For the past four months I’ve been living and interning in Detroit, a massive city that’s only a quick half hour drive from my university and about an hour and a half from my hometown in Southwest Michigan. Although I’m always in such close proximity to Michigan’s largest city, I never spent much time trying to get to know the area and it’s history. Sure, like most of us I’ve visited Comerica Park for a Tiger’s game and checked out an exhibit at the the Detroit Institute of Arts, but it never occurred to me that as a Michigander I should be asking questions and learning about the city that’s been transforming our state for centuries.
How did Detroit’s past contribute to where it is now? What incredible things have been happening in the Detroit area over the past few years? What affect is transforming Detroit neighborhoods having on their population? And when is the street car construction on Woodward finally going to end?!
These are all questions I’ve asked as I live, work, and explore in the 313.
My stomping ground is what’s historically been known as Cass Corridor, which has recently been included in the city’s re-branding of the Midtown neighborhood and is home to the Dally in the Alley Festival. In the past, the Cass Avenue area has not only been a low-income friendly bohemian space but has also been called Detroit’s “Red Light District”. When I mention where I’m living to people that are somewhat familiar with the city their typical reaction is a grimace and a solemn statement of “be safe”.
This is not the experience I’ve had living on Cass. The Cass Corridor I’ve seen has been transformed into a haven for wealthy white folk and hipster 20 year olds to enjoy the trendy new bars, upscale shops, and pricey restaurants that seem to be popping up left and right. I found home in a third-floor walk up apartment, in a building with no name, where the lights shut off if you close the door too hard. This building is one of the few like it left in the area. Cheap housing around Cass has been replaced with luxury apartments and expensive studios.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been privileged enough to take advantage of some of these developments. I’m a sucker for the new Mac N’ Brewz restaurant, The Jolly Pumpkin’s Detroit location, and Old Miami, the Veteran’s Bar turned hipster hangout. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the cries of gentrification. The once low income and predominantly black population of Cass Corridor is slowly being priced out. It’s been seen before in Brooklyn, D.C.’s U Street, and countless others. I’ve only lived here for four short months and can’t even pretend to have all the answers, but I also can’t help but ask myself about the real price of Detroit’s Cass Corridor revitalization.
My time in Detroit has taught me that while I’ve paid rent here, grocery shopped here, and avoided potholes here, I’m still just a tourist in a city where many people have spent their whole lives. I haven’t spent the summer in the Global South or a developing country, but I have still learned so much about privilege. Among all the new development, I’ve seen the issues faced by native Detroiters but even as a low income student relying on financial aid, I get to leave those issues behind and return to school in Ann Arbor when the summer is over. Most people my age in the city don’t have that option.
I’ll absolutely be returning to Detroit sometime in my life. Whether it’s just to revisit some of my favorite places and people from this summer or another couple months stint living in a third floor walk up in Midtown, I won’t be able to stay away from this city.