There’s a Party In Downtown Detroit (And You’re Not Invited)

Photo by shaessig via Flickr

Photo by shaessig via Flickr

By Michael Sabbagh

A few months back, the larger-than-suburban-life ad agency Campbell-Ewald made a bold proclamation from their sprawling headquarters in Warren across from the GM Tech Center: Campbell-Ewald would be moving their flagship operations to downtown Detroit, taking over 600 jobs out of Warren and Macomb county and right into the belly of the beast. Who could blame them? With the corporate tax abatement scheme in place, Campbell-Ewald probably won’t be paying taxes for at least a decade. And as Ryan Felton at Jalopnik Detroit points out, the move will give Campbell-Ewald employees plenty of new and exciting places to go out for lunch besides the chain restaurant overload in Warren – like the world’s largest Buffalo Wild Wings, recently opened on Randolph Street at the edge of Greektown.

Despite this glowing praise, there was plenty of fist shaking to go around following the announcement. The mayor of Warren, Jim Fouts, told The Detroit Free Press that ‘in all due respect to Detroit, [Warren] is a cleaner and safer city.’ It’s precious that Fouts thinks Warren could even exist without Detroit. Then there are opinions like Macomb Daily’s columnist Chad Selewski, who just a few days after the Campbell-Ewald announcement published an op-ed titled, “Are Suburbs Now on Defense Against Detroit?”, as if Detroit is some faraway place where these jobs are being ‘outsourced’ (though the massive sign on the side of 1001 Woodward celebrates just that).

Selewski’s right about one thing: the suburbs are ‘on defense’ against Detroit and have been for a very long time. The wall running along Eight Mile and Wyoming at the city’s edge was by design meant to maintain a defense against Detroit’s black population. That wound runs deep, and 60 years of divestment in the city has taken its toll. It’s not surprising that as schools closed and businesses shuttered their windows, unemployment keeps swelling and these high-skill jobs coming back into the city are out of reach for many of the city’s long-time residents.

Detroit’s latest unemployment numbers are grim, and have only gotten worse in the last ten years. While companies like Compuware, Quicken Loans and the entire Dan Gilbert Army, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Ernst & Young, and a dizzying number of law firms, architects and ‘consultants’ occupy more and more of the employment landscape, one can’t help but wonder who is filling these jobs.

At first, most (if not all) of the positions are filled by the workers whose company moved them downtown. But where are the future hires coming from? One thing’s for sure: it’s hard to imagine that many of the recently transplanted jobs downtown are being filled by Detroit Public School grads. Between the severe cuts that have taken place over the years, dealing with not one but two Emergency Financial Managers and being dealt the unfortunate hand of operating in the ‘Murder Capital, it’s easy to see how the cards are stacked against DPS and its graduates. Detroit’s high school graduation rate is currently 65 percent, over ten percent lower than the state average of 76 percent and worlds apart from bordering Ferndale’s 93 percent graduation rate. As we all know,  if you don’t graduate high school, you cannot attend college, which is becoming the education benchmark for the high paying, service-based jobs moving back into the city.

Just to make sure the message being sent is crystal clear, developers have been scrambling to buy up anything that smells like housing for these high paid workers in the surrounding area and giving the boot to anyone that doesn’t fit that profile. Take the residents of the recently purchased Griswold Building, downtown at Griswold and Gratiot, for example. The building had served as subsidized housing for low income seniors, who have now been told they have a year to vacate the building so it can be renovated and turned into ‘market rate’ apartments. A year is quite generous compared to the month-to-vacate notice given to residents of the Henry Street Apartments up Woodward near Comerica Park, on the other side of the 75 service drive. These examples are just a short step away from the Detroit Police practice of picking up the homeless and other undesirables from Greektown and ‘taking them for a ride’ outside the city’s limits – a practice that’s been brought to light and challenged in the courts by the ACLU of Michigan.

For those keeping score, that’s zero new jobs for Detroiters, zero corporate taxes paid to the city of Detroit and residents being forced out of neighborhoods with booming economic activity. George Jackson Jr, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and chair of the insidious Detroit Future City committee, recently told a packed audience in Grosse Pointe Farms to “bring on more gentrification.” Calling this ‘gentrification’ doesn’t seem to do it justice – it’s a ransacking of city neighborhoods to radically change who is allowed to live, work and play there. There’s a party going on and we weren’t invited.

With the M1 rail project looming on the horizon, these trends are only going to accelerate and spider out deeper beyond the Woodward corridor. Woodbridge is practically at capacity and the ‘desirable areas’ of Hamtramck aren’t far off. The entire east and west sides of the city very well might be the next entrepreneurial frontier for the shrewd, tax dodging business owner looking to “reinvent Detroit.” Is this the renaissance we were promised nearly two generations ago?

Comments are welcome at critmom(at) or you can accost Michael directly on Twitter – @mikedolsx