and goes by the name, Our/Detroit Vodka, both appropriating “Detroit” literally as a brand and exercising the imperial “our.”

The primary matter of note is that each of the agenda items is being addressed. The park in front of the train station now has its own conservancy and annually hosts a totally indie rock festival, along with a barbecue tent, and the starting line for the bike tour, plus an annual “corn hole” tournament. Roosevelt Park, long a space for homeless folk, had its benches officially removed to pre-empt loiterable rest. And one mid-November a police sweep carted off people’s tents and lean-tos, kindly removing residents to shelters or if need be jail. The train station itself, had been empty and abandoned for decades, stripped and windowless, a fascination for ruin porn urban spelunkers, and a perpetual set for movies – feature and indie zombie alike. Owned by real estate billionaire Matty Moroun, who also holds the Ambassador Bridge, it is now secured and commercial windows are going it.

To be frank, I was never a big fan of Bagley Market. It has had issues over the years. But rogue acts of bad will had never occurred to me. Our approach was to start a community garden across the street on church property. But now someone has swooped in to buy it; the upstairs residents are put out and the place is undergoing gut-rehab. What specialty enterprise is about to move in remains to be seen.

As to the pivots of the Bermuda Triangle, the park is dealt with. If the other two are not openly for sale, they are at least viewed as marketable targets. I confess to wondering what the buyers might envision for us at St Peter’s. Leveling the whole place and building condos from scratch? Another option: perhaps our social justice bee hive would become market rate offices and the church a performance space night-club. The sanctuary itself, with good acoustics, is deeply contemplative and beautiful. Built in the midst of the ’29 crash, it remains unfinished: walls of exposed brick do readily harken to that urban loft ambiance. The basement, preserving the linoleum, the stainless steel, and the worn woodwork, could be a restaurant – Manna Community Grill and Brew Pub.

But our guests? Those who come for food and warmth, for improvised community, for being treated with dignity and respect, who variously make the neighborhood home – would be found elsewhere.

What’s in a Name?

I used to serve as associate to a congregation in the Cass Corridor, somewhat north of Corktown. That was a neighborhood teeming with life and culture, single room occupancy hotels, streetlife in parks and porches and projects, bars where Sixto Rodriguez regularly played. A place where they use to “kick out the jams.” The church served the neighborhood, which poured daily in and out the front door. We ran a senior center, a program for the developmentally disabled, youth basketball and open meals. We had connection with the local school and were home to Michigan Welfare Rights. When they set up a tent city for homeless folks, it was next door to the church. We hosted the local community organization and founded a Housing Development Project.

Now the neighborhood has been rebranded as “Midtown.” The SRO’s are most all gone, some converted to condos. The University Police, the largest private force in the city, patrols the community. The corporations and the Medical Center pay their employees to move in as renters or buyers, though the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation still holds and rehabs buildings for fixed and middle income folks. At the church, there is still a worshiping community on Sundays and its programs are actually larger than ever, heavily funded by the state and the foundations – but many are located elsewhere, at a big facility in northwest Detroit. What is the role and responsibility of the church in community, specifically with respect to displacement?

Rebranding, this contrived changing of names, is a common and important aspect of gentrification. Are you down with the program? Do you call it Midtown or Cass Corridor? What do you remember? What do you forget?

Ironically, the Cass in Cass Corridor is Governor/General Lewis Cass who was Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War during Indian removal, and among the largest land owners in Michigan (including 500 acres along the Detroit waterfront). He oversaw the land concessions of indigenous community. In 1819 Chief Ogemaw-ke lamented, “Your people trespass on our hunting grounds. You flock to our shores. Our waters grow warm. Our lands melt away like a cake of ice. Our possessions grow smaller and smaller. The warm wave of the white man rolls in upon us and melts us away. Our women reproach us. Our children want homes. Shall we sell from under them the spot where they spread their blankets?” (Conot, American Odyssey). Yet the name, “Cass Corridor,” (from his farm) for all its untold irony had been embraced by a community full of life.

“Midtown,” a moniker contrived by a foundation-funded non-profit, is a name that erases not just the sordid history of Governor Cass, but the remembrance of poor and black, Chinese and Indian people’s business and streetlife. It is a name better suited to the stops of a rail line connecting downtown to the New Center area.

Names of many neighborhood schools have likewise been changed by emergency management. Take the gratuitous renaming of Finney High School to East English Village Academy (Finney was an abolitionist and East English Village is another newly minted neighborhood). A friend of mine struggled long and hard over whether to show her mother the published map which redesignates Mexicantown as “The Garment District.” The earlier name had been struggled over but was finally claimed with pride. In the thirties, 15,000 Detroiters (many native citizens) were “repatriated” back to Mexico on depression premise that the Mexicans were taking our jobs. Most who survived returned home to Mexicantown. Now some of them suddenly live in the Garment District, named for newly arrived Detroit fashion start-ups. (

Subsidized Housing in Corktown

Corktown history buffs love to tell the story, and rightly so, of the struggle to save the neighborhood from the leveling hand of urban renewal. Postwar, two neighborhoods were chosen as “blighted” and for destruction. Then as now, “blight” was a slippery term whose meaning mostly suited the purposes of those who wanted the land. Hastings Street (Black Bottom/Paradise Valley with enormous cultural assets and vitality) was African American; Corktown, originally Irish fleeing the potato famine, was by then two-thirds Maltese and Mexican. People in Corktown organized, signed petitions, did neighborhood clean-ups, improved their homes, and went to City Council hearings. Father John Mangrum, one of my predecessors at St Peter’s spoke against the clearing. “Destroy families, tear up homes and supplant them with questionable business development and the wrath of God will fall on this city.” But the Council voted unanimously to clear 129 acres between Michigan and Fort Street.

Rebuilt housing promised for 140 displaced families never materialized. Light industry filled the space, as was the city’s plan, except for a three-block stretch, a bufferland along Bagley that remained vacant for a quarter century. I remember walking across it regularly. You could flush pheasants up from the deep grass and I still have a photo of the path cross at its center where two diagonal short cuts intersected. Eventually a group of Corktown neighbors spearheaded by Shirley Beaupre, now of blessed memory, decided that subsidized housing should be built there. In 1985 they accomplished the low and moderate income project, called Clem Kern Gardens after Corktown’s other activist priest. Now surrounded by an iron grate fence, it is today virtually all black, lending Corktown an appearance of good diversity stats.

You want my guess? The suburban speculators have noticed its location and value. Perhaps the management company has received a cold call. I bet the iron fence comes down if it’s converted to condos. A new name would be in the works too.

Meanwhile, there is still subsidized housing in Corktown, but it’s of a very different sort. A number of corporations (Quicken Loans, DTE, the Detroit Medical Center, Blue Cross/Blue Shield) pay their employees to move into downtown neighborhoods. Quicken, which aggressively denies selling predatory loans but which profited enormously from the mortgage crisis in Detroit recently built a multi-million dollar fiber optic data storage site on Rosa Parks. The loan company also grants its workers $20K in forgiveable loans to buy a house in Corktown, or $2500 to rent. This is an issue for us at St Peter’s because we rent out a two flat house and the first person to apply was from Quicken. We had to decide whether we would participate in the program and to think through a policy. We do consider it a subsidy, not one enabling poor folks to live in mixed income neighborhoods, but one for corporate employees, artificially altering the market, effectively raising rents and values, and forcing out low income people. We decline officially and publicly to participate.

Michigan Ave. business start-ups are subsidized too. A number, including one of the distilleries, have gotten grants which I believe come from the ear-mark for the Tiger Stadium site. A bagel shop, great place, good coffee, nice folks, dedicated localists, got $50K. I’ll bet Gold Cash Gold too.

Displacement, Race, and the G-word

The term “gentrification,” originated in England where the landed gentry were moving back into London neighborhoods and displacing working class residents. It’s an urban economic process where depressed land values draw investment which changes those values (taxes, rents, and costs) driving people out. But it is also where driving certain people out changes land values. Those who take offense at use of the term in this neighborhood constantly assert that no-one is being displaced.

Further downtown, but toward Corktown there is an apartment building which has been renamed the Albert, after its famous architect, Albert Kahn. Residents were evicted and a major rehab was undertaken. This is common as center city vacancy rates are now less than 5%. As conversion became complete a promotional video, geared to young people was produced. Largely an advertisement for downtown, it portrayed the opportunity and resources of city living. “It’s our generation’s turn now.” Visuals were full of marble countertops, strip lighting and hardwood floors -and mostly white folks crooning about our place, our time. On youtube it generated lots of hits, many as unanticipated push back. The video equivalent of the conquistador memo. Before they could pull it down, brilliant guerilla film-maker Kate Levy snatched it off public media and mashed it up with interviews she had done with the mostly black residents in walkers and wheel chairs telling their struggle to remain in the building or have some of the apartments reserved for them. It’s very moving. ( This was not a Dan Gilbert/Quicken building, but he had one just like it next door – one of his seventy downtown properties bought at fire sale prices.

A few months ago, Nolan Finley, opinion editor at The Detroit News, who has been an unabashed supporter of emergency management, new white “Mayor” Mike Duggan, Detroit bankruptcy, and water shut-offs, wrote a surprising lament about downtown asking “Where are the Black People?” He’d suddenly noticed their absence from upscale venues and downtown festivals.

It’s a clear red flag when you can sit in a hot new downtown restaurant and nine out of 10 tables are filled with white diners, a proportion almost exactly opposite of the city’s racial make-up… It should stop us in our tracks — as it did me the other day — when a group of 50 young professionals being groomed for future leadership shows up to hear advice from a senior executive, and there’s only one black member among them.

Why hadn’t African Americans done the same thing as the white suburban creatives seizing opportunity in Detroit? It was mystery to him. He was pretty sure it wasn’t about racism and thought it outright ridiculous to say it was about gentrification. (Detroit News 12/14/14)

Not everyone is averse to the G-word. George Jackson Jr., now resigned as head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, named it just “one of the costs of progress.” He told a Grosse Pointe audience, “When I look at this city’s tax base, I say bring on more gentrification…I’m sorry, but, I mean, bring it on.” Emergency managed and mayoral policies do encourage it.

Last year Spike Lee let loose his notorious rant about gentrification in Bedford Stuyvesant – police protection, city services, name changes, access to schools, and cultural disrespect all figured in. Yet there are big differences between Detroit gentrification and that same process in Brooklyn or Chicago where land values, population density, and market centers do create intense competition and conspire rapid displacement. To understand gentrification in Detroit involves panning back to the bigger picture of displacement in the city as a whole.

Moving People Out

The reduction of the city’s population from 2 million in the fifties to maybe 700,000 at present happened in waves. Nearly all were mediated by race as a matter of public and economic policy. Long before the 1967 rebellion, white flight was well organized. The suburbs were created post-war by guaranteed GI Bill and FHA loans that were only available for new housing and only for whites. Restrictive covenants (explicitly forbidding sale to blacks) built into title deeds were legally enforceable until the mid-fifties and functioned de facto thereafter. Guns and baseball bats backed them up. When housing discrimination was made technically illegal, banks devised “redlining” policies to withhold loan credit from black neighborhoods which were “not good investments,” but offered it freely in white ones.

Disinvestment from the city was best signaled by the invention of the shopping mall, essentially by JL Hudsons – the first one in the US just north of 8 Mile Road. Eventually Hudsons abandoned their downtown facility which sat as a ghostly hulk until it was famously imploded. Interstate expressways that decimated, divided, and displaced communities of color also enabled whites to move, but drive back into the city for their blue and white collar jobs. Eventually, the auto companies moved headquarters or plants to the suburbs, before they discovered the south and south of the border.

There was good money to be made in moving white people. Real estate companies developed “blockbusting,” a practice of controlling the line between the black and white communities. They would move one black family into a block and then send postcards to all the other houses on the block: “We’ve sold a home on your street; if you might also be interested in selling please call…” Racial and economic fears were fused and people indeed sold quick. I went to Cooley High School in the sixties and I saw those postcards on Ardmore Street. Cheap homes invited absentee landlords and speculators extracting rent without maintaining properties. Meanwhile, real estate developers were busy throwing up homes and stripmalls, inventing suburban sprawl. White flight, industrial flight, job flight, and capital flight were structurally engineered, and did indeed strip the city’s tax base, devalue its land, impoverish its people, and corrupt its housing stock.

Fast forward to the most recent waves of population loss, equally driven by race. The financial crisis and depression of 2007 were constructed on financial instruments which bundled sub-prime mortgages into marketable securities. Predatory loans had actually been targeted and disproportionately sold in black communities. People who once owned their homes outright found themselves facing impossible balloon payments, foreclosure, and eviction. A city, once holding the largest number of homeowners in the nation has become the city with the highest foreclosure rate. The whole thing was actually illegal, but the banks got bailed out. And then their loans (not the current value of the home they took back but the full value of the original loan) were covered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Now if they sit on the house, refusing to sell, and it burns mysteriously, they get the insurance settlement as well. Sounds like triple dipping to me. It was a massive financial extraction that further wasted black neighborhoods in Detroit.

At the last census there was a scramble to count homeless folks and find a million people in Detroit, but it turned out we could only locate 713,000. Geez, what happened to all those people? Expelled? Displaced? Irresponsible borrowers consigned to the economic darkness.

And here is where the Detroit gentrification narrative diverges from Chicago or Bed Sty. A city of 139 square miles now has over 40 square miles in cleared land, many in small parcels. So infrastructure for twice the people. A certain logic dictates what Mayor Bing called downsizing. But how?

There is a 1 inch thick book of maps called Detroit Future City, a study funded by foundations. It’s not a democratically accountable city planning document, but the mayor’s chief planner once called it his new bible. It makes not a single mention of race, or racial distribution in the city, but it suggests neighborhoods which have a future and will receive infrastructure and support, and others whose future is to become green space or water retention areas. This also means clearing land into large tracks which can be developed later or sooner. What about the folks who still live in those areas, who have hung in and tried to hold community in a deteriorating neighborhood, planting gardens in the shards? Are they getting eminent domain payments for their properties.

No. But here is how they can be encouraged to leave: withdraw city services. Turn off the lights. Close the neighborhood schools and let them decay before your eyes. Churches can be withdrawn too. (Before the last round of church closings the cardinal sat down with the mayor presumeably to hear which neighborhoods had no future). When precincts go, crime increases intolerably. There is a history in Detroit of using drug traffic concentration to clear neighborhoods slated for redevelopment. Think Brush Park, State Fair Grounds, Detroit Airport. If you turn off hydrants and distance firehouses, smoke or fire can do the same thing. Years ago in Poletown arson was funded by demolition contractors paying kids to set blazes – it being easier to haul off a burned out hulk half carried away on the wind. But the winds of fear and smoke also carry people off.

Residential water can be shut off. That drives out renters first. Last year there were upwards of 30,000. With spring at hand the shut-off season is about to resume with 36,000 homes slated, 3,000 per week. Moreover, water bills are now attached as liens to tax bills, so home owners can be foreclosed for being in arears. This holy week, 62,000 homes in Detroit go into tax foreclosure – 37,000 of them occupied. What, a hundred thousand mostly black folks sent packing from their inconvenient neighborhoods? Their properties will go the largest landlord in the city: the Detroit Land Bank. (The Atlantic,Oct. 2014 “One fifth of Detroit’s Population Could Lose Their Homes”).

Isn’t there money to keep people in their homes? There is: more than $400 million in federal funds designated for Hardest Hit Homeowners. But it’s not being released by the Governor. Well, a third of it has been released for demolition and blight removal. The Detroit Blight Removal Authority is headed by Bill Pulte, 26 year old grandson of the largest homebuilder in the country, based in Bloomfield Hills. And the Detroit Blight Task Force, which did the mapping of neighborhoods and the structures to be demolished, is headed by, yes, Dan Gilbert. Both have vested interests in clearing black and poor neighborhoods of Detroit.

Here we come close to gentrification, Detroit-style. There are increasingly two Detroits. One growing, largely white and monied – neighborhoods along the riverfront and the Woodward corridor, as well as a few others along the spoke streets of the city. The other is largely black and shrinking. The one is privileged with resources public and private. Wealth from the other is squeezed. Displacement in the latter benefits the former in resources, infrastructure, and land value.

Think about it: the marketable value of St Peter’s corner goes up not just because of development across the street, but because of expelling people and clearing land in other neighborhoods. The market, as they say, becomes more focused. We are privileged by their loss. Does it have to be so?

Our Confession

If you live in the Catholic Worker neighborhood and feel judged, even convicted, by this story and you are still with me, then you are the very person I am hoping would read. If you live or work or worship in the Catholic Worker neighborhood and are happily reading along because, like me, you could feel justified by this story, then you too are one I am hoping would read. If you live in a part of the city and have qualms about your location, if you live in the suburbs and know the real history of how you got there, if you reside in a portion of the city under assault as blighted and without future, even if you are a public official, or a private one for that matter, tracking the narratives about gentrification and having a hand in public policy – then perhaps we have gathered the very readers I’d hoped.

My own confession is that I live in a two-block stretch of Southwest Detroit which could readily become a white enclave. When our family moved here more than twenty years ago it was the aging rear guard of an eastern European neighborhood since become majority Latino. At one point there were seventeen connected households of white families, part of the extended Catholic Worker activist community. We had a common life together on our block, but not much relationship to our neighbors. Notice the pronouns. I am confessing them.

When it came time for all our children to begin high school, a number of our community moved out of the city, largely for the sake of education. Our family stayed on the block, but our girls went to an excellent Catholic high school in Farmington Hills. This was during the first state takeover of the public schools at the turn of the century by the Engler administration – done in order to control, direct, and extract nearly a billion dollars in bond money for school reconstruction, but it also was also the beginning of a process dismantling public education in Detroit. To facilitate that a campaign by New Detroit and others denigrating DPS was developed, and I suppose we bought the mainstream narrative.

Our family was privileged to have our daughters well educated. They are still on the block or in the community engaging the city’s movement struggles for justice. I’m proud of them. Indeed a number of the young people who moved away are coming home to our street, rerooting. As that happens (we are now much more connected in community with neighbors on the block) and as other young white folks with good urban politics are likewise drawn to the neighborhood, we are forced to be asking ourselves: how do we keep from gentrifying our own street? We slow new moves. And we keep this critical confessional question before our hearts.

Gentrification for some is a calculated strategy. But for others, much like white privilege, it operates in a blissful self-ignorance. What water? says the fish. Both must be named to be seen, and often painfully so. Both must be confessed. I’d be glad it this story was part of that confession.

The questions remain. Can we have a real conversation about gentrification in Detroit? How about here in St. Peter’s parish, in the Catholic Worker neighborhood? I can say we’d be willing to host it. Could we honor the history and struggle of the neighborhood and city, not as ironic kitsch nostalgia, but as a way of joining a living struggle for justice now going on? Is gentrification just a relentless process that grinds on oblivious of human lives, or can it be creatively resisted and altered inside and out? Can a neighborhood be consciously and truly mixed income, including street people, or is there no alternative to apartheid security? What would we have to slow or stop, what encourage and support? Could the “our” in our neighborhood be not exclusionary, but wide and universal? Whose city? Our City! Whose neighborhood? Our neighborhood! Whose community? Our Beloved Community!

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a United Methodist pastor under appointment to St Peter’s since 2006. A nonviolent community activist, teacher and writer, his ministry extends in a number of directions. This article originally appeared in On the Edge, a paper of the Detroit Catholic Worker, Spring 2015. It also appeared on the website of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management