Tristan Taylor, a native Detroiter, and community organizer, has worked inside the now iconic front windows at Avalon for half a decade. Through those panes, he’s watched the Cass Corridor and Midtown change dramatically. A bellwether for Detroit’s recent transformation. But like all change, it’s a mixed bag.
When asked about his feelings regarding the change he’s witnessed, Tristan says, “The change in the city has been more dramatic every year that goes by. To people like me, a long-term Detroiter, some of those changes are actually quite disturbing. It's nice to have a place that has new, different amenities and an increase in housing and an increase in activity. Midtown is definitely a richer Midtown than it’s ever been. But that creates for some challenging atmosphere. I know a lot of people that have been in the same place for twenty years that have been displaced. It’s a loss for our community.”
That sort of rapid economic growth and population shift brings up the looming specter of gentrification. The turnover and replacement of legacy residents by wealthier, and often whiter, transplants. It raises questions in the community. Questions that are often dismissed, rather than explored.
“There's usually a really stupid dichotomy that comes up around the issue of gentrification. The question is usually black and white: Do you want change... or don't you? Too often people in Detroit are made to feel bad about being critical of change. The truth is, people in Detroit have wanted change for forty years, and they've done many things to try to bring that change. But they’ve oftentimes found themselves opposed by suburban and other interests. So the question isn't do you want change... yes, we want change. Change that actually includes us.”
Recognizing the A-B nature of an argument simplified for easy media sound bites, Tristan looks beyond it. He sees change as a sliding scale. An opportunity, if it’s approached correctly. Unfortunately, “correctly” isn’t always the case.
“Change is an opportunity in terms of people, but I know there are a lot of issues that people have. One of them is, quite frankly, the legacy of racism and stereotypes. It plays into Detroit and Michigan being a hyper-segregated area. It’s often the case that most people don't have any interaction with each other.”
This lack of interaction and understanding marginalizes local residents, which in turn further isolates and divides. It’s a vicious cycle.
“When businesses and people come in from the outside, the lack of comfort ends up being reflected in the people that they hire. It leads to challenges for local talent. All of the issues that outsiders don’t understand, like issues with transportation — just getting to and from work, people aren’t equipped for the challenges that come with hiring in Detroit.”
Tristan has experienced those challenges firsthand. Take, for example, the closure of over 100 Detroit neighborhood schools. On the surface, a tragedy, but the fallout radiates on both macro and micro scales. Beyond eliminating the teaching and staff jobs that pumped money back into the surrounding communities, it also affected individual students; piling even more disadvantage on young Detroiters already struggling with poverty and lack of opportunity. Tristan lays it out:
“I attended a number of Detroit public schools for middle and high school. All of the schools that I went to in Detroit no longer exist. Because the city closed around 120 public schools, it means that if I didn’t get a copy of my high school diploma, I can’t ever get it. The only thing I can get is a transcript because the individual high schools held the copies of the diplomas. When the city closed the schools they didn't transfer any of the records. Which presented some interesting challenges in applying for jobs, because I don’t have a copy of my high school diploma.”
And that’s just one example of the unexpected struggles faced by the average Detroiter. However, Tristan isn’t letting it hold him back. With the security of an understanding employer like Avalon, whose pioneering dedication to providing benefits and living wages to local Detroit talent goes far beyond the norm, he uses his experiences to push himself forward with passion and purpose in his role as a community organizer.
Tristan says, “What I'm trying to do in the world is to say, first off, that we need to have this conversation about racism that isn’t just black and white. We need to have it in both a complex and a concrete way. We have to acknowledge that racism is systemic. That it’s not just a question of who the person is that’s leading the department. It’s more than individuals... It’s an institutional problem, built in by practice and procedure. It marginalizes people as a matter of course, so my goal is to question how do we first recognize that truth? Because, if we acknowledge the truth that racism and systemic discrimination are driving inequality that means we can come out with policy to make sure that we offset them.”
It’s a logical view that pushes past rhetoric and arrives squarely at solutions.
“In Detroit, we're talking about building housing that would include affordable housing. Low-income housing that is actually accessible to the majority of people in the city. That when the city is working with businesses that we’re ensuring a mixture of minority-owned businesses and making sure that there are resources to help those businesses bridge the gap. And connecting new employers in the city with people in the community who've been here.”
Heartened by some positive changes, but knowing that there is work yet to be done, Tristan sees Detroit at a tipping point.
“If I had it my way, in the next five years Detroit would be a place that could be an example of how you do development on an equitable basis right. So it could be the place that is doing strategic investment in neighborhoods with a long-term plan that includes the majority of people in the city. But there’s another possibility here: that Detroit will become a much more stratified city. A place where the levels of segregation, both racial and socio-economic, becomes more blatant.”
Remembering Detroit’s history and knowing the strong, resilient people who call the city home, Tristan leans toward the former possibility for the city he loves... despite the long road ahead.
“I think it’s possible to build a Detroit where everyone can benefit. Detroit is certainly a vibrant and diverse city. We have a history of providing economic opportunity for working-class people. And that shouldn't be questioned. We want things to be built. And while we treasure our past, we’re not stuck in it as a lot of people think we are. We just want to make sure that the future is one that we all can enjoy. And I think that is a future that is absolutely possible.”