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Gentrification misses real problem in Detroit, urban expert warns

John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Home and Consumer News

DETROIT -- As complaints grow louder of gentrification in Detroit, some urban experts advise us to pay more attention to the real problem facing urban America.

That problem is the increasing joblessness and poverty scarring so many cities, including Detroit, where the poverty rate runs close to 40 percent and almost half of working-age people remain out of the workforce.

Even as thousands of tech-savvy millennials flock to a few pockets in and around downtown Detroit, data show that poverty is increasing and incomes collapsing in many outlying urban neighborhoods.

This contrast between what many people think is the problem -- a rapidly gentrifying city -- and the underlying reality of widespread urban poverty forms the core of an important new book called "The Divided City" by Alan Mallach (Island Press, 344 pages, $30).

Mallach, one of America's best-known urban gurus, has studied Detroit for many years and still consults with the city on urban policy. His book issues a stark warning that the recent revitalization of the greater downtown of so many cities like Detroit not only hasn't spread to the outlying neighborhoods but may never do so.

"Only a few years ago, Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main drag, was deserted after 5 p.m. Now it is bustling with life and activity well into the night. The factories are gone, but universities and medical centers are creating thousands of new jobs," he writes.

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"Yet that reality is badly tarnished by the reality that in the process, these cities are turning into places of growing inequality, increasingly polarized between rich and poor, white and black, with unsettling implications for the present and the future."

Detroiters aren't alone in often mistaking one problem -- gentrification -- for the real issue.

"If you rely on the media, you might think that gentrification is the big story of American cities in the twenty-first century." But, he says, "Gentrification may be happening in a few corners of Detroit, but the big story in that city -- even if it doesn't get the attention it deserves -- is the persistence of concentrated, debilitating poverty and the decline of once-healthy, vital neighborhoods."

In many cities, even the districts where many complain about gentrification were in fact either economically viable to begin with, often adjacent to reviving downtowns, or empty zones filled in with new upscale housing.

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