Photo: Detroit racial divide: white (red), black (blue), and hispanic (yellow)
Please welcome today’s guest writer, Nathan Groenewold. Nathan graduated from Calvin in 2014 with a degree in English. After serving in Honduras, he worked and studied (MDiv, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) in Boston before moving to Southeast Michigan and founding Cohort Detroit alongside local partners. If you’re interested in participating, you can apply here.
I was not deeply familiar with the history of Detroit until moving to Southeastern Michigan and developing Cohort Detroit, a justice-oriented year of immersive learning and spiritual formation for emerging leaders (the pilot program begins in January). I’ve spent the better part of a year listening to a complex fabric of political histories, family stories, and unexpected anecdotes.
I am an Outsider and therefore highly susceptible to the potential blunders of the Outsiders who have gone before me: the Problem-solver, the Well-intentioned, the Eager and the Woke. My central work has been building upon existing partnerships, fashioning something with and not for native Detroiters, and doing this slowly and deliberately, listening and adapting at each new turn.
That listening leads to learning, and learning has led me to new knowledge that keeps me up at night: in 1950, the population of Detroit, Michigan was nearly 2 million and 80 percent white. Now, the population of Detroit is a steadily declining 670,000 and 80 percent black. Such a drop in population throws a knockout punch to a city’s tax base. The median household income of Detroit now hovers around $26,000, and that number is inflated by six-figure incomes centralized in Midtown, leaving many residents around Cohort Detroit’s ministry partners in Brightmoor and Morningside without running water or electricity.
I was talking about this with James (name changed), a member of our partner’s house ministry in Brightmoor. I like James. He speaks his mind, and he has a kind heart. We were staring toward Outer Drive at the burned-out house across the road, its staircase hanging naked and exposed to the front lawn. It was a drug operation, he explained. Before that, it probably housed a working class family with a Ford pension. They burned it down when they left, or maybe someone else did, James shrugged. I asked why they would do that, and who ‘they’ were, but we were distracted when we noticed a neighbor prying open the door to the adjacent house. Was he slipping in to charge his phone (many residents live in houses without electricity), or just looking for a place to warm up for the evening?
James says he wouldn’t want to leave his neighborhood. It’s not quite Mayberry, he said, as we eyed two friends sipping from brown paper bags at 11:30 a.m., but I like it here. People know me here. And I know them. The mailman stops to talk.
I offered that this isn’t often the case in wealthier districts. In a neighborhood seventeen minutes west on M-14, someone can drive a car down a freshly painted road, into their newly-paved driveway, shut a squeakless garage door, swipe up on their security system, and never see their neighbors. People are lonely out there, I said.
The population of Detroit has been in decline because people with means fled to neighboring suburbs like Grosse Pointe (median income $100,000) and Bloomfield Hills (median income $160,000), or just far enough to get away from underfunded school systems and average car insurance rates of $5,414. Most people with means were white. By and large, people left because they, or their companies, inherited a fear of black people and immigrants, a fear that was incarnated through racist systems like discriminatory lending, a GI bill benefitting predominantly white veterans, and New Jim Crow’s drug war. I don’t believe each member of the Detroit Exodus was intentionally complicit in these systems, but that doesn’t change anything. People with means left and they took their money and their power with them.
Though James doesn’t know all the details of this bird’s-eye history, he understands the reality better than I ever will. After we shared a long silence, he spoke again. People are always talking about the greatness of America. The greatness of our freedom, they say. He swept his arm out toward the burned-out structure and raised his voice: Where is it? Tell me where? Is it here!?
This particular day, I had lingered outside the ministry house for a couple extra hours. I listened to one young attendee’s plan to turn an abandoned school into a community center, witnessed a few people pass around a communal cigarillo, and laughed along with a group of old friends swapping jokes.
Shifting his weight on the sidewalk, James reached a crescendo and shouted across the empty street for anyone to hear, this is America! Then he smiled and shook his head. Not a sad or a sinister smile. Just the smile of someone who is in on the secret.