Brigid Beaubien and her husband were so impressed with Detroit’s new upbeat vibe they moved from Dearborn to a Midtown condo.
But why is the 83 percent black city a blank slate (hint: the city was only 9 percent black in 1940)?
Thrilled, the Eastern Michigan University professor told one of her Ph.D. candidates from the suburbs how exciting it was being in the city these days. The student, she said, was genuinely confused.
“ ‘What’s going on in Detroit?’ ” she asked.
“I was stunned into silence,” said Beaubien. “I was flabbergasted she couldn’t see it.”
What Beaubien says she sees are startling numbers of people on the sidewalks, which, if not precisely crowds, still surprise in a city famous for emptiness. She sees small businesses popping up everywhere and feels a grass-roots, we-can-do-it energy she says was missing in 2004, the last time she and her husband considered becoming city residents.
That energy is visible in the commercial flowering in Corktown, where Two James Spirits and an expanded Motor City Wine recently joined more established businesses like Slows Bar BQ and the Mercury Burger Bar. You can see it in the 34 floors of spanking-new apartments — every last one rented — in the David Broderick Tower, once a dark, depressing sentinel that loomed over Grand Circus Park.
And you can hardly miss it in the annual Nain Rouge parade, or the formal pop-up dinner parties that briefly take over public spaces — both animated by a new sense of fun and delight in the city.
The revival has broad geographic reach, and includes Eastern Market, where a slew of new businesses have recently opened. A recent exhibition at the nearby Red Bull House of Art drew thousands of mostly young, hip, art enthusiasts of varying ethnicities, their cars jamming the normally empty streets.
“Five or six years ago, the city was a ghost town after 5,” said Chris Teena Constas, 36, getting on her motorcycle outside Honest John’s Bar & No Grill after Sunday brunch. “Now there’s this,” she stops to reach for the word, “thing happening with all these people walking around.”
To be sure, Detroit has had its share of “comebacks” that petered out, but longtime resident Michael Martorelli, who sells real estate, swears this time things feel different.
“I’ve lived in the city 14 years and have seen a lot of excitement and momentum before. But I haven’t seen anything like what’s happened in the last five years,” he said of the uptick in activity. “It’s night and day.”
In an unexpected reversal, young adults are moving to and playing in the city their grandparents abandoned.
“People in my parents’ generation don’t believe in the city, and say Detroit’s not what it was, and I understand,” said Alyssa Goch, an Armada resident who first visited Detroit last January and has since fallen in love with it, commuting in several times a week.
“But you’ve got to understand there’s new life in the city and people embarking on new lifestyles.”
Farmington Hills native Alex Rosenhaus, who recently moved back to Metro Detroit from Memphis, said she sees far more people downtown than when she was a kid. “Detroit is full of possibilities if you’re young,” said the 29-year-old, “and even if you’re not.”
The fact that most of those new faces are young and white, whether Detroit residents or suburbanites in for fun, is an inescapable fact that leaves some uneasy.
“I worry about Detroit losing itself in marketing to 20-somethings,” said Wayne State law student Kathleen Garbacz, who’s white. “The city is not a ‘blank slate,’ ” said the 25-year-old Cass Corridor resident, using a term heard a lot these days, “and what’s going on has been a largely white-only phenomenon.”
For her part, Sue Mosey has no patience for suggestions a white town is taking shape within a black city, a point of view she finds glib and uninformed.
The president of Midtown Detroit Inc. has spent 25 years trying to nurture an urban renaissance in Midtown. Mosey ticks off a dozen new African-American businesses that have opened or are about to open in Midtown.
“One of the nice things is that the build-up has a lot of diversity,” said Mosey, who’s white, “which is what attracts other people who want to be here.”
spill didn’t make Detroit unlivable; a nuclear strike didn’t leave the city an
irradiated wasteland; monsters flying aboard interstellar spacecraft didn’t
decamp in the Motor City; no, it was just simple an influx of black people that
drove whites out in a nomadic quest to locate a safe neighborhood - with good
schools – to live in.
The Michigan Republican Party is seeking to increase its visibility in Democratic- and minority-heavy Detroit, and last week, it brought Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to the city to open the party's African-American Engagement Office. But if anything, the launch event put into stark relief just how much work the GOP has to do, when a largely white audience turned out to hear the senator speak.
Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus has said that attracting more minorities to the GOP is crucial for the party's future. He visited Michigan last month, hired radio personality Wayne Bradley to head the African-American Engagement effort in the state and launched the Michigan Black Advisory Council.
Paul then went to a larger grassroots event at the Grace Bible Chapel, where there were protesters from the civil rights group National Action Network outside. The online invitation said the event was intended to "celebrate the opening of our African-American Engagement Office in Detroit."
Tracking footage from the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, however, shows an overwhelmingly white audience ended up turning out.
Detroit is approximately 83 percent African-American.
Paul also spoke Friday at the Detroit Economic Club, where he proposed a plan to revitalize U.S. cities through the creation of "economic freedom zones," which would cut federal taxes in communities that have an unemployment rate of 12 percent or higher.
Unfortunately, all three are actively participating in outreach to and the celebration of non-whites.