Surprise! You own a home in Detroit now

By Keith A. Spencer
Inner city Detroit, Michigan Getty Images/iStock/peeterv

For decades, national newspapers have been littered with stories of Detroit's "decline," often told vis-a-vis statistics on eviction, infrastructure woes and crime. Whether or not the "decline" narrative is true or not is subjective: often those who push it have an agenda, likely one involving money. Similarly, those who push the opposing narrative — that it is undergoing a "renaissance" — may have similar motivations, if different goals.

Yet the plight of Motown is often told best through the eyes of its residents, who are better situated than demographers or politicians to explicate life in Michigan's largest metropolis. One such narrative that comes to life in a new memoir is that of author and erstwhile Salon contributor Anne Elizabeth Moore. In 2016, Moore "accidentally" ended up as a homeowner in Detroit after winning the Write A House competition, a contest hosted by an eponymous nonprofit that renovated Detroit homes and then awarded them to writers. 

As Moore tells Salon, she was flabbergasted when she won, and realized she would have to move from Chicago to Detroit. Previously, Moore had lived in Cambodia, producing a book, "Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh," that was peripherally about her experience teaching Cambodian women and girls to make zines. 

Moore, a first-time home owner, certainly had an unusual path to home ownership. But her experience living in Detroit's BanglaTown neighborhood gave her a perspective on Detroit life and culture that she might never have been able to experience as a passive observer, or even an embedded journalist. And as her life in Detroit wound on, she was as taken by the beauty of Detroit's civic life just as she was shocked by the regional government's dysfunction. The memoir she produced from her experience, archly titled "Gentrifier," is a hilarious and harrowing account of her new life as a homeowner. 

We spoke on the phone recently about her experiences and her book. As always, this conversation has been condensed and edited for print. 

What was your impression of Detroit before you moved there for this house, uh, "situation?" Or was it a fellowship, technically?

I think of it as a fellowship. Although I think technically it was an award or something.

The idea [behind the house-awarding fellowship] was to give writers some space and see what happened, which in my experience is what a fellowship does. Before I had followed the news, although not terribly closely, and of course was concerned about the water shutoffs in Detroit, and then water quality issues in Flint, and some of that stuff.

The way the housing crisis operated there, and the city's annual property tax foreclosure option — which was of course sold to outsiders as this great way of invigorating investment in Detroit — these were interesting to me, if pretty hard to understand as an outsider. What I was interested in tracking at the time, before I thought I might ever live there, was this idea that there was a certain way that corruption tended to happen in Cambodia. And it seemed like, with the water crisis, a similar thing was happening in Detroit. In Cambodia, the corruption was very blatant and just under everyone's noses, but often the mass of people were just so exhausted by trying to survive for so long that there was sometimes very little resistance. The oppressors, for lack of a better term for the government, would push through blatantly bad policy that supported no one, and that no one supported. And it seemed like that was also happening in Detroit.

In 2014 I went and I did a couple of events there [in Detroit] with Allied Media Projects as an old school zinester. I did a couple of zine-making projects and actually, for some reason, incredibly, luckily, was given this small tour of BanglaTown, although it was not called that at the time, which is the neighborhood I ended up living in. Which is a Bangladeshi-majority community that officially became designated the neighborhood of BanglaTown, in I think 2017.

I did fall immediately in love with it, although only as a visual of incredibly, brightly colored outfits and women gathered together on porches in this part of Detroit that had been neglected for a very long time. BanglaTown had become this very vital beautiful, thriving, garden- and family-focused community. So I did have slightly more information about the vast array of potential in the city than I let on in the book. And of course, I had known various artists who had moved there, tried to make it work, couldn't. Left again. Or moved there, were able to make it work and then left anyway. And some who stayed.

And so I kind of heard about how difficult it can be along the range of activities.

On that note, I'd love to talk about the title of the book, "Gentrifier." At some points you seem to imply you're the gentrifier, and other parts not so much. Obviously a lot of people would balk at being called a "gentrifier," so it seems a bit arch, no? 

I think that there's always got to be a central joke in my work, right? Maybe one that is not quite as funny as you think it is at the time that you make it. So the idea of being a gentrifier—I mean it's so complicated. When I was living in the house, and even in the couple of years leading up to moving into the house, the line that the organization that gave me was that this this house-gifting project was intended to stabilize neighborhoods. I do think that is something. The people who thought this through are some of the most interesting and thoughtful people that work on urban planning in the city. I do think that there is something to be said for the idea that there are different ways of participating in an area that has been undergoing rampant disinvestment, different means of being a stabilizing force in an erosive environment.

My experience of living in that neighborhood did feel like it took place during some kind of turn-around. I can't say of course at all that I, myself, had anything to do with that turn-around, but when I moved there, people were moving out of the neighborhood every week. And within about six months it had become a neighborhood to move into again. People were excited to be there. They wanted to be there in a way that they had not just months beforehand.

Interesting. 

Part of that is, it doesn't take very much to get people excited about having fun. You know, I do think that stuff like, me and my neighbors going for a walk at night, taking nightly walks around the neighborhood, does reflect an increased interest in what is happening in that neighborhood. There's a slightly increased vitality, there's a little bit more action. There's more to talk about. There's more to think about. And then of course, on a city scale — and Mayor Mike Duggan talks about this later when he's talking about the street sweepers — the more that you can actually see the city upholding its promises to residents, in terms of the city sending out street sweepers after a seven-year hiatus, the more people get excited about investing long-term in the places that they already happen to be. (Although I will mention that in fact the street sweepers only came to my neighborhood about half the times they were announced.)

And so as that stuff started to happen just a teeny bit, I think the people that were there already got excited about staying, and that is a little bit of the opposite of what we think about as gentrification.

Right.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about that term of course. Because I think that it does end up just being like a big massive bucket term for bad neighboring. It doesn't fully identify the range of things that happen to promote racial segregation between neighborhoods in cities, or the pricing out of long-term residents, or the increased availability of certain amenities, ridiculous or no. In that frame of mind the title, "Gentrifier," is a joke. It's like a response to people who never spent time in Detroit, have no idea what it was about or didn't understand my neighborhood at all and just automatically assumed that like, a white girl moving to Detroit is a deliberate process of gentrification, of trying to buy cheap, sell high, and take whatever resources I want without regard for existing neighborhood needs or processes. And in that purely profit-minded regard— and I'm pretty clear about this in the book—I dunno. I lost money moving into a free house in Detroit, you know?

But then as we move through the book and it becomes clear that actually being installed in that house was in some ways a project of, I don't know—in my case, the celebration of me receiving this house after the hidden way it was taken, illegally, from the previous owner—that's an act of white supremacy. That is about a process of racial segregation. And then we can kind of see the ways that gentrification, or neighborhood disinvestment, or just being a bad neighbor—all of the things that go into our notion of gentrification—then we can kind of see the way that gentrification is a system that works outside of individual control.

And I was, I think, in the end, participating in that system, without comprehending exactly what that system was.

No spoilers here, but I think we really get an impression of that when you start digging into the history of your house, and its ownership.

Yeah. And that's where [the book] "Unmarketable" tended to come in for me. In both books I talk about being stuck in the middle of a very complicated system, and even if you're thinking through it and trying to be aware of all the strains and desires and manipulations and the extraction of labor, you eventually have to face how complicit you are. 

That brings me to what I felt was another side of the book — which was maybe not necessarily even Detroit-specific. Much of the book was about home ownership in general, and some of the horrific, well, maybe "horrific" is the wrong word — rather "shocking" or "difficult" or "painful" moral and financial decisions that come with it. 

And that was the first home that you'd owned before, right? I feel like I remember you saying that in the book.

It totally was. And it was odd because since I didn't buy it, it dropped me into the system in this really weird place where all of a sudden I was like ... I didn't actually sign up for this ...

Home ownership is actually very difficult, and now that I have actually purchased a house, I think it's even more weird. 

And you write that your "free" house had all these unexpected and expensive issues, including the roof having problems. 

There was a lot of disappointment. I mean first of all, if anything weird happens in your house, if you're renting or if you have purchased it, it's bad when a fundamental structure starts falling apart. And like, having a roof that has a hole in it is a bad thing in most of the world. Definitely in Detroit. So it was bad on that level. And then also there was the thing of, "okay I can't afford to do this. I'm a person that doesn't have a ton of money." And so it was terrifying on that financial end, but then also the realization that the organization just wasn't going to deal with it or help me in any way. I felt left in the lurch and lied to. It was disappointing and sad.

You mentioned corruption earlier, in Detroit and Cambodia. I think Detroit is a complicated city in a lot of Americans' minds, partially because it's unclear maybe to some people whether Detroit's path is the future of any American city that gets de-industrialized, or if it's unique. Like, if the tech industry uprooted itself from the Bay Area, I wonder if it would become like Detroit — or if the oil industry left Texas, say. The analogues which you saw in Cambodia are interesting, in that it makes you wonder if Detroit's circumstances (or Cambodia's circumstances) can happen anywhere. Is Detroit America's future, assuming the industry in our country keeps being hollowed out? Do you see Detroit as a harbinger for what future American cities might be like in an era of increasing economic inequality and the industrialization?

Of course there is a loss of industry that's central. That I think what people focus on and get concerned about, right? And that is not to be underestimated for sure.

However, the built environment of Detroit put the city in particular danger for something like the housing crisis. Given the political makeup of Michigan, and how that state has tended toward a certain kind of conservatism and really doesn't prize education, and everything that follows from that.

And of course there's also the history of absolute violence there, against residents. The Algiers Hotel. Black Bottom. The very intense majority-white police violence against the majority Black population.

Regarding housing — there is a strong and smart anti-eviction movement in Detroit, for sure. But when a quarter of the housing stock in the city is foreclosed on over property taxes within a three or four-year period, no organization could be expected to keep up.

The housing stock thing is really interesting, because the city was almost entirely made up of single family homes. I mean it was just absolutely a city that was constructed on the notion of traditional families. Going to work in the factories and buying their houses and driving their cars to and from the factories every day. There weren't even really apartment buildings. There are still very few and they're built very slowly. 

That means then that you don't have renters. Students either have to rent a house together or figure out how to buy one. What that means is that if there are few other affordable housing options in the city, then of course home ownership is going to be where the contest happens.

So in Detroit, it was all property tax foreclosures. Not all, most. Vast majority. That's where the crisis is going to happen. It's not going to happen with evictions from non-payment of rent or whatever. It's going to be around the primary housing stock that's available. Entire families being yanked from their homes.

I didn't totally know that thing about the domination of single family homes in the city's housing stock, although I guess that makes sense given its industrial history.

Yeah, it continued to shock me for about a year.

Once I arrived in 2016–2017, people were like, "there are no places to rent. There's no place for me to live". Like, "how am I supposed to be here and go to Wayne State or get a job and pursue my work? How am I supposed to test out living in the city without making the big commitment of putting my down payment down?"

And because it's all single-family homes, the stakes are just that much higher. So then you have all these weird ways that people buy homes, like rent-to-own deals and land contracts. Land contracts are these very weird agreements between the original owner of the property and the person who wants to buy the property. And they basically allow that second person to be making small payments towards ownership over a period of time. But these contracts are not regulated like a mortgage is, and given the varying ways they can be implemented, they can be terminated at almost any moment and for any cause, and they often are in Detroit. They've created a lot of housing insecurity in the city. 

I remember in the book you said you have a little bit of ambivalence about speaking for Detroit or representing yourself in Detroit or something like that. Do you still feel that? Do you feel like its complicated to sort of politically to talk about it and place? I got a sense of some of that in some points in the book.

Yeah, I mean there's a lot, right? It is a place that ultimately that I did not commit to for the long term so I do feel like there are other people better suited to actually talk about the future potential for the city. Or like what can happen, or how to fix stuff. Or even like, how to make it survivable for people now. And those are the people that absolutely should be answering those questions. But for sure, what I can own is my own experience, my love for my neighbors and my absolute adoration of how my neighborhood ended up navigating the lack of support from the city itself in order to foster some deep bonds, across all sorts of barriers.

Anne Elizabeth Moore's new book, "Gentrifier: A Memoir," will be released on October 19 from Catapult Books. 


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