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The People Left Behind by Detroit's 'Comeback'

As the city's remarkable recovery unfolds, the benefits are distributed unequally, frustrating some residents.
A protest against a Kid Rock performance in Detroit. Demonstrators were upset that public money had gone to a stadium while schools were still underfunded. Tanya Moutzalias/The Ann Arbor Detroit via AP

On a Tuesday evening in August the ballroom at Detroit's Hotel St. Regis was humming. A well-dressed crowd flitted around hors d'oeuvres on white tablecloths. TV news crews adjusted cameras in front of a stage dominated by an enormous gold chandelier.

The St. Regis, in Detroit's New Center area, just north of downtown, is among the city's finest, an old world–inspired architectural landmark that once hosted Martin Luther King Jr. The August 8 event was a primary night party for Mike Duggan, Detroit's mayor, but it was also a celebration of a long-struggling city's newfound vitality. A host's buoyant opening remarks emphasized Detroit's "substantial, expansive growth"; Benny Napoleon, a county sheriff who lost his own mayoral bid four years ago, introduced Duggan by praising city leaders' unification around so much new development.


"Isn't it a beautiful thing?" Napoleon beamed. "There are great things going on in the city of Detroit, in case you didn't notice!"

If you live in Detroit, you've noticed, of course. Even if you don't, you've probably seen one of the countless articles touting the city's "rebirth" or "revitalization." Over the past several years—a period roughly coinciding with Duggan's first term—Detroit has transformed into what can feel like a completely new city, with sleek retail stores and coffee shops manifesting on formerly vacant downtown lots and thousands of recently arrived young employees scuttering into new offices. But the Motor City's celebrated renaissance, driven by an explosion of corporate investment, has so far largely missed the city's vast—and overwhelmingly black—neighborhoods. Detroit ranks as America's most impoverished large city; a September FBI report determined it had the highest violent crime rate among large cities in 2016.

Duggan's challenger in the upcoming mayoral election, Coleman Young II—an uninhibited, 35-year-old state senator who's the son of the city's legendary first black mayor—is running a populist campaign based largely on this disparity. "There are too many people out here that are struggling right now for us to be saying it's a comeback," Young II told me recently. "It's terrible right now, and black folks are hurting."

Detroit, after decades of well-documented economic implosion, white flight, resource depletion, and often inept and corrupt governance, became the largest American municipality to declare bankruptcy in July 2013. Duggan, a former hospital executive and county prosecutor with a modest, roll-up-your-sleeves persona, was elected four months later, becoming the majority-black city's first white mayor in 40 years. By December 2014, after Duggan-led negotiations, Detroit was out of bankruptcy and controversial state emergency management. It was also in the middle of a development boom, driven in particular by billionaire Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, that would completely overhaul the downtown core and effectively rebrand America's most broken city as America's "comeback city."


"From ten years ago it's just snowballed," said Carlo Valentine, a Duggan supporter who moved back to Detroit from New York around a decade ago and owns multiple properties. "The downtown's great. The Midtown area's great… I'm in love with the city."

Amid the boom, Duggan has cheerleaded economic development while also focusing on demolishing thousands of blighted homes and restoring long-moribund city services. The administration boasts about trash collection, park maintenance, reduced emergency response times, expanding bus services. In a particularly symbolic milestone for many Detroiters, in December 2016 the city completed its installation of 65,000 new LED streetlights, lighting neighborhoods that in some cases had been dark for 20 years.

"It's like a rebirth," said Adrianne Collins, a native Detroiter who lives in the city's northeast. "I am 100 percent behind Mr. Duggan because he's giving opportunities… He's making things happen."

Amid that positivity it can be dizzying, then, to consider the stark reality of life for so many Detroiters. Census data counts 36 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Life expectancy in some areas is lower than in North Korea. Car insurance rates, by far the country's highest, amount to a citywide crisis. Water shutoffs affecting thousands of residents have incited a public health nightmare.

For longtime Detroiters who have struggled for decades only to witness a resurgence that's concentrated in an area where they don't live and brought thousands of newcomers, the downtown development can feel like a stick in the eye. "The comeback, now that I'm down here and coming downtown more, I see is really for the white folks," one black resident, a retired auto worker who declined to give his name, told me.


The retired auto worker was marching in a protest held last month ahead of Kid Rock's opening concert series at the new downtown Little Caesars Arena. Demonstrators were angered by the arena's decision to host the incendiary Kid Rock—a white musician who previously embraced the Confederate Flag, endorsed Trump, and has been publicly teasing a run for US Senate—but also over the $324 million in public funding that was poured into its construction, some of which had been intended for Detroit's long-afflicted public schools. "Schools! No Stadium!" hundreds of demonstrators chanted. "Water! No Stadium!"

Much of Detroit is on the outside looking in when it comes to decisions affecting their city. A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC–based think tank, found that 71 percent of Detroit's women of color, a group that constitutes 91 percent of the city's women, felt left out of the city's development plans. Even well-educated women of color, the report found, are often struggling to make ends meet.

"You cannot talk about a thriving economic recovery in a city when the vast majority of the people in that city are not benefitting," Marc Bayard, director of the institute's Black Worker Initiative, told me.

Detroit, Bayard added, may be exceptional in some ways—a higher percentage of residents of color, the recent bankruptcy, the blistering pace of downtown growth—but the struggles residents are facing in Detroit are essentially the same as those facing residents of color of other gentrifying cities all over the country. "We see this as a national story," Bayard said of the report. "Detroit is definitely a canary in the coal mine."


The inequities are not lost on the mayor. Duggan's reelection bid leans heavily on the idea of expanding the revitalization outward; in his primary night speech, surrounded on stage by an enthusiastic cast of supporters, he struck a carefully optimistic tone, mentioning only "signs of recovery" after 60 years of decay. "We need all Detroiters for this city's comeback, because our comeback depends on jobs," he said.

Coleman Young II, whose promises include a $15 city minimum wage, a new Africa Town commercial district, potential lawsuits against the state to ease the car insurance crisis, police residency requirements, and a halt to school closings, conveys a different urgency.

"You got billions of dollars flowing through downtown, we don't have no rec centers!?" he railed early one recent morning, shaking hands and introducing himself to prospective voters while riding a grungy city bus along Dexter Avenue through the city's struggling west side. "You got billions of dollars, they're closing schools!" he continued. "Quite frankly, we're trying to do this to make this a more shared experience, in terms of opportunity and prosperity. Because right now, it's not."

A few riders promised Young their vote. Despite a paltry fundraising effort, he does have grassroots support, and, owing to his lineage—his father, elected mayor in 1973, served for 20 years and remains a legend of Detroit politics two decades after his death—uncanny name recognition. But by and large city institutions, from the Detroit Free Press to the Plumbers Local 98, have lined up behind the incumbent, who won a commanding victory in the nonpartisan August primary and remains a heavy favorite for the November 7 general election.

"Here we are, 84 percent of the population of Detroit, and we're still second-class citizens and oppressed," said Reverend Baye Landy, regional director for the influential African American political organization the Black Slate. "And pretty much the view of the black community in Detroit is we have a white takeover going on as far as downtown development."

In August the organization—which played a key role in electing the first Coleman Young—endorsed Duggan, after what Landy called a "soul searching" internal deliberation. "He's moving forward with the city," Landy said of Duggan. "The buses are running. The lights—we've got more streetlights in the neighborhoods. We've got trash being picked up, and the streets are being swept. We'd like to see a lot more."

Trevor Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.