By Aaron Foley
Here in Detroit, we romanticize the immigrant-to-the-big-city story. We love our Ellis Island-type legends, where proud descendants of the French, the Irish, or the Lebanese regale us with tales of ancestors with nothing but dimes in their pockets and dreams in their heads of starting a new life in the booming Midwest factory town.
Here’s how my family arrived in Detroit: my great-grandfather, a notorious hustler and womanizer in Reform, Alabama, got thrown in jail again and my great-grandmother saw an escape route. So she took my grandfather, then a little boy, to his jail cell, told him to say goodbye to his father, and then left on a train North with him, my baby great-aunt, and a third great-aunt in her womb.
They arrived at Michigan Central Station, my great-grandmother wearing a black wool dress that my mother still owns. For decades, Michigan Central Station was the first impression for any newcomer to Detroit, whether an immigrant from overseas or a Negro (and later, Colored) from the South. And they all have the same story about how grand the entrance was, how packed the lobby was full of people, how the trains ran nonstop.
Michigan Central Station closed when I was two years old. I’ve only known the train station as an abandoned hulk where, instead of black Southerners hoping for a new life, it’s white hipsters with flashlights taking selfies from the rooftop after breaking in. I can go to other places in Detroit where my family had its earliest beginnings: Custer Street, where my great-grandmother and her young family first lived when they got here, or my grandmother’s childhood home on Arlington Street on the east side. But I’ve always felt something was missing because I never got to see what my relatives saw when they first arrived at the train station.
In 2018, Ford Motor Company announced that they would be purchasing the long-neglected station as part of a sweeping plan to create a Detroit campus with hundreds of employees in other buildings around Corktown. I had mixed thoughts, but was largely indifferent emotionally. By the time of the announcement, I had divorced myself from any feeling that the station would actually be renovated, no less turned over to a loving caretaker. There was a part of me that thought that every building in Detroit would be fixed back up except the train station. But when the announcement came, I shrugged because there was that other part of me thinking “well, someone’s got to do something with this.” I didn’t shout with glee nor cry tears of joy. I just kinda meh-ed the whole week of celebration and chalked it up to the latest new development in a series of big changes for Detroit.
But then I got angry. You would think—you would think!—that after thirty-two years vacant this structure, the very same vacant structure that has come to symbolize Detroit ruin-porn on an international scale, getting some TLC from an entity with lots of money to burn would be good news to everyone. But of course, this is Detroit, and it’s not.
Soon came the cries warning of gentrification, which is by far the most difficult subject that I or any other writer in this town has ever had to tackle, whether they’d care to admit it or not. What will happen to rent prices in Corktown? Will it spill over into Mexicantown? What kind of people are Ford bringing here, and will they drive existing residents out? (I had to scoff when people were concerned about the cost of living in Corktown when this was one of the first neighborhoods to start seeing condos in the $500K range, but whatever.)
I probably don’t need to tell you what gentrification is, but the common definition is when a moneyed class of people move into and transform a neighborhood whose existing residents are of a lower economic class. It can be middle-class families taking residence on a block full of artists—two professional parents who work have more money than the starving artist. It could be English speakers from out of town suddenly swarming a neighborhood of immigrants. It could even be existing residents deciding that their neighborhood needs some added panache—a street name-change here, a historical designation there—that would inadvertently, or inevitably, drive out other existing residents. The list of examples goes on.
But when we see the word “gentrification,” the immediate first thought is white people pushing out people of color. And in a city like Detroit, which is overwhelmingly black and feels like it has had more white people moving here within the last decade than ever before, it’s understandable why residents feel they’re at risk.
What does all of this have to do with the pending revamp of Michigan Central Station? This is difficult to say, but I don’t think rehabbing a building empty since 1986 and filling it with technical employees is gentrification.
I’m trying to think of the most difficult emotions I’ve experienced as a black man in America. There was the time I was nearly mowed down by a police officer in a strip-mall parking lot as I was leaving an optometry appointment. I’d fit a profile of a suspect who’d robbed a fast-food joint in the area. There were all the times I’d question why I didn’t get certain jobs despite being well-qualified, or in some cases, overly qualified. The numerous times white women have clutched their purse around me, the times I turn my music up and sing louder to drown out the fear of driving alone in unfamiliar towns, or the self-consciousness that kicks in with being over six feet tall and browner than anyone else in a room.
Something I’ve been wrestling with lately is whether it’s OK to be a black Detroiter that favors new development and doesn’t fear any potential ripple effects that may come with it.
Let me explain. I just don’t want to see another goddamn empty building that could be put back to perfectly good use in this city again.
I vividly remember a time when my grandmother was driving me to her house in Ypsilanti when I was a little boy, younger than ten, and I was ranting to her about all of the empty houses on the I-94 service drive while we were still inside the Detroit city limits. As a black child in ‘90s Detroit, I remember all the homeless people on the streets that used to be housed at mental facilities that were closed by the state at the time. Hell, growing up in Lafayette Park, we lived just a few blocks away from one of those facilities, and I remember the guys who used to run to our car’s windshield with Windex and beg to clean it. My thoughts were always this: why do we have so many empty houses and so many homeless people, and why can’t anyone do anything about it?
Of course I’d get older and learn that it’s far more complicated than that. But that little-kid voice from back then is still there: why can’t someone do something with these houses? And yeah, people are doing something with empty houses (and hopefully reading books like this after they finish renovation and move in!), but here’s my other confusion: Do we have a right to be upset about this?
I do not think gentrification’s broader definition can be applied to the city of Detroit. And that is one of the most difficult things to say out loud, because a black person saying this can be seen as traitorous unless they give a very damned good reason why.
On the surface, my reason is simple. An empty house being fixed up, or an empty train station being fixed up, that has no one occupying it, is not gentrification. There are no people being pushed out of that space, so there is no displacement. Going deeper, I’d like to think that because all the powers that be are aware of what gentrification does look like in other cities, this liberal-leaning town will take care to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes as those other cities whose residents are now looking at Detroit as a safe haven. No one wants their legacy to be that of a gentrifier.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. But perhaps Detroit is in a position to finally afford some. Gentrification has happened. In 2014, a senior citizens’ high-rise called The Griswold was re-christened The Albert, and all of its residents were kicked out while the building underwent renovations. The residents were invited back, but only if they could meet the new market-rate rents instead of the affordable rents they were paying before. To add insult to injury, a much-mocked and now-deleted promotional video for The Albert featuring mostly white millennials declaring, “This is my generation’s city!” and gushing about the new appliances and hardwood floors completely erased any of the building’s recent history.
The fiasco at The Albert led to changes at the municipal level. Any new apartment building, whether renovating an existing structure or building a new one, must have at least twenty percent of its units be affordable to residents falling under the Average Median Income threshold. And any existing building with affordable rates that wants to convert to market-rate housing can no longer seek tax abatements from the City of Detroit to pursue renovation.
Neither measure prevents a landlord from jacking up its rent on a poor family tomorrow or a restaurant owner who decides to sell $30 swordfish instead of $3 coneys. It does, however, give a little breathing room as we all try to navigate how to add more residents without displacing existing ones. But old buildings are being converted. Empty buildings are full again. I’m seeing people that look like me in them. And I try not to worry.
I started to get a little angry as the celebrations and positive media coverage went on and the commentary started to roll in (when we all look back in history, we’ll see that Ford Motor Company handled the public-relations rollout of purchasing an old building better than any launch of a new model.) Sure, like any cynic, I could do without yet another so-called “exclusive,” one-on-one interview with Bill Ford Jr., about what he’s planning on doing with the toilets or whatever the fuck in the train station. But the commentary is what got me. There were people who actively wondered why now is the time to renovate the train station.
Why now? Why not thirty years ago? Twenty years ago? Ten? The thing has been empty for so long, does it matter at this point when it gets fixed back up? I’m tired of seeing it empty. I think people that live around the station are tired of seeing it empty.
To not be a jackass in Detroit is to be willing to accept change, and that some things should not stay the same way they are. Now, that doesn’t mean accept change at any cost. All new development need checks and balances, and Lord knows we don’t want things to spiral out of control as they have in other cities. (And let’s not forget how large Detroit is and how far away we are from our city looking even remotely like anyone else’s does right now.) But I look at the people who are making the comments asking whether Detroit is losing its identity with all the new developments happening. Its identity as what, exactly—a city full of empty buildings?
Hardly anyone in this town is old enough to remember that when my great-grandmother arrived, Michigan Avenue (where the train station is), Woodward Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Harper Avenue, Livernois Avenue, every main thoroughfare in town, were lined with retail shops. And some of those stores were—gasp!—chain stores. So when people scoff at a chain store that pops up in a storefront that’s been empty for fifteen years and that chain stores automatically come to define gentrification (or that chain stores are making Detroit lose its identity, when we literally have an identity partly built on chain stores— hello, Kmart), I get a little angry then, too.
I get a little angry because some of the people I see making this commentary are young white millennials who moved into the city less than five years ago, and seem to already be dictating what they want in a city. I wrestle with my emotions again as a black man because I don’t want to scare them off, but also because I don’t want to hide my black-ass feelings and tell them how I really feel. I keep wanting to say how misguided they are because they came into a Detroit with all this wreckage but are living among people who remember when the wreckage wasn’t here, and how arrogant and selfish it is to want it to stay just the way it is to please their own newfound sensibilities without taking into consideration everybody who wants all this shit to change.
I get a little angry at my own people because sometimes I hear us saying we don’t want things to change either. And then I wrestle more because you start to feel those traitorous feelings again, whether you’re letting your own people down because this is the stance you want to take. And I get a little angry at myself for letting all these feelings collide, because talking about gentrification in Detroit is really fucking delicate and complicated and we won’t know until years from now whether or not it’s taken hold.
Aaron Foley is a writer and Detroit native. In 2017, he was appointed as the City of Detroit Government’s chief storyteller, a position created for him by Mayor Mike Duggan to tell the stories of Detroiters citywide. Prior to that appointment, he has served as the editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine and has written for Jalopnik, MLive, and several other publications. His Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook was published by Belt Publishing in 2017.
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