Chase L. Cantrell sees the value of self-determination through development

Ash executive director of Building Community Value, Chase L. Cantrell has had a hand in teaching hundreds of Detroiters about what it takes to develop property. Over more than five years, his program has helped people gain the skills to develop small residential projects, including many former land bank properties that he said might otherwise have been scooped up by speculators or investors. Some alumni have moved on to commercial development, as well. A trained lawyer, Cantrell said he thinks there are more opportunities to scale the work to take advantage of innovation and connections in the city of Detroit. A self-described “super-connector,” Cantrell said it makes him feel like a proud parent to see the networks that form out of BCV’s workshops — and the confidence participants gain in their futures, and the city’s.

  • You founded Building Community Value in 2016. Can you tell me a little bit about the vision?

The nature of real estate development in Detroit was, and in some respects still is, led by older, resourced white men. … I had worked on new market deals and (Low Income Housing Tax Credit) deals and all the subsidies imaginable that you need to make Midtown or downtown development work. And I know that Black people don’t have much access to this information because there aren’t that many Black real estate attorneys in the city of Detroit or regionally. So for me, it was just like, all right, I need to create a structure where we can begin to really help people understand what real estate development is, how it impacts neighborhoods, how they themselves can do it. And to begin to think through the barriers that exist for Black and Brown folks to do development, and what I could do in small and hopefully increasingly large ways to fix some of those problems.

  • What surprises you about the work?

What has surprised me about time the most is that this is not a project, simply, in real estate development. The way that participants have framed it to me and the way that I have framed it for myself now is that it really is a practice in Black self-determination. The ownership of land, the ownership of property and the agency to be able to actually transform space is extremely powerful. Black Detroiters still feel a sense of being left out of a system. Even just teaching the skill, even if people don’t go out and acquire a property and do a project, just learning the skill has provided people with a sense of agency that is palpable. … But also what I never expected to happen, but what has happened organically, is that we’ve created a network. At this point, we’ve had about 350 people take the course. And it’s like, people begin to know each other and begin to work with one another or begin to work in similar geographies. So you know, I have begun to see how BCV becomes a launching point for people knowing each other and then deepening those connections over time.

  • Can you talk about the importance of feeling like you do have a say in Detroit’s future?

The foreclosure crisis was very tangible for most Detroiters. … So the idea of ​​emergency management and the loss of democracy, the idea of ​​things being stripped away, I think is still palpable for most Detroiters who stayed and those who had to leave. … When we talk about the Detroit Renaissance, it has a white face. So I think that again, this has been an innovative place. The idea of ​​being able to preserve neighborhoods in a city with a deficit of resources for decades, that took innovation of residents and neighborhoods. So now that there are more resources, do those actually make it into the hands of Black and Brown residents? For those who are doing innovative things are they recognized as innovators? … The Black middle class has left. And part of it is the feeling of not being able to accomplish much here. … So this idea of ​​self-determination is, if people actually felt that they had agency over their community, would they stay? And what I see in conversation with people who have real access, who are acquiring space, they have a different sense of agency than others who don’t.

  • You lived in France for a year. What made you come back to Detroit?

I drive around the city or walk around my neighborhood and all I see is opportunity, right? A lot of it is based on loss and trauma, and all of these negative attributes. We have lost so much, but that also means that there is a very real chance to rebuild something new. … I think just naturally, my connection to Detroit propels me forward in that way. And I can’t see that in other cities. Like, I don’t see a space for me, professionally, in a Chicago, or an Atlanta or a DC I don’t know what I would do. I wouldn’t just want to be a lawyer. Every city has problems, but I don’t feel that I am the solution for those problems in those places.

A lot of Black and gay clubs throughout the nation are owned by white men. … When the club started, it was a straight club. When it transitioned to a gay club, Black people were not welcome. And then over time, it became a very distinct Black cultural space. … There used to be dozens and dozens of gay clubs in like the ’70s and ’80s. We lost most of them. There are very few in Detroit, actually. And we don’t have a gayborhood. There’s been conversation amongst LGBT leaders of whether we need one in Detroit at all. … Neighborhoods usually happen organically. They’re not top down from the planning department. Some queer person is like, ‘I’m gonna open a coffee shop. And I’m gonna open a club.’ … Yes, I’m a developer. But is that what I should develop? And I’ve had gay friends that are like, ‘Chase, you should be developing these kinds of spaces.’ I’m just like, ‘I don’t know if that’s my spot.’ … I very much feel like a Black man before I feel that I am same-gender-loving. There’s a hierarchy of identities, and race is much more important for me. … So here’s the flip side of the tragedy, is, can a Black person open a Black space? … But there is something again, back to this feeling of agency. There’s something that is powerful for other, especially young, queer youth to see a Black person owning the Black space.

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