No sooner do I write a taxonomy of gentrification than a Huff Post story piggybacking on a Tom Sugrue op-ed goes semi-viral in my corner of Twitter. (Sugrue, in case you didn’t know, is perhaps the world’s foremost historian of America’s Rust Belt cities, in particular Detroit, and is featured twice on my Bookroll to the right. If you haven’t read him and you live in America – or if you plan on spending any significant amount of time living here, or even talking about it – please do yourself the favor.)
As online missives about gentrification go, this is definitely better than average. It also, though, seems deeply confused – not because it makes any unreasonable points, but because it moves back and forth between many of the compelling but contradictory arguments I went over yesterday.
To begin with, the title – “Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters to Survive, It Needs Black People” – suggests that the author believes in the “intrusion” and “displacement” arguments: Detroit has become a community for black people, and so they should continue to “own” it, culturally and economically.
But then later the author reveals that, actually, she has integrationist sympathies:
Detroit’s population now hovers around 700,000 people. Thirty-eight percent of its residents live under the poverty line, and the city’s median income is less than $27,000. The city has a persistent legacy of residential segregation — metropolitan Detroit is the most segregated urban area in America — which plays a role in many residents’ anxiety about being physically displaced.
She notes with approval that integration is reversing capital’s 50-year racist boycott of Detroit:
Attracting wealthier residents and new businesses to the city is not without its benefits. It’s helping to stabilize the city’s tax base, for one thing, which means more money for essential services like garbage pickup, cops and firefighters.
She also quotes Sugrue on the city’s need to do “things like revamping the public school system,” which – having read his books – I feel relatively confident he thinks is predicated on at least some measure of desegregation.
But then she veers back to intrusion, quoting a U of M sociologist who describes the process much better than I did:
Meagan Elliott, an urban planner and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, is studying the ways in which newcomers’ efforts to revitalize Detroit neighborhoods can impact long-term residents. Her focus is on “cultural displacement,” a condition that she defines thusly: “By cultural displacement, I mean a sense of place and community and feeling like you have the right to creating the vision for that community’s future. Even if people are not forced from their homes due to rising rents, they may feel like their community is less their own than it used to be.”
But then Ms. Elliott says that actually Detroiters ought to embrace their new (mostly white) neighbors, who are actually doing some good things for the city. And the article ends by suggesting that maybe Detroit’s new white mayor is going to put things in the right direction.
Remember, the title of this article was “Detroit Needs Black People.”
My point, to the extent I have one, isn’t that this is so ridiculous, but that it would be nice if we were all a bit more self-conscious about where our sympathies and priorities lie. If they conflict – as mine do – that’s totally fine. But recognizing that they conflict is a necessary first step to coming up with any sort of coherent attitude and set of solutions. It’s also the first step to (pardon the editorializing) not talking about gentrification like an asshole, and (for example) using a public forum to call people who move to an interesting neighborhood they can afford “motherfuckers,” or writing an entire column in a national magazine about how racist some guy is for wishing his childhood neighborhood hadn’t changed so much.