Gentrification in the Cass Corridor

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By Zoe Villegas

2014 has been a year of such drastic changes in Detroit that the shift of the city’s narrative of progress gained some skepticism even from some of the most idealist in the crowd of new-comers. Though many Detroiters have been watching the city we know change for a long time with horror at the dispensability of the infrastructure, so many do not question or note the dismantling of Detroit’s institutions. Our school system, our right to vote, our resources privatized – these are all threats to the stability of the city and its permanent residents, but it does not concern those entering Detroit without a long-term vision. The analogy of the “blank canvas” of Detroit, a place where people can have a utopian experience of artistic enlightenment, cheap rent and congratulations for entrepreneurship is the attraction for many moving to Detroit.

Although the conversation surrounding gentrification is frequently shut down by the lack of scarcity of land in Detroit, in recent months the unassuming have found themselves encroached upon and land has in fact, become scarce in certain areas. After Dan Gilbert purchased the Griswold Lofts where artists and musicians were living, the word “gentrification” gained a new facet and presented a lot of contradictions.

The unveiling of the renovation plans for the Griswold Lofts to become luxury apartments (renamed The Albert) to attract artists made it clear that the aim of Gilbert’s re-branding of downtown, was to eradicate the lower income living there, regardless of their lifestyle. The irony of evicting artists to welcome more artists was apparent to those who lost their homes to make way for these changes. However many of those experiencing displacement in the economic shift in Detroit are still not being acknowledged in the debate.

In April I participated in a counter-rally to the March of the Nain Rouge. Several protesters in attendance carried signs on behalf of those displaced in Dan Gilbert’s sweep of the last affordable rental properties in downtown Detroit. The reality of gentrification set in for these individuals, but the other tenants of the Griswold who were casualties – the mentally ill, the elderly, the handicapped and the low-income who need affordable housing – were eclipsed in the conversation by the young generation of artists who earned time in the spotlight after media outlets sympathized with their eviction.

The aim of our presence during the March of the Nain Rouge was to reaffirm our roots in the city and to protest the disappearance of Detroit’s Cass Corridor. While thousands flock to the city to celebrate a fabricated holiday, there are discussions about the new direction of Detroit. All of the commerce involved with the parade gives out-of-towners a chance to view the new independent businesses. Unfortunately, Detroit’s progress being monitored by the growth of entrepreneurship omits the obligation of sustainable infrastructure to be provided by taxes and governance that ensure reliable public resources for city residents who rely on them.

Cass Corridor has been home to many generations of activists, artists, students, musicians and workers. The notion of gentrification in a community filled with artists and students is interesting because it defies the transient nature of this intentional community; where rental property is more common than homeownership; in this sense it would seem gentrification really would not present the same threat as other neighborhoods. However, with the bond that was passed in 2013 to build the new Red Wings arena downtown, property is being bought and value is rising while local businesses have had to close their doors. Showcase Collectibles in Cass Corridor closed in March of this year and Comet Bar on Park is closing, as well, to make way for the arena. In a radius as small as the neighborhood, those are major losses.

Gentrification in the Corridor has in a lot of ways skipped the gradual process of elevating income brackets of step-by-step and has gone from majorly residential to largely corporate owned in a rapid period. Areas like Corktown and Woodbridge have seen rising property values and rent over the last couple of years. In an auction on May 21st, the highest bid on an abandoned home in Woodbridge reached $87 thousand dollars when the city’s median home sale price is $35 thousand dollars. Though the rising property value is starting to make affordable housing much more scarce in these areas, Cass Corridor’s property value is now defined by corporate potential which is a different price scale, altogether. An abandoned hotel in the Corridor sold for 3 million dollars in November of 2013.

Those of us who witnessed the first round of land monopolizing in the 1990s which lead to countless fires in Brush Park when Comerica Park was opening, know that gentrification is literally dangerous when corporations with interminable means seek to acquire residential property. Paralleling Detroit’s history during the construction of Comerica Park, local nightclub The Grind, (which was notably on prime real estate downtown just a block from Dan Gilbert’s other recently purchased buildings) burned down February 19th of this year.

Since then both the Viking Hotel and The Ashley Hotel downtown have also caught fire, and though those fires were able to be controlled many were skeptical that the amount of damage was not calculated- along with the proximity of these fires to the new arena . When damage is done to property that is currently owned and maintained, it receives media coverage that could lead to speculating the motive, but a manageable fire would just make repairs costly and even tempt the owner to sell valuable land for a lower price. The abandoned Unitarian Church on Woodward burned to the ground May 10th of this year, just two blocks North of where the new Red Wings arena is intended to go. There is no recourse for any loss of life that may occur when a fire strikes an abandoned building on desirable land when there are possible ties to corporate interests.

As gentrification is debated, the rigid notion that a relationship between space and availability is convenient for middle and upper class people moving into the city who choose to deny that there is harm in the means that space is occupied. There is danger in refusing to accept the reality of gentrification in Detroit. Because the traditional definition is tied to the availability of housing, we completely leave out the homeless- who amount to over thirty-five-thousand of the city’s residents.

Currently the ACLU are investigating accusations that the Detroit Police Department are participating in “illegal and abusive tactics toward the homeless.” Over five cases where homeless men were told to get in police cars and taken miles away from downtown have been brought to light, and many more can be expected as police presence has doubled with Dan Gilbert’s private police force patrolling downtown as well. As we discuss the rising cost of rent and the availability of housing, there is nothing being said about those without homes and how their experiences have everything to do with gentrification.

As Cass Corridor becomes more desirable for corporate interests, it is difficult to say what will happen to the homeless population as well as the artists, the musicians, the workers, the elderly, and the mentally ill. The only concrete answer is that every community must be accounted for in the conversations that will follow these major changes in Detroit.

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