'First World Problems' in Detroit



A piece on CNN Money a few days ago told the story of former and aspiring downtown Detroit residents, among them Andrew Kopietz, who lived in Lafayette Park for five years. Kopietz moved out of his rental when his landlords raised his rent from $840 a month to $1,100 a month.

Kopietz sounds like a good guy, somebody who moved downtown in 2009, in the wake of the Kilpatrick administration, at a time when things in the city looked less certain than ever. And as somebody who’s lived in areas that have gentrified, I understand his frustration, his anger, that jilted feeling that goes with being priced out of a neighborhood you contributed to.

It’s a sad reality that that our First World trend of urban regeneration involves moving along the very people who helped make it happen by moving in early. Kopietz was quoted in the story as saying, “It seemed unfair to be forced to pay more.” Darn right it’s unfair.

Then again, this is something we are taught from Day One as Americans: Life is unfair. You cannot go against the fundamental rule of Capitalism 101: Charge all that the market will bear. When the opportunity arises to make more money, people have to make way for profit to move in.

That uncomfortable sound — the burble of money bubbling to the top — has a lot of downtown Detroit residents on edge, and others watching from bellwether neighborhoods that are seeing upticks. A lot of good people who gave their energy to making a neighborhood interesting are going to be replaced by people of means who are much more boring. This is the story we have seen the world over for years now.

And yet, sometimes I think we’re losing a bit of perspective. While I do feel sympathy for the handful of people in the story who expressed discomfort with the lack of affordable housing downtown, when I consider the whole of Detroit, my sympathy for people priced out of an $840 per month apartment is dwarfed by my empathy for the people for whom $840 is a small fortune: the hundreds of thousands of Detroiters living in abysmal poverty.

That’s right: It’s media criticism time again. As so often happens with the national media, they shine their spotlight on Detroit looking for complaints of economic inequality and they find Kopietz as their poster child. They photograph him in what is, presumably, his apartment, an aquamarine room with a matching aquamarine retro lamp, wearing hip eyewear as if it were no big thang.

Make no mistake, Kopietz is, in fact, a victim of economic inequality. That’s not the issue. The issue is that, in a city with an official poverty rate hovering around one-third, CNN Money zooms in on Kopietz and a number of other people of just enough means to sell the story: the have-somes.

As for those have-nots, don’t expect CNN Money to come knocking on your door anytime soon

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