Welcome to a tour of Detroit through an Outlier lens. There are more than 620,000 people in the city and what feels like just as many ways to experience its joys and challenges. This guide will help you understand a few key places and themes in our reporting. We’ll also take you to the physical touchstones of cultural high points that keep our city reverberating throughout the country and world.
Even with all our individual and collective assets there’s no way to sugarcoat it, persistent and pervasive information and accountability gaps keep us from being a liberated city. We need to see, understand and document how these gaps function and grow to help build healthy civic infrastructure rooted in Detroiters’ participation and self-determination.
We hope after this little detour around the city you’ll be left wanting to know more and convinced Detroiters deserve the best. We think you’ll understand why offering valuable news and information that equips and connects residents makes a difference.
<3 Team Outlier
Detroit helped build the American middle class but that security is now out of reach for most Detroiters
🏚️ Fix this First
Housing is a top need for Detroiters as officials rubber-stamp public subsidies to prop up developers
🌳 How to Detroit
Understanding the city’s health and environment is key as Detroiters face the effects of industrial pollution
🎨 How to Thrive
With an unmatched creative heritage, Detroiters want and need to connect with our culture in order to thrive
Points of interest: The North End, Highland Park
Why it matters: Detroit helped build the American middle class but that security is now out of reach for most Detroiters. The most basic necessities, like affordable and reliable utility service, continue to be elusive, but residents are demanding a change.
Detroit by the numbers:
- 620,000: the number of people in the city, down 90,000 from a decade ago.
- 78% of Detroiters are Black, making it the Blackest big city in America. White Detroiters make up 13% of the city and 8% of residents are Latinx. The metro area is also home to the largest concentration of Arabic people outside of the Middle East.
- $34,762: the median household income in Detroit. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator puts the amount needed to support a family of one working adult and one child in metro Detroit at $67,418.
- 47,843: kids are enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for grades K-12.
- 13% of kids enrolled in DPSCD tested as “proficient” on 2022 state assessments given in grades 3 and 7.
- $58,000: The median value of a home in Detroit. About 48% of Detroiters own their homes.
Detroit has a complicated relationship with the industries that brought economic prosperity our way and helped birth a middle class that remains elusive for most Detroiters today. The city’s challenges illustrate how systemic forces continue to create barriers to a thriving future for the region.
Highland Park is a microcosm of that tension.
City within the city: At the turn of the 20th century, Detroit was much smaller and centered around the shipping routes of the Detroit River. Then captains of industry — think: timber, mining, automaking — bet on Highland Park as a city they could help shape that would be close to Detroit without pesky, big-city taxes. bet on Highland Park as somewhere they could help shape that would be close enough to Detroit but without all those pesky taxes. Ford built the first Model T plant in Highland Park and eventually controlled politics there, insisting it not be incorporated into Detroit.
Highland Park has struggled with water and utility debt since its founding, and those issues still bog down the city today. A well-positioned manufacturing industry and rich benefactors no longer exist to subsidize the small tax base. The for-profit utility company that provides electric and gas service to Detroit and Highland Park — DTE Energy — famously removed all the street lights when Highland Park stopped paying its bills.
Emerging from that moment, an environmental justice group called Soulardarity became one of the most effective local advocates for change in utility practices. They have installed solar infrastructure in the area and intervened in cases about DTE rate hikes before state regulators.
Soulardarity’s organizing, along with Outlier’s year-long investigation into DTE’s high service costs, aggressive shutoffs and debt collection practices contributed to the state approving the lowest rate increase for DTE customers in more than a decade last year.
➡️ Get involved: Highland Park City Council recently came to a deal to manage its $25 million in water debt but not without a fight. Residents of Highland Park approached the Detroit Documenters last year saying the council needed more coverage and community accountability because residents’ plight to have basic needs met depended on it. The Documenters get lots of these requests but often have to turn them down. We will always serve Detroit residents first, but we have made a way to consistently cover Highland Park City Council, making it easier for residents there to get involved.
🌟 People and places to know: Highland Park’s history of activism is strong. There’s Mama Shu, transforming a block structure by structure; the Ruth Ellis Center, a longstanding lifeline and emergency shelter for queer youth who would otherwise be homeless; and Kofi House, making space for queer women and girls.
(Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, Great Lakes News Collaborative, Next City, Outlier, Michigan Radio, Detroit Documenters, Detroit Free Press)
Fix This First
Points of interest: Dexter-Linwood, District Detroit
Why it matters: Blight, negligent landlords, redlining, scammers and other issues keep housing as a persistent #1 concern for Detroiters as officials rubber-stamp public subsidies to prop up developers.
Detroiters’ information needs:
Even with two major newspapers based in the city of Detroit and three commercial television stations Detroiters say they don’t get the information they need to meet their challenges or achieve their goals. What are the biggest information and accountability gaps for Detroiters? Housing, utilities and transportation.
Just knock it down? It’s no secret Detroit has a problem with blight. What is less understood is why. Yes, population loss. Also, more than a decade of a devastating tax foreclosure cycle, accelerated by the city over-assessing and then overtaxing homeowners for years to the tune of at least $600 million. More than 100,000 homes have been tax foreclosed (we’ve lost count) and Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree is so unconcerned with who buys at the auction that the county has continued to sell to investors with a track record of speculation, predatory practices and neglect. The auction helped turn the city from majority homeowner to majority renter, though it is now about equal. That landlords find repairs or property taxes a drain on their bottom line is a major contributor to blight.
Mayor Mike Duggan is pursuing demolition as a major strategy in the blight fight, demolishing almost 3,500 properties since voters approved a major funding package. Almost 1,000 more properties are in the process of being rehabbed, the city has said. Still, we have to wonder if there could have been more rehabs and fewer demos, and it’s less clear if demolition is an effective way to reach Duggan’s ultimate goal, ending population decline. Dexter-Linwood is a centrally located neighborhood that has been a particular target for demolition.
🌟 People and places to know: With so much coming down in the neighborhood there are bright spots where native Detroiters are investing in community. One of our featured Detroit Documenters, Roshaun Harris, grew up in the neighborhood; contemporary artist Keto Green is repurposing litter she found on streets there; Muslim Center congregants rally to feed their neighbors in need; and there’s also healthy food on offer within walking distance — a luxury in the city. And Outlier just hosted one of our monthly Coffee Thursdays at In Harmony Cafe in the neighborhood, a great place for coffee and conversation.
(Outlier, Detroit News, Bridge Michigan, City of Detroit, BridgeDetroit, Detroit Documenters, WXYZ)
New Detroit, old promises: Tension between the old and new in Detroit is, in fact, nothing new. That friction keeps redevelopment in the city a hot topic. The old Detroit is illustrated by its largely majority Black neighborhoods where housing stock is often dangerously out-of-date and revival has been slow for commercial corridors hollowed out by white flight. To try to find an affordable place to live, some Detroiters work to renovate homes bought for little money from the Detroit Land Bank (but hey, buyer beware) or on the open market. The legacy of redlining means more than two-thirds of homes in Detroit are bought in cash (thankfully, we have a guide for that), something that makes people vulnerable to scams.
On the “new Detroit” side of the ledger is Greater Downtown. The central business district has seen significant redevelopment and an influx of investment, but most apartments are out of the price range of legacy Detroiters. Office space is increasingly empty. All downtown development is heavily subsidized by the state and by Detroiters. But because of a practice called tax capture, residents have limited say in how their money is spent. Earlier this year, Duggan threw his political capital behind expansion of the $1.5 billion, 10-building District Detroit project. Ultimately its billionaire developers, Stephen Ross and the Ilitch family, are getting nearly $800 million in public financing.
➡️ Detroiters have their say: There has been widespread opposition to the tax breaks from Detroiters who want to see the developers deliver on affordable housing promises, at the very least, in part because the city’s largest provider of affordable housing, the Detroit Housing Commission, is doing such a poor job.
Despite resident objections, Detroit City Council voted 8-1 to push the deal through as did the Neighborhood Advisory Council, where lifelong Detroiter Barbrie Logan was the only “no” vote on the project’s community benefits agreement. The Ilitch family in particular has a track record of not delivering on development promises and is now famous not just for Little Caesars Pizza but the number of surface parking lots they own. Locals have actually done walking tours of the surface parking lots that used to be buildings in the area.
🌟 People and places to know: The RiverWalk — one of Detroit’s development success stories — brings walkers, runners, sunbathers, fishers, dancers, yoga practitioners and many others together in public space easily accessible from downtown. The business district has some of the city’s most notable architecture (no matter what you think of the disorienting Renaissance Center towers). And if you’re just looking for a place to take a load off, you only need to consult the Detroit Bench Freak.
(Outlier, WXYZ, Metro Times, Detroiters for Parking Reform, Freep)
HOw to detroit
Points of interest: Stellantis Detroit Assembly Complex, Southwest Detroit
Why it matters: Detroiters need access to clean air to meet their challenges and achieve their goals. Businesses in the city are being asked to balance community health and profit.
Protection of Detroit’s natural resources is essential to securing the future of even this most industrial of cities. The city stands on land from the Anishinaabe nations and is full of natural wonder from the Detroit River to the (more manmade) canal district and neighborhood wildlife including lots of raccoons, the occasional coyote and more than a few pheasants!
The air we breathe: Before you spend a day out in Detroit you might want to check AirNow.gov to make sure you won’t be huffing and puffing your way through. About one in six Detroiters have asthma, the second-highest rate in the country. This summer, smoke from Canada wildfires caused some of the worst air quality ever recorded in the city. Even without that smoke Wayne County received an F for air quality on this year’s State of the Air report from the American Lung Association. It’s too early to tell whether the wildfire smoke will have a longer-term impact here. Overall, the air is actually getting better.
Deaths in Michigan linked to air pollution fell by nearly 50%, between 2000 and 2017 because air quality improved dramatically during the same period. One major, ahem, roadblock? Industrial pollution and heavy truck traffic. Folks living next to a Stellantis plant that has repeatedly violated air quality standards have HAD IT with the automaker routing more trucks than city rules allow by their eastside neighborhood. Overall, the neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit are among the most heavily industrialized and most polluted in the nation. (United States Air Quality Index, Planet Detroit, Outlier Media, American Lung Association, Harvard University)
➡️ Breathe easier: Making the air easier to breathe is going to take systemic solutions. In the meantime, improving air quality indoors doesn’t have to be $$$. We’ll be putting on some DIY air filter workshops with friends and editorial collaborative partners at Planet Detroit. We’re bringing the supplies, and our science reporter Koby Levin will help Detroiters turn a regular box fan into an air filter. It’s just one of the ways we’re working with our newsroom partners to help keep Detroit safe.
🌟 People and places to know: Want to get to know even more of the city? There’s a (perhaps more profesh) tour for that! Detroit native Jeanette Pierce’s City Institute tours are chock-a-block with history and dips into neighborhood spots. Detroit historian Jamon Jordan’s Black Scroll Tours are not to be missed and neither are historian and journalist Ken Coleman’s Black History Tours.
(Union of Ontario Indians, Outlier, WDET, U.S. Air Quality Index, Planet Detroit, American Lung Association, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Harvard University, City Institute, Black Scroll Tours, Ken Coleman)
how to thrive
Points of interest: Russell Industrial Center, MSU – Detroit Partnership for Learning and Innovations farm
Detroit has a legacy of incredible art and cultural assets that continue to reverberate around the world. Detroiters want and need to connect with our culture in order to thrive.
What up doe: One thing is for sure, Detroiters will find a way to thrive, especially musically. The Russell Industrial Center is now owned by (in)famous real estate speculator Dennis Kefallinos who has become known for doing the least when it comes to property maintenance. But the Russell still boasts the studios of amazing artists, from glass blowers to painters. And the hip-hop shows are legendary.
Get busy: You may have missed Detroit Month of Design and the Detroit Art Book Fair, but the creativity never stops in Detroit. On tap this week: you could join the Art is Revolution celebration on Thursday, see talented teens’ paintings for a good cause at Mint Artist Guild’s exhibit opening next Wednesday, or make your own Fire Cider with Earthseed Detroit on Saturday. We’ll be shopping and sipping the weekend away with an art market at Drifter Coffee in Ferndale, then a craft fair at Brewery Faison and an antique sale at Cadieux Cafe. (And if you haven’t heard of feather bowling, you’re in for a treat.)
➡️ Getting around: If you were staying longer we’d invite you to join us as we kick off our second annual Documenters on the Bus project — part citizen journalism, part research, part scavenger hunt. Documenters fan out across the city on buses and paratransit to see if Detroit is doing right by residents who rely on public transportation. Roughly one in five families here don’t own a vehicle and say the lack of transit holds them back. That it’s so hard to get kids to and from school in the city is one likely cause of a whopping 68% of kids in the Detroit Public Schools Community District being chronically absent last year.
🌟 People and places to know: From a one-of-a-kind high school harp program to an opera company meeting the cultural moment, music is threaded into all pockets of life in Detroit. And community is paramount, whether for new artists finding their way in the legendary techno scene or for venues battling safety risks. In other mediums, check out some of our favorite illustrators, a neighborhood dance studio going strong after 40 years and a rooftop garden seeded with heirloom plants and oral histories.
(Outlier, Metro Times, Freep, event listings, Smithsonian Magazine, Chalkbeat Detroit)
Thanks for learning more about Detroit with us. We hope you’ll continue to return and learn even more. In the meantime, practice your Belle Isle ABCs. 😉