Gentrifying Detroit

I’ve just moved to Ann Arbor, about 40 minutes from the Motor City. I had hoped for Detroit, but it would have been too much. The fear of being mugged, or having my apartment broken into was overwhelming. And there lies the problem I face today, as a college educated white woman from the suburbs of Chicago, I will gentrify. I will be part of the complicated relationship between the classism in the arts and the lives of people who do not have access to the arts.

Main Street, Ann Arbor
Main Street, Ann Arbor

Currently, my thoughts are devoted to graduate school. To work in a museum, I must have an advanced degree. It is nearly impossible to become a curator without a PhD. So, as someone who loves the arts but wants to work with underserved populations, the degree gives me the credibility to critique the system from inside.

To grapple with this tension of wanting to be around art and its creators while dealing with the consequences of my upcoming gentrification, I’ve found myself photographing certain elements of Detroit. It may become a project, it may just be a sort of raw exposure to deal with my own classism.

Packard Plant, Detroit
Packard Plant, Detroit

I drove around Detroit and was scared. I was scared of what these burned out buildings contain. I was making Detroit a place to fear, not a place in recovery from the greed of the elite. Detroit wasn’t destroyed by people burning buildings, it was destroyed by a decline in opportunity as big corporations pulled out en masse. Detroit homes wouldn’t have burned if there had been jobs keeping them legally occupied and maintained.

My worries were one of someone who could escape. I could speed away to my cozy apartment in a golf community. I was afraid of drive by shootings in a city that doesn’t suffer intensely from gangs. They are still a real problem for many, but my class privilege let my anxiety fly into overdrive.

But all of this just makes the problem with the arts even clearer. The arts can’t thrive if there is no money to support artists. Detroit is still broke, and will remain so for a long time. The artists that can come, who can afford to move are young and often with college degrees. They relocate, and bring outside notions with them as they begin to occupy neighborhoods. They have the income to start a life where the rents are low. Once these artists make the neighborhood “cool”, the rents rise and the original neighborhood loses its identity to these new artists. As the artists make it by making the city a cultural center, the Detroiters are kicked out and forced to move when they cannot afford their family homes any longer.

Yet, the arts are needed desperately. They create jobs, tourism and a new energy to push for social change. They add sanity to an overwhelming problem. The arts are part of the solution for Detroit. But it must come from people who care about the neighborhood they occupy, who are aware of the impact they will make.People who ask their neighbors what they want from their streets and neighbors and take that as more important than their own imported notions.

So today, I sat with my internalized fears and had to think of the impact I want to have. Today I stood in front of homes of people who fled and nearly cried, seeing the burned out wreckage of what must have been. Today, I sat and thanked the people who fight for a better city and who stayed. I thanked the people who long term vision and those who had to stay because there was no way out. I thanked Detroiters for keeping hope in an insane situation.

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