Author’s Note: As NewsHour columnist Vikram Mansharamani wrote in his column this week, cities are having a renaissance. “Young professionals are…increasingly working and living downtown, drawn by exciting employment opportunities,” he wrote.
Three years after the city filed for bankruptcy, the same can now be said of Detroit’s downtown. Mostly young, mostly white entrepreneurs and professionals are moving to the city as they land jobs at businesses like Quicken Loans, attracted by cheap rent and other financial incentives. New coffee shops, restaurants, bars, art galleries and boutique shops are also drawing new visitors downtown.
But at the same time, the majority black city is seeing black residents leave for the suburbs in search of better schools, public services and lower crime. The investments made in downtown, or “midtown,” Detroit have not spread to the rest of the 139-square mile city.
“We’ve got water shutoffs. We’ve got issues with our schools. We’ve got a lot of things going on — blight, abandonment, crime — which millennials aren’t so excited about once they really start digging deep in Detroit,” said Aaron Foley, author of “How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass” and editor of BLAC Detroit.
I spoke with Aaron Foley about the revitalization of midtown, gentrification and, of course, how not to be a jackass. You can read that below, and for more, watch our Making Sen$e report on Detroit-based luxury watch company Shinola. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
— Kristen Doerer
Kristen Doerer: Your book is titled “How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass.” Are there a lot of jackasses in Detroit?
Aaron Foley: I mean, yeah. A jackass in my opinion is someone who’s disrespectful of Detroit culture, Detroit history, someone who is trying to erase what we have here, change what we have here. It is one thing to improve upon a foundation that was laid here by Detroit. There really was blood, sweat and tears to make the city what it is.
This isn’t to say, “No, you can’t open that store. No, you can’t live here. No, you can’t do this.” Nobody ever says no, but what people are asking for is consideration. If you want to renovate a building, make it affordable, so that it doesn’t drive up the rents in the other buildings surrounding it. If you want to open a business, open a business that’s friendly and inclusive.
It’s not saying you’re not welcome here. Just don’t be a jerk. People move into neighborhoods, start renovating houses in Detroit and don’t talk to the people literally next door. When you think about the demographics of Detroit, Detroit is mostly black. When you have younger white kids moving into neighborhoods and more often than not coming from suburbs that have had very tense relationships with the city, it’s not the best move to not interact with the people around you.
Kristen Doerer: So you saw a need for the book then?
Aaron Foley: Yeah, because I was a jackass at one point too. I went to college and lived in the East Lansing area for a little while and came back to Detroit, but I did not come back to the neighborhood I grew up in. I moved to a different neighborhood and I learned quickly that not all neighborhoods are created equal, not all of them operate the same. So when I tried to impress onto my neighbors some of the things I thought would be good for my neighborhood, they said, “No. You are coming into our space, our territory. You should be more adaptive to how we’ve been doing things here.” I saw those same pitfalls happening with other people, but a lot of people were more stubborn than I was.
Kristen Doerer: You mention the racial tensions and the history of Detroit. How much does that history still live on?
Aaron Foley: I mean it shows in different ways. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, you had open beatings of black people on the street. You had walls being built to keep people out of certain neighborhoods. You had blatant examples of racism. Now, it’s in a different form — look at how the resources are spread out. The schools here in Detroit aren’t funded or as properly equipped as schools in the suburbs. If you look at where rents are going up, it’s affecting black people who are at the lower end of the economic scale more than anybody else.
There has always been somebody saying, “Let the state take over the schools. We’ll make the schools better.” The state didn’t make the schools better. “Let the city file bankruptcy.” The city did navigate out of bankruptcy, but that affected pensions and things like that.
We’re trying to move past some of these things. We don’t want to forget it, and we certainly want to acknowledge it. In order to make this a healthier place for everybody, it takes a little bit of understanding — especially with the new residents who are moving in.
Kristen Doerer: How can newcomers not offend people when talking about Detroit?
Aaron Foley: When people come to Detroit they see Detroit as a blank canvas and a blank slate, and it does become opportunistic, because people will say, “Oh, it’s a playground!” People think it’s a place where you can do whatever you want to. But that’s not true. It’s not a blank canvas, because that assumes that nobody lives here, and we still we have around 700,000 people living here.
Kristen Doerer: You’ve mentioned a divide between Detroit and the suburbs – is there one within Detroit?
Aaron Foley: Within Detroit, we do have a divide between who is getting the most resources and where most of the attention is being paid. Can Detroit as of now afford a trickle-down model? A model where it will start in midtown and then it will trickle down to the rest of the city?
The rest of the city is big and has different needs than what midtown has to offer. We can’t wait for the investment to trickle down from midtown to everywhere else.
Kristen Doerer: What do people not from Detroit need to know about Detroit?
Aaron Foley: So in the past 5 to 10 years, there have been major federal indictments, federal charges, automotive bankruptcies and a city bankruptcy — so those are the things everyone thinks of when they think of Detroit.
They think, “This house has been abandoned, because the mayor took all the money, or this neighborhood is like this because of the auto industry,” and those are only small pieces to a very large and complicated puzzle. Detroit’s population hit its peak in the 1940s at 2 million, but then it started dropping off as the suburbs were developed, as freeways were put in. So it was all these systemic things — an accumulating snowball — that led to how Detroit is today. It wasn’t like one person or one industry brought us to this. The other thing is that we are a city full of proud people, proud to be living here. That’s how Detroiters have always been.