Welcome to the New Detroit, white people. So long, poor folks.

Peter Moskowitz

Peter Moskowitz has authored a book, “How to Kill a City,” that examines gentrification in Detroit, which he contends is displacing black residents.

Peter Moskowitz is a journalist and activist raised in New York and based in Philadelphia. His new book, “How to Kill a City,” looks at four American cities that have been transformed by new money in recent years – New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Detroit.

Moskowitz argues the transformations have displaced longtime residents, especially poorer ones, and replaced them with affluent, mostly white, newcomers who drive up rents and tax assessments and turn what had been vibrant cities into, effectively, gated communities for the wealthy.  Detroit is not New York, he acknowledges, but what’s happening is gentrification.

Bridge: The two-city scenario you describe in your book – with the central city doing very well, and the neighborhoods still struggling – is familiar to everyone in Detroit, and not everybody thinks it’s so bad, because at least it represents some recovery, even if it is uneven. Explain why you think it’s bad.

Peter Moskowitz: I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. But the way it’s being done in Detroit, and other cities, increases inequality. What’s happening is not a rebirth of the city but a focused concentration on one particular part of it. Which happens to be one of the whitest parts of the city and the hottest for real-estate development, and that’s where the government is pouring all its resources.

Meanwhile, the rest of the city has kind of been falling off the map. Blocks are still abandoned, until a few years ago there weren’t streetlights, garbage collection was minimal. Take that in combination with the water shutoffs, the tax foreclosures…  (and) you get the sense that this is not an accident, that it’s not an organic rebirth, but a purposeful concentration on one part of the city and a purposeful forgetting of the rest of it. It’s a rebirth for a certain set of people, but not for everyone.

There’s evidence the city’s recovery is spreading beyond downtown. Jefferson-Chalmers, the North End and other neighborhoods are showing signs of life after decades of decline. Is it ever possible to see gentrification as plain old improvement? And what’s the difference?

how to kill a city

(In the book) I told the story of D’Mongo’s, the downtown bar owned by Larry Mongo. He calls white people the pollinators. For better or worse, the government only shows up, the cops only show up, the street lights only show up, when they “pollinate” a neighborhood. So when you look at this idea of recovery, it’s not a neutral term. Recovery for who? The people who’ve been living in these neighborhoods for decade after decade, keeping their house the only nice one on the block? They’ve been waiting for the government to help them out for a long time.

When you see this quote-unquote revitalization, what you’re seeing is new, mostly white people moving in, and that is followed by government intervention. The people who’ve been there all along are not exactly happy, because they’ve been asking for help for decades and feel they’ve been ignored, in favor of these newcomers.

Every city is unique, but Detroit — and, to a lesser extent, other Michigan cities like Flint — is a city like no other, in that it sprawled to accommodate 2 million people, most from a blue-collar workforce that simply doesn’t exist anymore. How does it compare with other gentrifying cities you looked at, like New York or New Orleans or San Francisco?

Detroit is unique, geographically and city planning-wise. But you can see the same process happening in each.

Gentrification doesn’t have to happen, like, one person on top of another, but it can also be about prioritizing. And I think that’s what you see when you look at the 7.2 (the area of downtown and Midtown) vs. the neighborhoods: Some people’s lifestyles and lives being prioritized — through tax breaks, through incentives, through media coverage  — over other people’s lives.  

When people talk about gentrification, they tend to compare Detroit to cities like San Francisco and New York, and San Francisco and New York are now essentially gated communities for the very wealthy. But unless there’s some water crisis that turns the Great Lakes region into the Saudi Arabia of water, it’s hard to imagine that happening in Detroit.

People would have said the same of New York in the 1970s, during the Bronx-is-burning era, and now the Bronx is the new hot borough to move to. Rents there are higher than even the hippest parts of Detroit. So this may be a 40-year process, and Detroit is at the start of it. Detroit was built for an era, the supremacy of the automobile, that doesn’t exist anymore.

“Some people’s lifestyles and lives (are) being prioritized — through tax breaks, through incentives, through media coverage – over other people’s lives.”

Do I think that 8 Mile will ever be as gentrified as the 7.2? Probably not, but I think what you will see is kind of a cutting off of the outer city in favor of the gentrified core, which is already happening. So, in 30 years, you might have downtown, Midtown, Jefferson-Chalmers and all of those kinds of places, (and) sort of a virtual fence put around them.

How often do high-poverty neighborhoods like those in Detroit ever make turnarounds, and if so, what works? Do the people who live there have any hope of them getting better without the infusion of better-off white folks?

Unfortunately, usually improvement is synonymous with displacement. That’s just the way the system works.

There’s nothing innate about improvement that can be good for everyone, unless that improvement is coupled with protection. So let’s say there was universal rent control in the parts of Detroit that are rapidly gentrifying. Then, would it be nice that the abandoned buildings were being converted into apartments? Sure. Or let’s say that your home’s value improving wasn’t associated with taxes becoming so unaffordable that most middle-class families can’t afford them? Then, would improvements be nice? Sure, but because of the way our system operates, improvement almost always equals increased pressure on the poor and middle class.

Your proposed solutions are mostly government-based — rent control, higher taxes, more focused spending on the poor. That’s kind of a pipe dream in Michigan right now, and particularly in Detroit. What do you think is possible in a place like this?

On the government level, I’m pretty pessimistic. Even in New York, which has one of the most progressive mayors, Bill de Blasio’s housing person came from Goldman Sachs. There’s no such thing as a development-skeptic mayor at this point, I don’t think. If you look at Detroit, things like the community benefits ordinance, which passed, although in a watered-down form, was a sign that people are ready to take these things seriously.

This is not an issue that (Detroit Mayor Mike) Duggan is going to be able to work out at the city level. It’s about state taxes, about the county, and especially about the extremely low taxes we have on the wealthy at the federal level. You can’t run a city full of poor people with no tax revenue. So what can  Duggan do about that? Limited amounts within the city, but there are all these mayors getting together to talk about $15 minimum wage, etc.

But the larger problem is, we don’t think of housing politically in this country at all, ever. During the presidential debate, it was mentioned not once. Housing is usually our No. 1 expense. We have all these food justice movements, poverty, racism, and housing is part of all of that. And yet, we don’t really talk about it. The first steps to a more equitable city is that grassroots refocusing and rethinking.

Any final observation about Detroit you’d like to make?

You could use more public transportation.

Click here for the discussion with Cortright

About The Author

Nancy Derringer

Nancy Derringer is a Bridge staff writer and editor concentrating mainly on Detroit issues. She can be reached here.

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Paul Martinsky
Thu, 04/20/2017 - 9:56am

Love your final words regarding the city, "You could use more public transporation." I live in the city's lowest-income zipcode, the 3.4 square miles of Northeast Detroit 48212(not the 2.2 square miles of Hamtramck 48212). 48212 has some of the best & underused public transit routes in the city. Sometimes I wonder if the city wants these routes to fail as many people,perhaps most,don't know of them or where they go.
These include DDOT#95-Ryan Express which runs during peak am & pm hours. There are no bus stop signs for this route, none, zero in both Northeast Detroit 48212 &48234 plus Downtown!! I sometimes ride it from Madison@Brush in Downtown to my area near 6 Mile in the 48212 area. There is no indication of the existence of the Ryan Express at Madison@Brush or at any other stop along it's route.
The DDOT#12-Conant goes to and through Belle Isle State Park. The route extends from the Fairgrounds Transit Center to northeast neighborhoods and Hamtramck to Belle Isle. There are no advertisments or signs of it's service to Belle Isle at the Fairgrounds where many DDOT & SMART busses connect to this wonderful convenience.
DDOT#40-Russell connects to the busy DMC and also Eastern Market. No service, however, on weekends when Eastern Market is busy with activities. Plus no marketing of it as a convenience of living in the 48212 & 48234 areas for those who work at the DMC & Midtown/Downtown.
DDOT#32-McNichols is a long route that goes from the Grosse Pointe/Detroit border to Old Redford area, passing by U.D./Mercy area too.
DDOT#10-Chene(a route that connects 48212 & 48234 to Greektown & Downtown) has limited hours. Part of the route was changed in the 1990s. It used to turn east on Jos.Campau onto busy E.Davison . That changed years ago to make the turn east at Jos.Campau to E. Nevada. Ridership went down. This leaves busy E.Davison without any transit despite a growing population of families, including immigrants and creative young adults on streets near E. Davison .
Public transit routes that go to popular destinations are marketed in other cities as quality of life amenities to promote and encourage population and business growth. Not so in Northeast Detroit 48212 & parts of 48234 too,depsite having some of the city's best transit routes to many popular and busy destinations for work, business, and entertainment.

Joel Kurth
Thu, 04/20/2017 - 10:19am

Great comment! If you'd be willing, could we contact you for a possible story down the road? If so, email info to jkurth@bridgemi.com. Thanks.

Jeff Cowin
Thu, 04/20/2017 - 5:55pm

Thank you for sharing these excellent observations, Paul. Have you contacted DDOT with your recommendations for improvement. If so, how did DDOT respond? If more people shared your level of thoughtful constructive feedback, the world would be so much better for it. Kuddos!

David L Richards
Thu, 04/20/2017 - 11:43am

While I share Mr. Moskowitz's concern about inequality and poverty, I disagree with his main point that economic development in downtown and other parts of the city are bad. Economic activity means taxes and jobs. Those taxes go to pay for city services, including street lights, road repair, police, fire, libraries, etc. That not all of those jobs go to long time residents in poorer neighborhoods does not mean that having them is not good for those neighborhoods, because some of those jobs do go to long time residents from poor neighborhoods, and opportunities are there. That city resources are spent nurturing economic development, jobs, and taxes, means that ultimately everyone is benefited. Ideas that promote opportunities, such as a real and effective public transportation system, and an improved educational system, are absolutely worthwhile and even necessary, but to say that economic development and the influx of suburbanites and higher income people are, by themselves a negative, is short-sighted and wrong.

Karen Winston
Wed, 04/26/2017 - 7:26pm

Respectfully disagreeing to the comments about City Lighting costs. Prior to the dismantling of Public Lighting Department, tax payers enjoyed free Lighting that was paid for by the power being sold to PLD customers. Unfortunately the money generated by PLD was not available to PLD for maintenance and upgrades to the antiquated Lighting system. Rules were in place to prevent overhead wiring to streetlights! Now that money is available, easy fast overhead wiring is acceptable! If new Lighting was being paid for by some new source, why didn't they install all "solar powered" streetlights? Because then DTE loses the forever payments from the City/taxpayers/me and you!

Ren Farley
Thu, 04/20/2017 - 4:37pm

Peter Moskowitz’ chapters about Detroit are interesting and readable but they are, in my view, neither accurate nor thorough. European urban scholars contend that Detroit is a classic example of “disaster capitalism”. In their view, most Detroit residents are oppressed both by a system of exploitive capitalism and by a dominating white racial supremacy. Moskowitz seems to be in their camp. I do not think those ideas are accurate but they merit attention.
While most development in Detroit is centered in the 7.2 squares miles of prosperity; a great deal is happening elsewhere. I don’t think Moskowitz visited southwest Detroit where Marathon invested 2.1 billion, the now active I-94 industrial park or the Hamtramck or Jefferson North plants where investments have been made recently. There are substantial development efforts in many neighborhoods including some where Habitat for Humanity is active, others where neighborhood groups are having some success preserving middle class housing. And there are others such as Fitzgerald where the city is making investments or stable working class neighborhoods with immigrant population in southwest Detroit or near Hamtramck. Moskowitz does not mention the many stable neighborhoods in Detroit be they the prosperous Indian Village, Sherwood Forest and Boston Edisons or the more modest Rosedale Parks and East English Villages. I do not think that Moskowitz did much investigating when he came to Detroit nor did he carefully examine available data. He asserts that the annual property taxes on a home valued at six to ten thousand are typically three to four thousand. He claims unemployment rate in Detroit I s 25 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an unemployment rate of 12 percent in February, 2017. He quotes an estimate of racial residential segregation for Detroit that is long out of date. His story of the financing of the Little Cesar Arena is, at best, incomplete and misleading.
We need a discussion – and accurate description – of whether current investments in Detroit will have benefits only for economic and educational elite or whether there will also be benefits for many of the 700,000 residents of the city. Unfortunately, Moskowitz’s chapters contributes little to that discus

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 4:42pm

As soon as they locked up kilpatrick it was already in play..

Tom Page
Fri, 04/21/2017 - 3:46pm

Another "sobbing progressive" point of view in which the author apparently believes that the rent should be controlled, that water should be free and that so-called living wages should be the law. Heck, if $15 an hour is so good, why not make the minimum​ wage $30 per hour? Isn't that even better? (Fast food kiosks are just the start.) By the way, who benefits from better and faster EMS service? From more buses that run on schedule? From street lights on throughout the City? These are some of the benefits of the "G" word.

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 8:58am

These are some benefits of EVERY person that lives in a successful city. These are things that should be up to par in order for any major city to be seen as progressive, and attractive. The ideas that things like public transit are only for people who don't have cars or access or money is small. EMS service? Heck, if I ever need it I hope no matter where I live it comes quickly as I'm sure the elderly wish, young children, and everyone in between! Gentrification doesn't solve any problems of poverty, it just relocates it. Poverty is a monster in itself but working on better our schools, supporting our public services like transit, and paying attention to what resources the GHETTOS have verses sustainable, more thriving neighborhoods have could be a nice place to start.

John Saari
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 7:39am

Encourage thriving ethnic neighborhoods.

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 9:10am

The real issue isn't whether gentrification is good or bad, it is that Detroit has become a city of 'Comfortable Poverty." The city cannot sustain itself with a demographic where ~75% of children for the past 5 decades are born to single mothers already in poverty and illiterate. There isn't a public school educational model anywhere that can successfully educate a classroom of this demographic. People make choices and priorities in life and as the ole saying goes, it is coming home to roost.

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 7:40am

In regards to Detroit, the author of this book is failing to realize that the city's core has been lacking housing options for many years. The revitalization is adding housing and population density to the core, which is needed to sustain business. Yes, there may be older businesses that have existed and thrived in the past, but we are talking about a limited number of businesses - scattered throughout the city and surrounded by vacant buildings with no activity. A city cannot thrive without residents living in it. Detroit's core suffered from a lack of housing options, which is now changing with the addition of newly renovated buildings. And these new options are diverse in offering both rental and ownership options. I cannot argue with the fact that rents have increased across the city, but I do strongly believe that there have not been a great many of people displaced from Detroit's core as housing was not readily available in the heart of the city before this renaissance. The City was designed to function with an all time high of 2,000,000 residents and has been struggling to keep functioning with a dying population of 800,000... things are turning around and that number is now growing again... There is a good and bad in every story, and I feel that a growing population is most important right now for Detroit.

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 11:16am

"What had been vibrant cities into, effectively, gated communities for the wealthy."
He seems to ignore or not understand Detroit History. Detroit is still not completely recovered and wasn't a vibrant city for the last few decades. The biggest threat to Detroit's old businesses isn't gentrification its neighborhood poverty. For decades businesses have been closing due to lack of customers. He might see a vibrant neighborhood being replaced by a more expensive one. What he doesn't see is that many of these old business would have closed either way, except there would be no new jobs to replace them.