“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” This centuries-old phrase that would become Detroit’s motto is more than a historic footnote.
In this quintessential Black city, where the prevalence of houses of worship bears witness to a collective culture of faith and deeply rooted belief in renewal, the idea of hope has always served as an essential foundation. The Detroit brand of hope and faith, however, has never required heroes or saviors. Instead, it has fostered generations of residents in every corner of the city who dedicate countless hours, year after year, to the hard and often thankless work of maintaining our neighborhoods.
As with any community’s core values, our spirit of hope and commitment to action is tested over time. That’s clear given the current environment in which Detroiters find themselves. After decades of divestment, real estate developers and investors from around the nation and globe have once again become interested in developing properties in the city’s central business district and certain residential pockets. This rapid evolution should come as no surprise to longtime Detroit residents who have always taken pride in the distinctiveness of our architecture. Still, as the development landscape rapidly changes before our eyes with corporate slogans that hinge on “opportunity,” residents who live in the city’s many neighborhoods must realize, before it is too late, that no single group has a monopoly on opportunity.
When thinking about development prospects, anyone who has spent a significant period of time in Detroit will recognize familiar refrains. Many residents assert either that the city’s precious resources, not least among these being commercial real estate, are being taken by external forces-or that government officials have intentionally established structural barriers to prevent longtime residents from sharing in the upside of the city’s renaissance. Whether or not you find merit in these assertions, the notion of waiting for a “level playing field” in matters of economic development overlooks the rich history of Black entrepreneurship and community development in the city.
Ensuring the success of projects despite the deep obstacles that have always existed, including the very real challenge of accessing traditional financing, has always required ingenuity in creating grassroots support systems. Simply put, Detroiters who have endured the city’s many difficult decades but nevertheless remained must be bold and intentional in creating their own opportunities. Far from being content with the notion that any new use of a vacant space is better than nothing, we must challenge ourselves to reimagine our commercial corridors to fit the unique essence of our varied neighborhoods. We must begin to see opportunity where years of decline have persuaded many among us to see only blight.
With the founding of Building Community Value (BCV), a newly incorporated Detroit nonprofit, I hope to prove through collaborative action that no other groups are better positioned to redevelop Detroit than the city’s residents themselves-and their community organizations.
BCV’s primary goals are to purchase and redevelop commercial spaces in neighborhoods outside the downtown core while working closely with community partners to place minority entrepreneurs in these renovated spaces. The goals may seem simple, but success will require the concerted effort of neighborhood residents, religious and academic institutions, and other local community development organizations. If nothing else, BCV’s founding is a call to action to collectively roll up our sleeves to rebuild the value in our community. Will you heed the call?
Chase L. Cantrell is a Detroit-based ‘solutionary,’ founder of nonprofit Building Community Value and former real estate/corporate lawyer.