One Detroit, or two?

Coleman Young II campaigning in Detroit.
Coleman Young II campaigning in Detroit. Facebook

Things will be heating up on the mayoral election over the next few weeks. As much as I love to hate the guy in Washington, I need to spread a little D-Town love around.

I don't hate either of this year's candidates. The last time I really hated on a mayoral candidate was Kwame Kilpatrick in 2005. He won. Truth is that I voted for Kilpatrick in 2001 because that year I hated Gil Hill, the "greased eel" of local politics according to media activist David Rambeau. When he was City Council president I was sure Hill was on the take from casino gambling interests during the fight to establish casinos here.

This year's election features incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan being taken on by state Sen. Coleman Young II, son of this town's most famous and controversial mayor. At this point the candidates are presenting us with the one vs. two argument.

A piece of campaign literature from Duggan focuses on the "one city for all of us" theme. A campaign video on Young's Facebook page opens with the stark words, "The truth of the matter is there are two Detroits."

There you go: one vs. two.

One vs. two has all the basic starkness of a binary code, yet is full of the shadows and subtexts that make Detroit what it is. It's really downtown vs. the neighborhoods, or black vs. white, or old vs. new, or rich vs. poor, and all those dichotomies we like to use to heighten the contradictions and make our points.

When you look at the numbers from the primary election, it's pretty stark too. Duggan got 69 percent of the vote; Young took 29. More than convincing enough Duggan voters to vote for him, Young's challenge is to garner the votes of folks who didn't vote in the primary — a massive get-out-the-vote program. Of course, Young has to also woo Duggan supporters, but when you trail by 40 points in the primary you're not going to peel away enough support from the incumbent to win.

The terrain for this battle will be the neighborhoods. Young's campaign video shows contrasting footage of a vibrant downtown and abandoned, trash-ridden houses in a neighborhood. Duggan's literature touts the new businesses that have opened "across Detroit" during his administration.

But let's take it to a neighborhood. I've been following the Fitz Forward neighborhood revitalization initiative that Duggan kicked off in April. My interest is partly because I used to live in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, and partly because I see it as a test case to see if downtown revitalization can really expand to the neighborhoods.

Today's delve isn't about what businesses are opening on McNichols or grants or grand plans. I cruised every street of the neighborhood to talk to folks and get their perspective of developments.

"Watch out, they gonna think you the police," warned a guy who stepped away from a group of men standing on a corner.

I had been driving slowly along the street and pulled over to talk to the group. This guy reported that he had seen various groups of people coming through the neighborhood. He'd seen Duggan, too. "The mayor's been coming over here," the guy told me. "He rides by himself. I have seen him several times. He's not lying about that."

The pervasive thing that people mentioned was that they had seen groups of people walking around looking at houses, sometimes going inside them.

An 89-year-old woman on San Juan Street told me she bought her house there in the 1950s, and hers was the first black family on the block. She also said that she had tried to buy the empty house next door for her daughter, but when she went to the city about it, workers couldn't tell her who owned it. More recently she inquired again and was told she would have to bid on the house at an auction.

The look of revival has not settled on the neighborhood. There are still plenty of empty, falling down houses, but maybe there are fewer of them. The vacant lots are there but they are looking less overgrown to me. Maybe somebody mowed them four or five weeks ago.

Some of the neatest lots were on a block where I spoke with Dionisio Benbery. He told me he owns two houses on the block and runs adult care groups homes there. "We try to keep the block together," he says. "We keep an eye out."

He pointed out a couple of lots down the street that a neighbor mows. There was a sign that reads "Neighborhood don't dump" in front of them. It looks like a bit of local pride and sense of ownership coming out there.

Benbery says that along with his father-in-law, Bishop Alan T. Justice of the Peoples Community Apostolic Church at Puritan and Tuller, he owns six properties in the neighborhood.

While there are plenty of vacant lots in the area — 311 according to information available at — it doesn't look like urban agriculture has caught on there, despite a new farmers market nearby on Livernois. I saw one well-tended garden and a couple of shaky ones. There were none of the big operations with hoop houses I see in other areas.

I also didn't see any evidence of the bike path and greenway planned to run along Grove Street. When Duggan kicked off Fitz Forward from the future site of Ella Fitzgerald Park, he promised the bike path and park would be done by the end of the year. There's no evidence of either at the moment.

There is, however, plenty of wildlife around. One guy sitting on his porch pointed out a house across the street where he says that 10 raccoons live, detailing to me where they climb up to the roof and enter through a second story window.

"I never did eat raccoons to be honest with you," he said in reply to my question about dining on them.

I chatted with Clarence Jackson who was walking his dog along Marygrove Street near Wyoming. He told me that there had been some demolitions, the mayor had been around, and that some white families had moved into the neighborhood.

Fitz Forward is a two-year project and we're not yet six months into it. Maybe this is like painting a room with most of the time doing prep work, and things don't start looking good until you put a coat of paint on it. I don't know.

It's going to be up to Duggan to convince us that this is the real thing, and that he cares about the neighborhoods. Young is going to try to convince us that this is just window dressing for an administration that cares only for the businesses downtown, and there are in fact two different Detroits.

There are actually three or four or more Detroits, and that has always been the case, as I am learning from the book The Dawn of Detroit by Tiya Miles (2017, The New Press).

The trick for either of these candidates to be successful is to get enough of the inhabitants to move with one purpose.

I'd vote for that.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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