The Latest Plan to Save Detroit: Build a Gay Neighborhood

A Detroit protest in favor of marriage equality.
A Detroit protest in favor of marriage equality.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Speaking at a forum about Detroit’s future in May, an economic-development official told the audience, “When I look at this city’s tax base, I say bring on more gentrification.” George Jackson, CEO and president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. continued, “I’m sorry, but, I mean, bring it on. We can’t just be a poor city and prosper.” That’s an undeniable economic fact, but given the city’s declining population and tax base, not to mention its high crime rate, what practical steps can the city take to revive itself?

After Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July, some suggested that the city should sell off assets like the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection or Belle Isle, an island park on the Detroit River the city has owned since 1879, to help meet its $18 billion debt. (Although the proposal to buy Belle Isle didn’t go through, on Nov. 12 a state panel approved a 30-year lease to make the island a state park, a move that is expected to save Detroit $4 million to $6 million a year in operating costs.) Just about every method of boosting local business and reviving blighted neighborhoods has been examined, except one: Scant attention has been paid to the LGBTQ community’s role in Detroit’s economic comeback.

Gays and lesbians are known to be drivers of gentrification. They are more likely to want to live in urban cores, which tend to be more tolerant and culturally vibrant than rural areas. And since LGBTQ individuals are still less likely to have children, they are less swayed by the state of local school districts when choosing where to live, a huge factor in cities like Detroit where many families relocate because of the failing public-school system. Research has shown that LGBTQ residents have driven redevelopment in areas of Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.  

Urbanist Richard Florida argues that cities that lack gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race. He claims that places with a strong creative class and a wide range of professionals are positioned to grow economically, while cities stuck in old paradigms of development, like subsidizing sports arenas or high-rise buildings, are not. His creativity index includes a “Gay Index,” which measures an area’s openness to different kinds of ideas and people, including LGBTQ folks. Florida has called lesbians and gays the “canaries of the creative economy” for their ability to make areas more desirable by bringing in people and businesses.

According to Erik Bottcher, the LGBTQ community liaison for retiring New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, real-estate agents have told him, “If you want to find a new area to invest in, follow the gay community.” It’s also why Stephen Colbert jokes “The same-sex chickens have come home to gentrify their roost.”

But unlike Chicago, Washington, or Boston, the city of Detroit doesn’t have a centralized gay neighborhood, so one will have to be developed almost from scratch. 

“There are gays in Detroit,” said Curtis Lipscomb, founder of Kick, a black LGBTQ center in Detroit. “But they’re not in a package where you see a sign with a rainbow on it.”

Lipscomb hopes to make Detroit’s LGBTQ community more visible. Although gay neighborhoods usually develop organically, Lipscomb has been meeting with a group of about 10 people from the banking, nonprofit, and community development sectors who want to establish a gay enclave in Detroit. “Detroit has more gay bars than the suburbs, better nightlife, and arts that make it attractive. And depending on the area, it has cheaper rent too,” he said.

The gay neighborhood, which could include retail locations, housing, cultural institutions, places of worship, and gay bars, would likely be developed in Palmer Park, Midtown, or downtown Detroit.

Lipscomb is looking for support from Detroit’s city government, but the city can only do so much. While Detroit prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ people in hiring practices, the city government has no control over state laws like Michigan’s gay-marriage ban. But since the ban goes on trial in February, that could change in the future

Legal rights are most important for cities trying to attract LGBTQ people, Erik Bottcher told me. “Politicians pass [LGBTQ rights laws] because they know they can be good for business,” he said. Bottcher also says that municipalities can make themselves more gay-friendly by having LGBTQ liaisons in departments of city government, training police officers to have a “laser-like focus for hate crimes,” and establishing LGBTQ committees in chambers of commerce.

Detroit had an LGBTQ liaison in the mayor’s office for a short time, and it currently has a liaison in its police department. But given the city’s debt problems, it cannot realistically be expected to add liaisons or fund more police training.

Another way the city can improve its image with the LGBTQ community is by public officials making supportive statements. On this score, the city’s leaders have left a lot of room for improvement. During his years in office between 2002 and 2008, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was recently sentenced to 28 years behind bars for racketeering, bribery, extortion, and tax crimes, repeatedly disparaged the gay community

“Given the ignorant comments of Kwame Kilpatrick and the avoidance of the topic by other officials, the perception of many gay people was that Detroit was hostile toward them,” said Joe Posch, a gay entrepreneur based in Detroit.

On Nov. 5, Mike Duggan was elected mayor of Detroit. In his acceptance speech he made what Posch claims was the first positive mention of gay people by a Detroit mayor in recent history, or perhaps ever.

“The way we are going to rebuild this city is to value every single person in our community,” Duggan said. “It will no longer matter if you are black, brown, or white. It will no longer matter if you are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. It will not matter if you are gay or straight,” Duggan said. “We want all of your talents. You’re all going to be equally valued and welcomed, because only in that way will we rebuild the kind of Detroit everyone in this city deserves.”

If development leaders like George Jackson are serious about attracting people to the city to combat its dwindling tax base, it would be in their best interest to continue to engage the area’s LGBTQ residents in a very public fashion. Even if state laws are out of the city’s hands, elected officials can still approve projects, support business groups, and at the very least, acknowledge the community.