On Pixels, Atoms, and Gentrification: What Drives Detroit’s Future?

I attended the Knight Foundation‘s “Civic Engagement Showcase and Learning Conference” this morning in Detroit, and it was an eye-opening experience. (Search for #DetroitShowcase on Twitter to read the attendees’ tweets.) Predictably, non-profits and arts groups were heavily represented—I sat next to Detroit Opera House founder and director David DiChera in our small-group breakout session—but there was also a smattering of media and tech folks, many from the social entrepreneurship scene.

The Knight Foundation is all about meeting communities where they are and giving them the tools to amplify their voices. Technology is playing a growing role in civic engagement, and the Knight Foundation has funded a number of really interesting Detroit projects where technology and community-building intersect. But there are still a few major hurdles to widespread engagement, namely the fact that we still have, as Loveland Technologies’ Jerry Paffendorf describes it, the tech-enabled pixel crowd and the luddite atom crowd, and never the twain shall meet. There’s also the big elephant in the room—gentrification—and what it means to people who have lived here for decades to suddenly have their city infiltrated by innovators, do-gooders, hipsters, land grabbers, and entrepreneurs who have little sense of Detroit’s history or specific plans for inclusion.

Paffendorf spoke on stage at the event about some of his work as the founder of Why Don’t We Own This, a website that aggregates information about Detroit’s abandoned and
foreclosed properties to help interested parties, mainly neighbors and prospective buyers, keep tabs on them. A few weeks ago, he participated in a volunteer event coordinated by the author Mitch Albom where people met in the Osborn neighborhood on Detroit’s eastside and boarded up 100 vacant houses. Paffendorf was curious about what his website’s housing data revealed about the neighborhood, so he went home and used the site’s tools to find out.

It turns out that more than a third of the homes the 100 Houses volunteers boarded up will be available for sale at the upcoming auction, and most of them will have a starting price of a few hundred dollars. (I’ll pause while you East and West Coasters absorb that: Homes in Detroit are still going for less than a good flatscreen TV.) Paffendorf also discovered that the neighborhood’s biggest landowners were the City of Detroit, the Michigan Land Bank, and Deutsche Bank—no surprise in a city that has been wracked with foreclosures the way Detroit has.

“I saw all of this information that was invisible to the volunteers that could have been really useful,” Paffendorf adds. What if, for instance, one of the volunteers saw potential in one of the homes? If that person knew it was for sale for a pittance, she might be swayed to fix it up, or at least keep it boarded up and free from becoming a hotspot for crime. “If we can bring these tools together, manage the pixels and atoms, we can do so much more.”

What is not often talked about is the mutual skepticism and even distrust that exists between the downtown tech corridor and the outlying neighborhoods. The areas are so different in terms of stability, income, education, racial diversity, law enforcement response times, and access to technology that they might as well be on different planets. There are great swaths of the city where street lights are out and summoning a police officer seems like more trouble than it’s worth. (Remember this recent story about the shooting suspect trying to turn himself in at a fire station? If I had to bet on it, I’d say he went to the fire station instead of the police station because the fire department has a much better reputation for responding to calls.) I don’t remember a summer here that included quite so many crime victims shooting perpetrators, often fatally, with legally obtained concealed weapons. Is that really what it’s come to in Detroit, that things are so far gone with the municipal infrastructure that we have to arm ourselves to keep safe?

Yes, and duh, is what many people in Detroit’s outlying neighborhoods would say. As the jobs and then the tax based poured out of the city, those who stayed were the first to feel it. The trouble in Detroit didn’t start with the riots, though that was certainly a tipping point, but rather with extremely segregated lending and real estate practices, and a police force notorious for brutality against black residents. Then the jobs started disappearing. It was a simmering stew that finally bubbled over in 1967 and its specter has been haunting Detroit ever since.

What we’re left with is the revitalization movement’s biggest source of unspoken tension: gentrification, and all of the pros and cons that word carries. Kirk Mayes, who runs the Brightmoor Alliance, made the point at the end of our small group session that it’s time to face gentrification head on and start talking about it, that without an honest discussion involving all parties, there will never be widespread civic engagement. As Paffendorf puts it, people need to get out into these “messed up” neighborhoods and feel what’s going on in their guts. Once they do, as I know from experience, it changes your entire perspective.

I suppose there’s another way to look at gentrification in Detroit—one that indicates Detroit is becoming a desirable place to live again. After so many years of having to endure jokes about “the last one out, turn off the lights,” it’s an interesting turn of events. Paffendorf told a story during his on-stage presentation that illustrated just how different Detroit is today. He likes to take what he calls “escape from Detroit” bike rides, long trips down main city streets until he’s out in the suburbs.

He was recently taking such a trip down West Jefferson, which eventually gives way to a desolate industrial stretch. Paffendorf saw a guy fishing on a dock near Zug Island, the first human being he had seen since he started the day’s trip. He debated whether or not he should go up and talk to the fisherman, and finally decided to say hi. Paffendorf asked if he could take his picture. “Why,” the fisherman asked. “Are you going to put it on the Internet?”

Well, yes, Paffendorf said, bracing for a negative reaction. Instead, the fisherman said,”Oh, really? What’s your Twitter handle?” Paffendorf traded Twitter info and shared photos with the man. “Here’s this older guy fishing in a wasteland, and we’ve traded Twitter handles,” Paffendorf says. “Now, we’re connected in a way that might surprise people. This wouldn’t have existed a year or two ago.”

That’s what happens, he says, when the atoms and the pixels intersect: meaningful—and hopefully sustainable—engagement.

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