Building relationships; not gentrification is the way to enter community

January 24, 2012

Siwatu Salama-Ra (left) on Model D Gentrification panel
Since I arrived in Detroit just over a year ago, it's been hard not to notice that the question of gentrification has been one of the city's more hotly debated topics. About a month ago, my youthful colleague Siwatu Salama-Ra, EMEAC's youth team leader, ably shared her perspective as a born-and-raised Detroiter at an event sponsored by Model D on December 14 at the Virgil Carr Center.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend that event in support EMEAC's point person with the Young Educators Alliance (YEA) but it was heartening to read via Twitter later how Siwatu held her own in the discussion with a decidedly pro-gentrification panel and audience. Then again, Siwatu is the daughter of one of Detroit's matrons of environmental justice, the Sierra Club's Rhonda Anderson, and as such she's been exposed to Detroit's trench battles all her life.
I'm sure Siwatu derived some of her poise and grace in addressing the issue from particular incident which happened over the summer when Siwatu and the YEA team tried to visit the North Cass Community Garden during EMEAC's Summer Camp activities. The YEA team has since gone on to win the Spirit of Detroit Award for their role in the city's Youth Environmental Green Summit and hold an innovative youth-led community discussion on Detroit's future called Feed1 Teach1 in December. They got a first hand experience with the ugly side of gentrification when they were denied a visit to the garden on the pretext that "there had been some recent thefts" for which the garden's guardian somehow surmised they were or would be responsible for.
When a meeting was arranged later by community members to discuss the incident, a spokesperson for the "community" garden said that while she was sorry for the incident, the North Cass Community Garden did indeed NOT see themselves as part of the community -- rather elites coming into the community -- and that despite the garden's name, no one should mistake that the North Cass Community Garden wasn't in fact a community garden.
So after reading a particularly well-written piece headlined "Lost in Detroit: A Gentrifier's Story," by Tommy Simon on HuffPost Detroit, I thought I'd weigh in on the subject as someone else who recently moved into the city.
While I enjoyed reading Simon's piece very much, and appreciated the way he seemed sensitized to the criticisms of the current move toward gentrification in the area formerly known as the Cass Corridor, there was a sense of entitlement implicit in statements like:
"I am not saying you should feel worse for me than the single working mother... who has to decide between buying medication for her ailing mother or food for her children. I am simply saying that I want to be an employee... I want a job. And not just for me, but for my droves of partially employed friends, who are also gentrifying Detroit."
Wasn't the whole purpose of bringing in a creative class that they would find ways to create economic opportunities for themselves? Maybe that's what the elites at the North Cass Garden call what they're doing, although there's no shortage of other successful urban farms which manage to pull it off without iron gates and or elite status. As for Mr. Simon and friends, I'm not sure whether they consider themselves elite or not, but there definitely seems to be the same sense of entitlement and privilege.
In essence, what we got from this enterprising young writer and humorist was a very unique and creative job application. For that you've got to give him props, but on second look his cluelessness about how to respectfully enter a community speaks to what's wrong with the same gentrifying mentality that doomed the initial roll outs of the Detroit Works Projects.
For starters, I'm sure Simon and his "droves of partially employed but well-educated friends" were well aware coming into Detroit that the "good old days called the 90s" were made obsolete when many of their suburban parents supported political candidates that supported the exportation of the city's manufacturing base and tax holidays for the businesses whose record profits derived primarily from those jobs going to slave wage-having, no-union having, no-environmental regulation-having countries around the globe. So announcing yourself as a Tommy-come-lately who deserves a job at a time when thousands of hard-working, well-educated Detroiters are losing theirs may not be a successful strategy.
Of course, Mr. Simon and his friends are only going on what they've been told by the true gentrifiers. These are the same real estate and banking interests that have played the political shell game for decades by preying on white fears of integrated communities and profiting handsomely off white flight, giving us the urban sprawl we have today. Now that they've run out of room going outward, the game goes back to buying up undervalued real estate in the city and luring the children of suburbia back into the city with a narrative that casts you all as prodigal sons and daughters returning as saviors who will clean up the city and make it livable again just by gracing us all with your presence.
The only problem is that the slick ad campaigns the true gentrifiers are taking out in newspapers in New York and other over gentrified, over priced cities where many citizens increasingly can no longer afford to live, are selling you rotten tomatoes. They appeal to your pioneering heritage with the idea that, like the whole continent once was, Detroit is in Tommy's words "a land of opportunity and open space." Sure we all do want to live in safe and clean communities, but it would be helpful if political leaders understood that the tax dollars paying their salaries would best invested first in the people and programs that have already (again in Tommy's words) "become a part of their neighborhood, support their local businesses, and work hard like everyone else." Investing first and foremost in the people who have a proven, genuine stake in the city would seem like a much better way to spend the city's money.
As for us commoners moving into the city, the way for us to become Detroiters is by identifying ourselves with the residents that are here, as opposed to the gentrification crowd. From my own experience as a New Age Arkansas traveler and global nomad, I've always found it much more satisfying personally and professionally to enter a community by focusing on building relationships. Frankly I can't identify with anything that presumes I'm owed anything just by virtue of my presence alone. As a college educated veteran of two branches of the U.S. military, I often found myself working for below average wages all too often. My payoff was in the service to that the particular community and the relationships that I built in the process.
Whether it was as a navy chaplain's assistant in Oakland, California, a literacy program coordinator and later a corporate trainer in Silicon Valley, a journalist in rural Arkansas, a sports writer in Memphis, a teacher in the Caribbean or an environmental justice advocate in Detroit, I've always seemed to manage to find a home and employment even in the worst of economic circumstances. But make no mistake about it, that's always been possible by building relationships and getting to know people who challenged me to move beyond my comfort zones.
So the one thing I would suggest to would-be gentrifiers like Tommy and friends is don't believe the hype. Detroit doesn't need elitist gentrifiers who are looking for opportunities to benefit only themselves, but citizens who will get in the trenches and help rebuild the city from the ground up. I gave up a rewarding job making twice what I do now in a unique and beautiful part of the world to come to Detroit. In the interest of full disclosure, it was because I happened to fall in love with "the prettiest girl on the west side." To which her reply was "Only the west side?" Still I truly believe that there's no better way than to enter community than building relationships.
Since being here, I'm amazed at the quality of people and opportunities I see every day. Those sustainable opportunities are being created at the human level, but of course, you have to have your feet planted firmly in the ground in order to see them. From on high, they are much more likely to miss them.