The Brooklynization of Detroit is going to be terrible for Detroiters

Will an influx of affluent, creative ex-Brooklynites further marginalize Detroit’s poor?
Will an influx of affluent, creative ex-Brooklynites further marginalize Detroit’s poor?
Image: Reuters/Joshua Lott
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Detroit is the next Bushwick, according to a recent trend report in The New York Times, which has designated the Motor City the “last stop on the L train.” (The L is a subway line that services lower Manhattan and northern Brooklyn, passing through the infamously hipsterish neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick, et al.)

If what the Times claims is true—that droves of Brooklyn creative-types, priced out of shoebox apartments and miniature studio spaces are indeed packing their bags for Detroit—the repopulation of Michigan’s largest city might just be the most ambitious gentrification project in the history of American city living.

And, it goes without saying, the most upsetting.

Gentrification is itself an upsetting concept highlighting some of our grimmest national prejudices—why do we only start caring about certain neighborhoods when upwardly-mobile whites move in?

The simplest answer, if one can be identified, is commerce. Williamsburg is getting a Trader Joe’s while interior Brooklyn is rapidly becoming the Sahara of all food deserts. Affluent white people buy expensive stuff, poor minorities do not—or so market research likely tells the folks in location-development departments at Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, and company.

Big, job-bringing corporations have no financial impetus to invest in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods—and so our nation’s poorest neighborhoods stay poor. That is, until some graphic designer or eco-friendly boutique owner in an abutting, rent-resurgent neighborhood realizes how comparably cheap average square footage is.

The most unsettling thing about gentrification, however, is how it reflects the utter and complete lack of control the poor and the non-white have in where they are permitted to live. And this potential Great Return to Detroit is a high-contrast, technicolor example.

Historians and urban-development theorists have debated the decline of Detroit for decades—generally focusing on economic and socio-political minutiae too subtle for the layperson to understand or care about. But, broadly speaking, most agree that two principle factors drove the city into the ground.

The first coincides largely with popular belief: blame it on Big Auto. “The collapse of Detroit has roots in intentional de-industrialization by the Big Three automakers,” wrote Scott Martelle in a 2011 report for The Los Angeles Times. Martelle says, as early as the 1950s, Detroit’s major automobile manufacturers began producing closer to regional markets—an effort both to reduce shipping costs and sidestep Detroit’s heavily unionized labor pool.

“Their flight was augmented by government policies that, in the 1970s and 1980s particularly, forced municipalities and states to compete with each other for jobs by offering corporate tax breaks and other inducements to keep or draw business investments,” he added, “a bit of whipsawing that helped companies profit at the expense of communities.”

The second looks at another large-scale abandonment: Detroit’s white residents fled the city en masse in the 1950s and 60s after federal courts struck down any and all policies protecting segregated housing and school districts.

Of course, this white flight overlapped with the flight of Big Auto. “White Detroiters followed the auto industry out of the city because the good jobs moved there, because land was plentiful in the suburbs, housing and schools were newly built, and because they wanted to get away from their black neighbors and buy homes in the racially segregated suburbs,” Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in 2014. “When overcrowding and an immigration of blacks threatened the racial segregation of Detroit’s neighborhoods, whites picked up and left.”

This left Detroit proper with few jobs or community resources. As nearby towns like Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills became beacons of white affluence, urban Detroit withered. And middle-class blacks, for the most part, couldn’t easily follow their white economic counterparts out. Much of the post-war suburban boom was made possible by the GI Bill, which gave subsidized mortgages to millions of veterans—though pre-existing mortgage-lending restrictions “effectively excluded blacks,” Eisenbrey writes.

The 21st century result is a mirror-image of what American cities were intended to be. “Where most have a few ‘bad’ neighborhoods, Detroit has a few ‘good’ neighborhoods,” Martelle wrote; a failure exacerbated by “generations of racial friction” and “governmental institutions that have failed at basic tasks, from education to crime prevention.”

And yet the Times wants us to believe there is finally some good news for embattled Detroiters. White, college-educated artists and foodies think your city is cool again! Whereas their parents and grandparents may have abandoned it and places like it for the manicured lawns of suburbia, millennials want to live in big cities again. And if they can’t live in Brooklyn, the Motor City will presumably suffice.

The problem is that while Detroit’s poorest residents might temporarily benefit from this influx of moneyed newcomers—and the businesses and jobs they are promised to bring with them—the specter of mid-century urban sociology perpetually looms overhead.

It’s a cycle already repeating itself in Brooklyn, where transgenerational communities are finding themselves suddenly unable to meet the skyrocketing costs of living. And the percentage of Detroiters living under the poverty line is substantially larger—39.3%, compared with 23.2% in Brooklyn’s Kings County. If Detroit is on the cusp of an urban revival, could it be that, in five-some decades, it will indeed be “the new Brooklyn,” replete with multi-million-dollar properties and shrinking working class? And will Grosse Pointe be “the new Detroit”?