When Green Means White: Rethinking growth in Detroit

I can see why people say this city is dead.

I tried to reject the thought as soon as it crossed my mind, but it was hard to have a positive outlook after my first day of work in Detroit last winter. It was overcast — the kind of day that makes you look up and wonder if you’re living inside a ping-pong ball. My mind mirrored the sky, thoughts swirling themselves into an apparent blankness. It had been an overstimulating first day to say the least.

Five of my co-workers spent four hours sitting around a map of Detroit discussing stories of environmental racism and injustice that have happened in various neighborhoods. “This is what grassroots work is like,” my supervisor said with a chuckle, “sitting around and talking about how the system is f***ed until we have to go out and fight it. We go out and fight until we get too tired, then we come back and sit down.”

When I learned about Detroit up until this day, I had subscribed to the ideal of the city being a land of opportunity, where rock-bottom bankruptcy meant a chance to redevelop sustainably; I envisioned urban farms taking over every vacant lot and bike lanes infiltrating the Motor City’s vastly empty roads. The grassroots group I had joined enlightened me to the dark reality of land grabbing, racial tension between ‘green’ groups, and discriminatory reinvestment. I left work grappling with what was really reviving and what was dying as the city changed.

The wind bit my nose and shrunk my shoulders up to my ears. I walked briskly past a mosaic of empty fields where the city had demolished so-called ‘blight,’ vacant lots with oil-slicked puddles and trash piles, and the occasional crumbling house. The neighborhood, Brush Park, was particularly ghostly so the only people I passed were waiting for the bus. It wasn’t long before I decided to keep my head down in hopes of avoiding the visions of death and decay that I passed.

Fortunately, I couldn’t turn my ears off too. I turned the corner to another field and heard a fluttering hum that drew my eyes upward. I was unknowingly walking under an undulating sea of birds. The small black birds had become one mass, flying back and forth between an abandoned building to my left and a cluster of trees in the field to my right. I stopped walking and stood in the middle of their river, just below the flow. My shoulders and jaw dropped as my head locked upwards. I was mesmerized — why were there so many? Why were they flying back and forth here, of all places? They would all take off simultaneously and glide upwards only to dive down, drift to the right only to flip back to the left. Eventually they would land on the other side for a moment before taking off again and repeating the journey. As they flew, the angle of their wings would change the color and density of their collective mass. They looked light and transparent as they moved towards me, then a wave of blackness washed over them when their wings turned the other way. Individually they were unremarkable, colorless and spastic creatures that felt alien to me, but together they moved with the grace of a ballet dancer or a cloth blowing in the wind. They brought vibrancy to the lifeless land.

This is it, this is nature taking back the city.

I stood there and marinated in awe for five or ten minutes before I started thinking. Part of me was reveling in nature’s triumph over manmade decay and Detroit’s unique capacity to provide natural habitat in a way most cities cannot. But part of me hesitated — is it wrong to celebrate “natural” life when it implicates the city’s economic death? How can I appreciate the tree growing through the window of a crumbling house when this life is thriving off the death of someone’s home? As my thoughts spun, I decided to walk away before the moment of beauty became a moment of internal conflict.

By the time I left Detroit this internal conflict bloomed into a new awareness of the fine line between greening the city and whitening the city. Detroit is a place where nature is returning, but many people are understandably concerned about this “green” reputation attracting a return of whiteness as well, accompanied by gentrification. My coworkers had been analyzing the advertisements and articles on the revitalization of Detroit and saw that when the media talks about revitalization they show mostly white, hip young people working in coffee shops or starting their own businesses. They use language laden with colonialism, comparing Detroit to a “new frontier” or a “blank slate” where rent is cheap and land is empty, thus ignoring the communities that have been struggling through neglect for years. They even rebranded Cass Corridor, a neighborhood with notoriously high crime rates, to be called “Midtown” to seem more desirable.

Its no wonder local people are questioning who this revitalization is for. At a community meeting about gentrification in Cass Corridor, some longterm residents expressed concern about new parks, organic grocery stores and bike lanes attracting more white people and thus higher rents. Longterm black residents were the original community gardeners, creating abundance from decay for years, so they certainly were not against green space and food production. They were simply pointing out a historical connection between white people and the environmental amenities of a “nice neighborhood” — a connection that planners and developers utilize in efforts to attract the “creative class” and the economic growth they bring. The whitening effect of green amenities is exemplified in how the community garden movement became the urban agriculture movement in the past decade, or in other words, how the media depicts trendy white farmers using expensive hydroponic systems and growing for-profit produce for high-end farm-to-table restaurants. When the face of Detroit’s growth is disproportionately white and unaffordable, it’s understandable that these native Detroiters were wary of changes that seem to be for newcomers.

As a white gentrifier, an avid gardener and a Detroit history enthusiast, I hope to keep that flock of birds in mind. I will find beauty in the act of flying back and forth until the fights for environmental and economic justice are one in the same. I will join the flock that is creating green jobs and community-based wealth, following the lead of the people who have lived here through decades of struggle. I will remember that these issues are not separate, but they are symptoms of the same broken system — climate change is gentrification is colonialism is the rich exploiting and displacing the poor in pursuit of profit. Only a united flock of birds flying back and forth can improve environmental and economic well-being for all.

https://vimeo.com/214502743