My name is Leah Vernon.
As a Black, fat, Muslim girl, and did I mention Black, I am not all the way comfortable in the city of Detroit. Downtown. Corktown. Midtown. Eastern Market. The places that I grew up in as a small child are no longer the places I remember them as. They are now riddled with yoga studios, breweries, and fancy cafes with thirteen-dollar avocado toast.
For the record, I hate avocados.
Luxury clothing retailers like John Varvatos and the non-size inclusive athletic brand, Lululemon have popped up on Woodward Ave. to almost taunt those who pass by yet can’t afford the clothing or don’t feel welcomed to skim the racks.
And, let’s not forget about the larger implications of the G-word. Yes, GENTRIFICATION, people!
I’m not quite sure when the gentrification migration began exactly, but little things started to happen about a decade ago. I’d overhear my mother’s friends telling tales of well-suited developers from out of state knocking on their doors and offering cash on the spot to buy their rickety homes. Some took the deal because they could barely keep up on the payments as it was. A few stuck around. The ones that stayed knew that either their rent would spike, property taxes would rise, or their leases wouldn’t be renewed. Somehow, someway, these developers were going to get their properties to make room for fancy lofts that a hipster who wears distressed jeans worth a whole month’s rent, a leather man-bag, and rocks a high pony with the sides shaved low can afford. I’m not taking shots. I swear.
Many of us knew that Detroit would change once Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted and Mayor Duggan, the first white mayor in four decades, filled the spot.
Not only have residents been affected but Black business owners have been affected as well. “In January, the tension began spilling over when a string of black businesses began losing leases, fighting legal battles with strikingly similar claims that they failed to pay rent or somehow otherwise violated lease agreements,” says writer, Laura McDermott of NBC News. “In June, Zana Smith, owner of Spectacles, a small downtown retail shop known for selling the hottest sunglasses, trendy T-shirts and novelty items for 31 years, was given a 30-day notice to leave because the building was sold.”
Instead of the city becoming a melting pot for inclusivity, the city has been further split into two. White and Black.
According to conversations I’ve had with many Detroiters, both black and white that have been with the city since the beginning, the verdict of Detroit 2.0 is that it isn’t for people like me. But why? I wonder does Black-ness create a smudge that the city is trying to wipe away? When they market to millennials from Los Angeles and New York that Detroit is safe and clean and high-fashion enough to visit and perhaps live in, does a bunch of Black faces somehow discredit those ideologies?
According to the Census as of 2017, Detroit is 80% African-American, which means we are like one of the Blackest cities in the country, yet “In spite of all this, Detroit is often celebrated as a hipster paradise and tourist destination by national media outlets,” Ashley Woods says in her Huffpost article titled Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters To Survive, It Needs Black People.
This whole split, the racial division of Detroit can be traced back to the riots of 1943: Like the successive rebellion that would erupt 24 years later, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 was deeply rooted in racism, poor living conditions and unequal access to goods and services. The apparent industrial prosperity that made Detroit the “Arsenal of Democracy,” masked a deeper social unrest that erupted during the summer of 1943. (Detroit Historical Society).
My late grandmother was one of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who migrated to Detroit for factory employment with Ford in hopes of better wages and a better quality of life. Infamously, what many of the Southerners were met with was racism, segregation, and housing inequality. Blacks were treated like second-class citizens.
Are we repeating the same actions but in the form of microaggressions and racial undertones?
I remember growing up and spending time in the city. Mom would take us to Eastern Market every Saturday morning for a full day of shopping for the week’s fresh fruits and veggies. As she’d feel on all the fruits and go from vendor to vendor table filling up her rolling cart, my brother and I would dart through the crowds of black families and find the table with the natural honey candies. Sometimes he’d give us one for free, other times we’d give him a quarter or two.
During this time, it was odd to see white people at the market. They just hadn’t shopped there. It became a mecca for African-American families to get cheap produce since many of us were on food stamps. The Market allowed us to eat healthy on a budget. Now, Eastern Market is overrun by white families from the ‘burbs and hip hipsters who live nearby.
We’d visit Belle Isle on special occasions. Belle Isle was a place where black families would play badminton, have family reunions and BBQ’s, or just pull up with cheap beer in their coolers, turn up their music extra loud and cruise. Nobody but us hung out here. Now, Belle Isle has a mini beach called ‘Hipster Beach.’ The families that had once there have dwindled drastically as you see more police presence and more white people riding bicycles.
In college I lived on Wayne State’s campus. I figured out why my mother had only visited Detroit in the daytime. I’m not going to lie, it was rough. You were liable to be robbed at gunpoint. In some areas the street lights wouldn’t even come on. One day, I came out to my car window smashed and they had stolen the coat my mom bought me for my birthday. Food options were minimal. The city definitely wasn’t poppin’ and as vibrant as it is today – the festivals we knew included aunts, uncles and BBQ’s.
I don’t believe that the problem is full gentrification or adding the challenged Q-Line or even the eyesore Kaws statue in front of Campus Martius. The issue is the divide caused when revitalization seems to only highlights and supports one kind of person and leaves the rest in the dust. Detroit’s almost complete revitalization happened when an influx of white people moved in, when it became trendy to visit and to live in. And, not a moment before.
Detroit 2.0 hasn’t included everyone. The folk who have remained loyal to the city way before it was trendy, for the most part, are underrepresented voices that have been stamped out and replaced by businessmen from out of state. These are residents displaced from a home or building that we may have grown up in. It has meant walking into a local bar full of white faces and feeling out of touch in a place that was once considered your backyard.
I’ve been to places like Miami, and even Chicago, and although I know that colorism and racism doesn’t discriminate based on demographic, I am always shocked at how seamlessly integrated the spaces seem. I can go into a bar or a restaurant and see different kinds of people mingling and co-habiting. It all seems, and more importantly, feels like normal.
Detroit is still trying to find it’s place and recover from the racial discrimination of it’s past. The question is, ‘Are we going to allow ourselves to fall back into the racial tensions of the past or can we band together to make sure that the new Detroit is a better one than what was before us?’
So, what can we do to include the culture of Black residents, provide equal platforms for brown artists and entrepreneurs as well as integrate newcomers to the city? Well, we could start off by opening the dialogue about classism and racism and their implications. A lot of people don’t want to admit or talk about it because they feel attacked for being born white and privileged. The issue will continue to linger and grow if not addressed. By not talking about it, we have seen the effects: the gaps and disparities between Detroiters of various colors.
Support black artists and small businesses. Include underrepresented voices on your team and on your panel discussions. Listen without judgement. Smile once in a while or at least give a head nod so we know that you aren’t that kind of suburban visitor. Welcome uncomfortable conversations on race and culture. It’s okay. Discomfort has never killed anyone.
The new Detroit isn’t white like media outlets like to portray so boldly. I have hopes that the new Detroit is inclusive. And for everybody.