Midtown Detroit Gleams, But Not Enough to Light the Rest of the City

While other sections cry for development, Midtown Detroit boasts of a new Whole Foods, art galleries, specialty shops and trendy lofts.

When the sparkling new Whole Foods market opened in Detroit in June, it signaled yet another sign of the renaissance for the Midtown section of this economically depressed city. The store, one of few supermarkets in the city of Detroit, is one of many trendy establishments that have opened, amid a wave of new bakeries, art galleries and specialty stores.
But as Midtown’s revival seems very much underway, many residents and leaders in Detroit are questioning when that same resurgence will occur in other parts of the city. It is a theme that is heard with great frequency.
Detroit is a city with few if any supermarkets, a city where most residents are relegated to shopping in the suburbs or in one of the small mom-and-pop stores strewn in the neighborhoods of the city. In most of the city’s neighborhoods, there have been few development projects in recent years. There have been no new offices, no new stores and no development to speak of.
In fact, the most prominent characteristic scene in many of the city’s residential neighborhoods is the expanse of homes that have been abandoned in the years of the exodus of population with the decline of the automobile industry.
By contrast, Midtown, the area where the Whole Foods opened, is also home to Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and the entertainment district, which is also close to Grand Circus Park. It also includes areas of newly renovated homes and lofts. In fact, Midtown is one of the few areas of the city where there has been population growth in the last census.
This section of the city is now undergoing a huge amount of residential and commercial development with an estimated $2 billion invested in various projects and developments since 2000. In addition, nearly 4,000 housing units have opened in the last few years.
In the last decade, Midtown has seen the opening of a new 75,000-square-foot fitness center, an $11 million renovation of a theater and the rehabilitation of an abandoned warehouse that will result in studio and gallery space for local artists.
“The opening of the first Whole Foods Market in Detroit is a game changer for our city,” Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said. “Not only does it offer central-city residents more choices and more convenience for grocery shopping, it also proves that Detroit is an attractive destination for national retailers.”
Bing and many other officials and developers say that the rebirth of Midtown is crucial to the overall ability for Detroit to emerge from its economic doldrums. If there are stores, attractive housing stock and a lively cultural life, people will increasingly choose to stay in or move to Detroit, they reason.
While public officials generally celebrate the development that has enhanced the character of Midtown, many leaders and heads of community organizations nonetheless lament the fact that there is no similar economic development plan that has been unleashed successfully in other parts of the city.
“What I see here is similar to what I see in Chicago,” said John Olumba, a Michigan state representative who represents portions of Detroit, in an interview with
“In certain areas things are doing well, very well,” Olumba said. “But when you look at people in other areas, you see people who are poor and living in conditions that aren’t improving. There are small enclaves of economic activity here. But the problem is that it’s not spreading to other areas across the city, sections where people need the development the most.”
Olumba and others point to the fact that more than 60 percent of the students in the Detroit public schools live in poverty and that unemployment remains stubbornly high among African-American residents, who account for about 85 percent of the city’s population.
“Unless we have some people in Detroit leadership who really care about the entire city, this development will continue to be spotty,” Olumba said. “It will be a city of the winners and the losers.”

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(Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

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