Does Detroit have a 'black flight' problem?

theGRIO REPORT - To many in the 83 percent black city, which declared bankruptcy last year and is currently under emergency management, revitalization has carried mixed messages...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The title of a recent Huffington Post article, which stated that Detroit didn’t need white hipsters to survive, it needed black people, touched a sensitive nerve in the Motor City this week, sparking a conversation community members say is overdue.

To many in the 83-percent black city, which declared bankruptcy last year and is currently under emergency management, revitalization has carried mixed messages, encouraging investment and commercial activity in central, whiter areas of the city, while ignoring much of the rest.

Parties at the Redbull House of Art, a corporate-financed art gallery housed in an ex-brewery in the city’s hip Eastern Market area, tend to attract a majority white crowd, rather than the opposite.

This is bad news, according to native Detroiter Lauren Hood, an urban professional and founder of Deep Dive Detroit, an organization seeking to give space to difficult conversations and transformation in Detroit. The current climate, which has seen an influx of young, white, college-educated professionals to the central areas surrounding downtown and midtown, is making racial and socio-economic divisions starker, she says.

“They’re getting reinforced. All the opportunities and investments are going to places where all the white people and newcomers are going. Meanwhile, those who have been here forever still can’t find jobs and still aren’t getting out of their situation.”

Hood’s statements are in line with the warnings recently issued by University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis, which documents the importance of race in the rise and fall of postwar Detroit.

Last month, the scholar warned that the city would only recover if it managed to improve the lives of working class African-Americans living in the city, the Huffington Post reported.

One third of Detroiters are currently living below the poverty line and the median income per household in the city is just shy of $28,000 a year in the city. Rent prices in the downtown and midtown areas of Detroit, where money is being coming in, have been on the rise, with landlords asking between $1,100 and $3,200 a month for cool loft spaces.

Worries about income and race disparities have been brushed to one side by economists such as Barnard College and Columbia University professor Rajiv Sethi, who says the city needs to be put back on its feet first so that its inhabitants can find their own, too.

Attracting higher earners means raising the tax base. In recent decades, a crumbling tax base has been tied to a failing public school system and poorly functioning public infrastructures.

But Hood is fed up with hearing this argument.

“Why can’t we just have better opportunities for the people who are already here? Why does the higher tax base mean that it has to come from outside? Why don’t we figure out a way to get all the people here who are poor and unemployed employed and not so poor?”

Black-owned businesses, black business ideas and black entrepreneurs are hardly lacking. Detroit actually has a strong and diverse community of business owners, with 64 percent of businesses black-owned and 49 percent of businesses owned by women, according to government census data.

What is lacking is a willingness to reach out to communities of color, says Brandon Christopher, creator of CANVASxDetroit, an arts studio in Detroit seeking to make art accessible to all. His business activities have led him to work with revitalization initiatives D:Hive and Revolve Detroit.

“In Detroit, there has been minimal outreach to the black community to involve them in a lot of the revitalization efforts.”

“I don’t see a great deal of outreach going to black businesses and communities around Detroit, but there’s a tremendous effort being put into making sure white business entrepreneurs are included, specifically in the downtown area,” Christopher says.

While investment into new businesses and startups is the word of the day in Motown, publicly promoted businesses often tend to be white owned.

At a panel highlighting the work of small female business owners held in downtown’s historic Saint-Andrews hall last November and sponsored by Square, the diversity box may have been ticked in terms of gender, but it was grossly overlooked in terms of race: all four panelists were white.

Some Detroiters have sought to fight back against the absence of space being given to black community members as Detroit seeks to reinvent itself.

David Anderson and his partners Brian Davis and Mike Ferlito – a young trio of tech-minded entrepreneurs, two of whom are black – opened a co-working space named Bamboo in downtown Detroit last summer. Part of their motivation in creating the office was to create a diverse space.

This diversity is something that was previously lacking in the downtown startup scene, Anderson says.

“Diversity contributes to success in so many ways. Academic studies have proven you are more likely to succeed if your team is diverse,” Anderson says. “So if we’re going to succeed as a city, we need to make sure we are not putting up any barriers, something that went on for too long.”