From the Director: BanglaTown Open for Business – Rebuilding Detroit’s Neighborhoods

By Steve Tobocman

Banglatown Snyder 2Friday, I was privileged to attend the ceremonial opening of the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee (BAPAC) office on Conant Avenue, the commercial main street of the BanglaTown neighborhood on the Detroit-Hamtramck border. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder delivered the keynote address for the ceremony.

The event served as a milestone in the civic integration of the Bangladeshi community in Metro Detroit and the fulfillment of the Detroit City Council’s Immigration Task Force Economic Development Committee’s (which I co-chair with BAPAC founding president Ehsan Taqbeem) top priority to brand BanglaTown as a cultural tourism destination. As Governor Snyder noted on Friday, “Cultural tourism is part of Pure Michigan and it is what you are seeing here [in BanglaTown].”

The untold importance of the event from my perspective, however, is that it symbolizes the power that immigrants can bring to revitalizing a neighborhood and improving the quality of life in Detroit and our region. Governor Snyder went so far as saying, “What you’re doing here is making Michigan a great state. Diversity is a positive power . . . [and] Michigan is on the forefront of welcoming everyone to our state.” Governor Snyder and Ehsan Taqbeem were kind enough to both acknowledge me and Global Detroit for our contributions to BanglaTown.

I know that our city and state are spending tens of millions of dollars on blight removal (in fact, I spent more than a decade of my life fighting to create the state’s land bank authorization statute, streamlining blight laws, spearheading the Michigan Foreclosure Task Force, modernizing brownfield tax credits, and more) and that is understandable, as well as a needed part of improving our urban neighborhoods.

But neighborhoods don’t get revitalized by blight removal alone. They get revitalized by people. No great American city (or at least no city within the top
50 largest) that has lost population saw population growth without growth in its Banglatown Snyder 1immigrant population. None. And if Detroit wants thriving neighborhoods for
working-class and middle-class and even low-income residents, it needs to invest in the BanglaTowns within its midst.

“But neighborhoods don’t get revitalized by blight removal alone. They get revitalized by people.”

Simply put, immigration is the single greatest urban revitalization strategy in modern day America and it’s one that doesn’t cost taxpayer dollars.

Lots of media was generated by the Governor’s appearance. And some of the media focused on last Tuesday’s election in Hamtramck, which made the Hamtramck City Council a majority Muslim body (perhaps the first majority Muslim city council in America). But Friday’s event was noteworthy for the inclusiveness of the setting. I was proud to sit next to my friend, current Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski, who is the first mayor to sign up for immigrant-welcoming initiatives. Several Bangladeshi speakers acknowledged her leadership, and her contributions to welcoming and supporting the Bangladeshi community. BAPAC also acknowledged Mitch Cope and Power House Productions for the incredible work that he, his partner Gina Reichert, and scores of artists have done in the neighborhood.

While I saw one headline suggesting that somehow the effort to brand BanglaTown was meant to replace Poletown, the reality is that the emergence of BanglaTown adds to the strength of Poletown and Hamtramck’s multicultural past. I don’t see BanglaTown (a neighborhood that includes portions of northeast Hamtramck, as well as adjoining Detroit neighborhoods) replacing Poletown any more than Mexicantown has replaced or was meant to replace Motown. The reality is that Hamtramck could be, should be, and is inextricably linked with its Polish heritage, as well as its diverse ethnic makeup (which includes Bangladeshi, Polish, Bosnian, Yemeni, Ukrainian, and African-American communities).

Friday’s grand opening of the BAPAC office was just a milestone. Much more needs to be done to fully develop, integrate, and build an inclusive community that captures the positive contributions of the immigrant community, as well as the strength of longtime BanglaTown residents. Global Detroit thinks BanglaTown is just one of several Opportunity Neighborhoods that can build more inclusive, revitalized communities. We look forward to partnering with Governor Snyder, BAPAC, Detroit and Hamtramck City Councils, and others in revitalizing Detroit neighborhoods through immigrant inclusion.

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