Detroit, a city that has become synonymous with the soul and struggles of Black America, is experiencing a quiet yet powerful transformation. Here, in Detroit, where over 80% of the population is African American, a renaissance is taking root, driven by the hands and hearts of Black developers. It’s a story of rebirth, not just of buildings, but of community spirit and resilience.
James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In Detroit, these words ring especially true. The city’s Black developers are facing not only the physical decay of their beloved city but also a legacy of systemic challenges, working tirelessly to shape a future that reflects the community’s rich history and vibrant culture.
Revitalizing the heart of Detroit’s East Side, 16703 Warren BD LLC, led by Brandon Hodges and Damon Dickerson, is embarking on a journey of transformation and renewal. Their latest project, “The Deco,” stands as a tribute to the city’s architectural heritage, drawing inspiration from its Art Deco roots and distinctive brickwork. This project is more than a building restoration; it’s a manifestation of cultural pride and community resilience in a city where most neighborhoods are predominantly Black. Hodges emphasizes the significance, saying, “It’s important to acknowledge that we are in a majority Black city. That comes with a level of cultural competency that developers should show. Most of our neighborhoods are majority Black, and I think sometimes resources don’t always flow to those neighborhoods. We are trying to be good stewards of the opportunities that we’re given to get our vision off the ground and impact the community.”
The duo, who met through a Building Community Value’s Real Estate Fundamentals Class, shares not only a professional bond but also a deep commitment to the neighborhoods they call home. Their project aims to breathe new life into the former Beauty School property with a substantial renovation. The plan includes the creation of 6-9 new rental apartments and a ground-floor retail space, revitalizing a structure that is long overdue. Dickerson says that the placement on East Warren Avenue for DECO has been a blessing in disguise.
“16703 is a diamond in the rough,” he said. “With it being on the corner lot, the exposure is absolutely wonderful. The building itself has set long enough that it is in such disarray that it was able to uncover some fantastic opportunities for us to take advantage of it architecturally.”
Central to this vision is the aspiration to activate the ground floor with a food and beverage tenant, reflecting the community’s culinary landscape. To ensure this project resonates with local needs and tastes, the development team, in collaboration with the Business of Food, spearheaded by Chef Ederique Goudia, is engaging in a deliberate process of community consultation, which includes a blend of digital surveying, face-to-face workshops, and in-depth data analysis, taking heed to the community’s voice in shaping potential food operators and concepts that would flourish on the E. Warren corridor.
“Outside of design, we’re also very excited about the small business opportunities,” added Hodges. “We have roughly around 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail we’re looking to bring, and we’ve went through a very robust engagement process to identify a family-owned restaurant. Having anchored small businesses in the neighborhood is really going to uplift the community as well.” The culmination of this effort will be a unique community taste-testing event, offering a space where neighbors can connect, potential retailers can showcase their offerings, and a sense of communal identity can be further strengthened.
While so much of Detroit’s redevelopment is happening in and around downtown, the neighborhoods that surround the central core are often left underserved. “We lose sight of the fact that downtown Detroit can only be as strong as its neighborhoods,” Hodges shared. “You need a stabilizing force within the neighborhoods in order to make downtown relevant. You need living wages, housing security, resources, and amenities for them to feel good about where they live to actually have an appetite to come downtown and spend money. We’re just trying to do our part to drive awareness to make sure that people understand that there’s beauty all over the city.”
Such initiatives reflect a broader narrative, one where development is not just about erecting buildings but fostering spaces where community, culture, and collaboration intersect. In a city marked by its resilience and spirit, projects like The Deco, which aims to break ground this year, stand as beacons of hope, signaling a future where development is not only physically transformative but socially and culturally enriching as well.
Despite the national statistics from the Urban Land Institute that show Black developers comprise less than five percent of residential real estate developers, Black developers in Detroit have a deeper impact. They’re not just constructing buildings; they’re crafting communities, understanding that each brick laid is a step toward healing and empowerment.
Yet, the road is steeped in challenges. In underserved neighborhoods, residents contend with a myriad of issues – from housing instability and lack of quality education to inadequate healthcare and limited job opportunities. These challenges are not mere statistics; they are the lived realities of people whose voices have long been marginalized.
“First and foremost, oftentimes we set ourselves apart from the community, but I’m often reminded by virtue of where I come from that I’m always a part of the community,” said Dickerson. “So, the things that we do here are not only important to ourselves but of course it’s important to places that we come from to essentially represent the best way possible when it comes to a function of a particular city, the aesthetic of a particular city, and making sure that things are beautiful for people to enjoy, operate, and function in order to thrive.”
Black developers in Detroit are working to address these issues, knowing that true urban planning goes beyond aesthetics. It’s about creating spaces where people can live, work, and thrive. It’s about building not just for the community but with the community, ensuring that development projects don’t just change skylines but uplift lives.
However, the path is fraught with systemic barriers. The scarcity of capital for Black developers is a glaring issue, reflecting a broader pattern of racial inequity in the financial sector. This lack of access to funding not only hampers their ability to lead projects but also stifles the growth of communities that most need investment.
Black developers bring to the table a unique and invaluable perspective in urban planning. Their approach often fuses economic development with cultural preservation, recognizing that sustaining a community’s identity is key to its growth. This philosophy is exemplified in revitalizing historic neighborhoods like Brush Park, where modern housing units are thoughtfully interwoven with restored Victorian mansions.
Key to this resurgence is the incorporation of community voices. Black developers understand that true development is a collaborative effort, ensuring that the projects address real needs like job creation, access to education, and safe community spaces.
However, challenges like the disparity in access to capital for black developers remain a major obstacle. Despite their critical role in shaping the urban landscape, these developers often face hurdles in securing funding, a lingering effect of systemic racial bias in the financial sector. Addressing this requires a shift toward equitable financial practices that recognize and support the value of Black-led development projects.
Gentrification, too, is a significant concern. While development can attract much-needed investment, it can also lead to the displacement of long-time residents. Balancing revitalization with the preservation of community fabric is essential, ensuring that the benefits of growth are shared by all, particularly those who have stood by the city through its toughest times.
Detroit’s revival, championed by its Black developers, is a powerful example of community-driven change, offering a blueprint for other cities facing similar challenges. It shows that when those most impacted by urban planning lead the process, the results extend beyond physical transformation to a profound impact on the lives of residents.