A controversial billboard in downtown Detroit has been taken down after widespread complaints about the ad’s apparent whitewashing of the Motor City’s image.
The billboard implored people to “See Detroit As We Do” and featured a young, jubilant crowd in the street. The problem? The people appear to be mostly white—a scene that doesn’t jibe with the reality of Detroit’s demographics.
The man behind the advertisement is Dan Gilbert—real estate mogul, founder of Quicken Loans, and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His real estate firm, Bedrock, currently owns about 100 properties in downtown Detroit. After the social media backlash, Bedrock chose to take down the billboard and kill the “See Detroit As We Do” campaign in its entirety. Gilbert shared a statement on Facebook on behalf of the company:
Although not intended to create the kind of feelings it did, the slogan/statement we used on these graphics was tone deaf, in poor taste and does not reflect a single value or philosophy that we stand for at Bedrock Development or in our entire Family of companies.
What is important is that Detroit comes together as a city that is open, diverse, inclusive and is being redeveloped in a way that offers opportunities for all of its people and the expected numerous new residents that will flock to our energized, growing, job-producing town where grit, hard-work and brains meld together to raise the standard of living of all of its people.
We immediately killed this dumb campaign slogan as soon as it was communicated more widely in our company. You won’t be seeing that tagline anywhere again.
But the billionaire also made it a point to share “the full graphic package” that was set to accompany the dead campaign, which includes photos of a young black couple getting coffee and what appears to be a two black bartenders serving at a busy bar.
The social media backlash underscores deep tensions about the ways Detroit has changed over recent years. The most recent Census estimates show a city that is roughly 82% black and 12% white. (About 5% of Detroit’s population identifies as Latinx.)
Detroit’s black residents have shaped the culture and history of the city (ahem, Motown), but the number of black residents has fallen over the years. A Business Insider article from 2015 chronicled “an influx of whites” returning to Detroit, motivated in part by its affordable housing and incentive programs.
But black neighborhoods in Detroit haven’t seen the same “resurgence,” and there’s a huge disparity in homeownership rates between white and black residents. According to the Detroit News, in Metro Detroit, only 42.2% of black residents owned homes, compared to 77% of white residents.
It hasn’t escaped those upset with the advertisement that Gilbert—particularly through his work with Bedrock—could be contributing to Detroit’s black residents being priced out of their homes. As such, even Bedrock’s pledge to maintain hundreds of “affordable” housing units in the city’s downtown area has been met with healthy skepticism.
Gilbert, for his part, promised that “we’ll be better at this next time,” though what exactly that means for the city’s black homeowners is unclear.