By Arthur Bridgeforth Jr.
The growth of the Black middle class in Detroit appears to be the proverbial elixir that will stabilize the city’s population, spur growth and make it a formidable major city in 21st Century America.
That is certainly the conclusion arrived at by a report released in 2019 by Detroit Future City (DFC) on growing Detroit’s Black middle class. DFC is a non-profit independent think-tank and policy-advocate.
Anika Goss, executive director for DFC, said growing the Black middle class in Detroit is the best way to ensure growth is widespread throughout the city and not just in a few neighborhoods.
“In Detroit, we have to stabilize that to grow,” Goss said.
Goss pointed to some trends that she said support this strategy. The first is looking at the percentage of Black middle-class households leaving the city for the suburbs.
In 2000, 28 percent of Black middle-class households left Detroit for the suburbs. Nearly 20 years later in 2017, Detroit lost 64 percent of its Black middle-class households to the suburbs.
DFC’s report looked to other city’s that had significant Black middle-class populations like Atlanta, Jackson, Miss., Washington D.C. and New York City to help assess Detroit’s Black middle-class population.
The results are mixed when comparing the overall number of middle-class households in the 50 largest U.S. cities and the number of Black middle-class households, according to the DFC report. Detroit has the lowest share of middle-class households, among the 50 largest U.S. cities.
But it has the sixth highest share of Black middle-class households among the top 50 U.S. cities, according to the report.
The report also found that within metro Detroit there are a total of 33 census tracks defined as Black middle-class neighborhoods. Out of these, 11 are in Detroit.
So, what might the five cities with higher shares of black middle-class households be doing that Detroit needs to do?
“Through our research in Growing Detroit’s African-American Middle Class and the Reinvestment Index, we found that there are many factors that would attract people to different places,” Goss said. “These are safe secure neighborhoods, the sense of community, quality affordable housing and quality schools.”
Still the challenge remains getting those Black middle-class households that voted with their feet and left Detroit for the suburbs, to return to the city. As well as attracting Black middle-class households from outside of Michigan.
Goss is confident Detroit can not only get this done, but she said the city isn’t sitting idly by until this happens.
“I think that the city has done a pretty good job to start to attempt to attract middle-class families to the city,” Goss said. “The Strategic Neighborhood Fund target areas have been an example of this and the neighborhoods that have been targeted through these programs have stabilized and begun to grow.”
Kevin Johnson, president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said that in addition to neighborhoods, black-owned businesses play an important role in fortifying a vibrant black middle class.
“There is no overstating the importance of black-owned business to our continued development and growing the black middle class in Detroit,” Johnson said. “Black-owned businesses strengthen local economies, foster job creation, stabilize neighborhoods and help reduce poverty. Successful owners create generational wealth and provide educational opportunities for their families.”
Johnson added that it is also important to support programs that promote the growth of minority-owned businesses overall.
“I’m proud of DEGC’s Motor City Match, which has launched more than 100 brick-and-mortar businesses in the city and another 300-plus home-based businesses in
Detroit,” Johnson said. “With our partners, we’re also relaunching a procurement program that certifies Detroit businesses and connects them with local and national buyers.”
Meanwhile, U-M Professor June Manning Thomas said that finding Black middle-class households shouldn’t be a problem for the DFC. But DFC faces some challenges to achieve the goal of getting those households to move back into the city.
“Another factor obvious from the maps in that DFC report is that the metro area does not lack middle-class black families,” said Manning Thomas, who is the Mary Frances Berry Distinguished University Professor for U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “Many have left for other localities. Fixing or reversing the reasons they left – cost of living, the foreclosure crisis, school system, etc. – is crucial for the future.”
Even given the DFC’s report, Goss said growing Detroit’s middle class isn’t the only factor in moving the city forward.
“While much of the focus is on middle-class families, we need to be supportive of many different types of households and create high-quality options for those,” Goss said. “This would include creating strong business districts where residents can access amenities in a short walk from their home.”
So, what is the alternative if Detroit doesn’t effectively grow the number of Black middle-class households?
“The 12 neighborhoods that are considered middle class would stabilize or grow with white middle-class households,” Goss said. “The rest of Detroit would continue to decline.”
It’s no secret that Detroit’s revival is viewed by some blacks in the city as white gentrification. This is due to the number of whites continuing to move to the city, simultaneously with continued developments such as luxury apartments with higher rents.
But Manning Thomas suggest that gentrification is playing out differently in a city like Detroit with an 80 percent majority black population.
“The major challenges from white gentrification in Detroit differ than those in other cities,” Manning Thomas said. “So much of the central city had emptied out that the kind of physical displacement apparent in other cities has been minimal. But rent is another matter, and so is what some people feel is social displacement.”
Manning Thomas adds that is also where growth in Detroit’s Black middle class comes into play.
“It could be that if blacks felt they had an equal chance at gaining the jobs newly arising in the CBD (central business district) – that is – if the black middle class were able to share in the incoming wealth, concerns about this issue would die down, a lot,” Manning Thomas said.