Detroit Slowly Becomes Just Another Big City

DETROIT – After years of struggles and a bankruptcy in 2013, this city has come to occupy a certain place in the American consciousness. The tropes are well worn. Detroit is a shrinking city, full of crime, vacant homes and wild dogs, but also full of tough, never-say-die residents who are fighting for their city’s future.

Some of that is undoubtedly true – maybe all of it. But as you sit in Detroit’s Midtown area, a different story also emerges. Over the last decade the urban world of $3 cups of coffee and downtown day spas has established a foothold on Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. A Whole Foods/Starbucks neighborhood, a familiar sign of upscale urbanity, has popped up, even as the city has drifted into bankruptcy

Detroit, like other big cities, is developing a more diverse landscape with a young, educated urban population, establishing blocks of relative wealth only blocks from abject poverty.

As a result Detroit is in some ways moving beyond its status as America’s favorite urban basketcase and is becoming a nice example of the reach of the American Communities Project’s Big City type. With other projects underway in the city, its Midtown trend seems likely to continue. And the fact that it’s happening in Detroit indicates something bigger is going on in the ACP’s Big City locales across the country.

To be clear, Detroit is by no means suddenly breaking through to a brighter tomorrow. The city’s financial problems are real and very serious. Last summer ACP Director Dante Chinni wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal’s website outlining the issues stacked against the city.

There are many, many more scenes like this in the city.













Than there are scenes like this.













And the relatively small changes one sees in the city’s center might be scoffed at by residents of Brooklyn or San Francisco or Washington, but if you know Detroit well enough and have seen it over time, the changes are clear and noticeable in Midtown.

That second photo above comes from the Great Lakes Coffee Company downtown. It’s a stop for every reporter who wants to talk about Detroit’s renaissance. The significance of its presence can easily be overstated, but its $3 drip coffee (“Is the Guatemalan OK?”), craft beers and “rotating assortment of charcuterie” represents a break with the city’s grittier past.

Designed for a different kind of customer, it’s filled with hipsters in their 20s, pecking away on keyboards updating social media statuses.

Across the street, the Whole Foods that opened just last year has extended its hours and its performance “has exceeded our expectations,” according to Allison Phelps, a public relations specialist for the company in the Midwest. On a Friday in January its parking lot and aisles were crowded most of the afternoon.

The changes in the city’s Midtown are not just about the consumer culture, but rather the consumer culture reflects changes in the population that can be seen in the data

While the city’s population losses are well-known (a 25% drop between 2000 and 2010), in Midtown and the broader area around it known as Greater Downtown, the losses were half that, with many of the area’s Census tracts seeing population increases between 2000 and 2010.

That has brought a different kind of resident. More than 40% of the 25- to 34-year-olds in the broader area known as Greater Downtown now have college degrees. That figure is far higher than city of Detroit (11%) or the state of Michigan (29%).

It has also led to investment. Between 2010 and 2012, Midtown has received $1.1 billion in construction investment as old buildings were rehabbed to make way for new apartments for the people that are coming to the area, according to a report on the area. There was $2.1 billion invested in the larger Greater Downtown area.

Remember that has occurred as the city was struggling to break out of the recession, which hammered Detroit, and preparing to go into bankruptcy. And there is more on the way in the form of a $650-million plan to develop a 45-acre business-residential site in Midtown that will also provide a new home for the city’s hockey team, the Red Wings.

Again, in terms of the broader challenges facing Detroit, those numbers are tiny. They won’t “save” the city. The Greater Downtown area constitutes only about 7 square miles of the 139 square miles in Detroit.

And there have been side effects to the blossoming of Midtown. While Whole Foods is doing a bang up business, a third of a mile away, Ye Old Butcher Shoppe, a local foodie shop that was there first, is pretty quiet. The cashier says the store has struggled since the national organic grocer arrived.

But through the eyes of the ACP, the Midtown and Greater Downtown data represent a familiar phenomenon in the Big Cities: a revitalizing urban core that stands in contrast to the bigger picture and helps define it.

In many ways the ACP’s Big City counties best define the United States in the early 21st century. Their median household income is about $53,000, but they have the second-highest percentage of $200,000-plus households at about 6%. They are also on the high-end for low-income with more than 17% of the people living in poverty.

They represent the promise and challenges for the United States in the coming decades – growing numbers of educated wealthy singles but still large numbers of people without solid educations and low incomes. They are places where it will be increasingly difficult to balance the needs and wants of citizens. They are places where the debate about “income inequality” plays out in front of residents’ eyes everyday and it is becoming more obvious.

The fact that this Big City reality is taking root in Detroit is significant. It means that despite Detroit’s unique place in the national headlines and national consciousness it is becoming more like the rest of the country. And the growing disparities within today’s Big City environments aren’t likely to stop soon.


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