Los Angeles writer Mekeisha Madden Toby’s latest return to Detroit was partly professional, partly personal and partly surreal.
“I was walking around at midnight [downtown] – it was nuts,” the former resident marvels.
The graduate of Cass Tech (’95) and Wayne State (’99) came back last week with her family for a journalism conference and to see a few childhood touchstones with her husband, fellow journalist Al Toby, and their two children.
Though she had come as recently as 2016, the 41-year-old entertainment reporter was startled by the pace of dramatic changes. She felt a bit uneasy at times.
“There were some weird moments, even at Belle Isle, where you feel the culture clash between urban and suburbanites,” Madden Toby says this week in a Facebook thread that kindles a thoughtful discussion. More than five dozen comments and replies touch on gentrification, nuances and race.
“There is a lot of displacement and progress hasn’t moved beyond downtown and Midtown into the neighborhoods. That is a problem,” she says in her initial post after returning from last week’s five-day conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, held in downtown Detroit this year.
For nine years, she was a TV critic and feature writer for The Detroit News – initially from here and then based in LA from 2007-12. Now she writes for Essence magazine and does video stories and interviews for a startup called CoBird, an entertainment news site aimed at millennials.
The following compilation of her Facebook reflections, adapted with permission, is followed by a sampling of reactions in the same thread – also with the writers’ consent. They’re presented as an indicator of individual perceptions and emotions about a city in transition.
‘Gentrification often comes with strings’
Seeing the newly gentrified Detroit was like seeing an ex-boyfriend after plastic surgery. He’s still cute, but that new nose is a little too perfect.
Seriously, seeing white people walking around downtown at midnight feels surreal. Not bad. Not good. Just foreign.
There are parks where there were no parks. Belle Isle has an open greenhouse and a clean, functional fountain. Two IHOPs are on Jefferson. Two!
I saw some of the changes when I came two years ago, but damn.
I’m all for progress and better urban planning. I just wish things didn’t feel so lopsided.
Part of me loved it. No self-respecting Detroiters were happy with dirty parks and a lack of development.
But new doesn’t always equal improved, and no one wants to feel like a guest in her own home. Some businesses and newcomers have a way of treating natives like guests and guests like natives. I got a taste of that during my visit.
I need black people to keep being a part of this. All of this. Hopefully everyone will get to enjoy and benefit from the improvements, not just a select few.
There is a suspicious part of me that says, “Uh oh. Things are getting too nice. It’s only a matter of time before we get pushed out of this party.” Gentrification often comes with strings.
It’s happening in Inglewood, which is not far from where we live. It happened in D.C., Baltimore, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Oakland, even Seattle. I’ve seen it far too many times.
Downtown and Belle Isle and all this stuff belongs to all of us. Not just those who seem to feel entitled — all of us.
This conversation is going on all over America. But Detroit is especially fascinating because it is so black and has been for decades.
That said, I can’t wait to get back to Detroit while the weather is nice. I didn’t get Vicki’s ribs [Vicki’s Bar-B-Q] or hang out at Eastern Market.
So I’ll be back soon-ish and figure things out as I go. I always do.
Voices from the dialogue
Comments from the same discussion thread are shared with permission.
‘Pockets of change’
I was there for a minute in June and had the same reaction. I drove out Michigan Avenue from Inkster and then up Woodward and noticed the pockets of change. Hopefully more areas can get the same treatment.
— Weldon Johnson, University of Michigan graduate who’s a reporter at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix
‘Wow, just wow’
I spent so much time last week thinking and saying: Wow. Just wow. I wrote about the transformation four years ago for Politico. It’s exploded since then.
— Suzette Hackney, NABJ attendee who was a reporter at The Detroit News (1996-98) and Free Press (1998-2012) and now is director of opinion and community engagement at the Indianapolis Star
‘Something concrete for everyone’
I know this is unpopular to say, but I love it, to be honest. I covered the city when it had hit rock bottom a decade ago, when no one wanted to do business with the city or trusted any of its infrastructure or city leaders. (They shouldn’t have, BTW.)
It’s jarring to some in Detroit and I get all the reasons why — some legit, some small-minded. The next step is seeing how to turn this new look into something concrete for everyone.
— Jason S. Smith of Philadelphia, Renaissance High and WSU graduate
‘Whole new world!’
My coworker and I walk around downtown almost daily, and we say the very same thing. It’s a whole new world! — Tracy Knox, Detroit