I refuse to call it Midtown.
The last time I misspoke, I felt stinging from a thousand needles on my tongue, as the ghosts of Cass Corridor chastised me, enraged.
I suffered mind-numbing paralysis that left me dazed for hours, as I repeatedly dabbed drool from my lockjaw-frozen lips. It was as if I’d spoken of a mythical place, like the Land of Oz, and been suddenly tossed like a rag doll off the edge of its highest peak. Back on the concrete below I realized the name described a place that seemed foreign to me.
Or maybe none of it happened precisely that way. Yet the area I knew as Cass Corridor, long before one of Detroit’s most high-profile re-branding efforts ever, brimmed with cultural history for decades. It’s true the Corridor was also associated with crime and poverty, but it welcomed students, artists, philosophers, and denizens of all nationalities and backgrounds. This was most visibly reflected in memorable spots like the former Cass Corridor Food Co-op and events like the nearby annual Dally in the Alley.
Cass Avenue was where I cut my teeth as a young journalist, challenging the establishment while working as a staff member of Wayne State University’s student paper, The South End.
It was a short drive from the newsroom to a one-bedroom unit I loved, ironically in a building called Midtown Apartments back in the early 90’s. There I enjoyed the surroundings of New Center, a community whose name is also seldom heard, now that it rests in the shadow of its more popular, two-square-mile neighbor.
This is what I, like many others, find so disturbing. The older Detroit isn’t revered and uplifted, as it should be, rather it’s ignored or completely disregarded, in favor of what’s new.
“When people worry about the threat of gentrification, they’re worried about the culture,” says Lauren Hood, head of the Live6 community revitalization initiative underway in neighborhoods around University of Detroit Mercy. “Gentrification means people coming in and bringing their ideas to the community to transform that community.
“It’s like leaving your neighborhood that had a Gap and a Starbucks, so now you want a Gap and a Starbucks in your new neighborhood.”
To my knowledge, Lauren doesn’t have a problem with casual wear or good coffee. The issue she challenges is whether Gap, Starbucks or any corporate presence matches the larger sensibility of those living where they open doors. Or do they simply cater to people whose open wallets will justify locating at a new address?
This is the age-old dilemma of gentrification and what struggling urban communities need to bring vitality to places where it’s obviously lacking.
I know of no one who loves Detroit as I do but hates the notion of new jobs, quality homes, and shopping options in the city. But I also know of no one who’s just fine with the notion of feeling ignored – or worse displaced – as a result of these new arrivals. The latter is a pattern that reveals itself repeatedly in neighborhoods occupied by people of color. But in a capital-driven society, how can we blame those who take advantage of profitable opportunities?
Increasing partnerships between corporate, community, and government, like those so frequently profiled and featured in TheHUB, can never be underestimated. As much as these alliances are emerging in Detroit, I can’t envision a circumstance that would qualify as too much.
Still, I’m in favor of even more radical checks and balances. There needs to be stronger city and state requirements that businesses and real estate developers must follow that require collaboration with grassroots programs, non-profits or residents, before setting up shop. Tax incentives and federal enterprise development zones haven’t done enough to stem the tide of what inevitably creates the tension of racial and economic division in cities undergoing renewal all over the country. Detroit is no exception.
I’m offended that I can walk five minutes in one direction from my old New Center digs to multi-million-dollar development and then turn to tear-inducing blight five minutes in the other direction.
I’m insulted by coded phrases like “the new Detroit.” These days, I feel like a tourist when I drive down Cass Avenue, with its sparkly new storefronts and specialty shops that, apparently, weren’t conceived as suitable for the neighborhood five or 10 years ago. On the other hand, I’m grateful that older, diehard businesses like Goodwells Natural Food Market, the Jambalaya clothing store, and Avalon Bread are still standing, no doubt beneficiaries of the increased traffic and new faces in the area.
So there’s yin and yang. Detroit can benefit from investment and support from people of all races and economic strata, but not without a common sense of fair play and mutual respect.
“Change doesn’t have to be scary,” Mayor Mike Duggan’s spokesman Dan Austin once told me, “as long as everybody’s included in that change.”
In the meantime, I won’t call it Midtown.