Raquel Castaneda Lopez, 32, is a first-term city councilwoman from Detroit, and is an example of the many young people pushing to revitalize Detroit through a sustainable approach. Castaneda has a BA from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. She is the first member of her family to graduate from college.
Detroit has become the poster child for urban malaise. What’s your vision of how Detroit could be in 10 years?
Detroit will become more of a global city. It’s not just based on the automobile industry, and not just global in terms of ethnicities and neighborhoods but in industries as well. We will also create more green spaces. The auto industry was a wonderful industry but not the most green. And there are a lot of polluted zip codes in the state. In my district, people talk about building urban agricultures and sustainable environments. And those conversations didn’t happen during the boom of the automobile industry. We want to push the city to invest in green technology and things that incentive companies to have green initiatives.
This revitalization is an opportunity to take the city in new directions. We have conversations about getting rid of blight and building new neighborhoods and getting new developments and chain stores, but ideally I’d like to see the comprehensive network of neighborhoods work independently to ensure that pockets of neighborhoods are as strong as the downtowns. So the revitalization is not just about more shopping but also strong schools and walkable hubs throughout the city that function independently as a whole.
Detroit is huge, so that makes sense. And in terms of access to transportation it makes sense.
What’s are some of the most interesting revitalization initiatives?
Urban agriculture. There are a lot of developers coming in that do some good but don’t do much for the community. But on the other hand, there is so much empty space and we want to increases access to healthy foods, so people are interested in allowing people to farm land, own livestock, and even own goats—I met someone who did and they told us they use them to keep the grass short. This whole movement is gaining traction. It’s growing over the last decade and you see it everywhere. On the lower east side of Detroit we have Hantz Woodlands, where a man has purchased a vacant plot of land about one-square mile wide and is planting trees and turning it into a mini-forest. It’ll be the world’s largest urban forest. They’ve acquired the property and they’re knocking down houses and cleaning the fields so they can plant trees. And then there are people that own chickens or beehives. There is the space and there is the need for access to healthy foods, so whether it’s community farm or beehives or goats it would support the local economy in that specific neighborhood. All of this is supporting Detroit and making it a welcoming city and becoming more global.
What role do immigrants play in this revitalization?
We are on the immigration taskforce and the governor supports efforts to allow loosened visa restrictions for highly skilled immigrants, which would bring in new people but also support the immigrants here. We want the state to become a hub for these types of immigrants. We also want to help them translate their skills to Detroit. For example, we have doctors who come over but can’t get their accreditation approved, so they aren’t able to work in medicine. On the other hand, we have families here who only speak Arabic, and can’t communicate with people in hospitals. All hospitals should have language choices. The areas that have been ok during this recession are areas with strong immigrant communities.
Do you view gentrification as a positive force for development, or a concern for locals?
There is a lot of empty space so people are not being pushed out. I represented downtown and some of the more diverse neighborhoods with immigrants, and there have been many meetings to engage people in dialogue to share their opinions as to what they can do. We need to be continuous and aware of dynamics, and work with developers to help prevent gentrification of communities to ensure the community isn’t ignored in the development process and they’re not left out of the loop.
Detroit could be a magnet for companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs: it is more open and not as competitive as New York or Los Angeles. It’s a blank slate. I take offense when people say it’s a wasteland, or “open frontier.” It’s not true. I grew up here. And many organizations and block clubs have existed and maintained the city over the years.
A lot of conversations say existing Detroiters have struggled to access capital and can’t be as successful in establishing their own business, and so there’s great resources for start-ups—but we have to connect people to them.
How have you, personally, seen the city change over the decades since you were a small child?
I remember as a child the city was much more dangerous in the late 80s and 90s. There was a lot of gang activity and we would go play but we couldn’t trick-or-treat. And there was a sense of fear and you had to be cautious, and there were a lot of arrests. Unfortunately the gang activity is increasing again but not like it was before. The picture of Detroit is usually painted as negative but this is not uncommon. This was southwest Detroit that has been Polish, Hungarian, Vietnamese and now it’s Latino with Arab immigrants, and so it’s unique as a city. So it’s not the safest. There’s a strong sense of community and some of the conversation around gentrification—people who are attracted to that community—like the diversity. So that’s some of the tension that exists there. People go through transitions, and the city is in transition now. But things are heading upwards and improving.