Field notes on white supremacy and Detroit gentrification

Over recent years I tended bar at a few Detroit spots where a substantial portion of the clientele were neither suburbanites nor people from Detroit but new arrivals to the city, predominantly white or otherwise non-Black. They are colloquially known as New Detroiters. Like most bartenders I try not listen to customer conversations but it’s hard to tune out everything or you won’t hear drink orders. For me the goal was to get by in a Detroit job market with only slight opportunities for those with a high school or less education, not do unrigorous field work. Yet sometimes through engaging with customers or simply overhearing conversations I noticed patterns in how the new arrivals introduced and positioned themselves vis-à-vis the ongoing gentrification process. Further, I also observed patterns in their interactions with White Flighters (white Detroiters who left the city in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s) including how they bridge the New Detroit narrative with the past of Detroit as a white majority city and erase Detroit the Black metropolis.

What follows looks at these conversations among New Detroiters and contextualizes them in the ongoing and specifically anti-Black gentrification process. I’m confident in how I contextualize my observations but, as noted above with “unrigorous”, am not at all sure to what extent that which I observed is representative. The sample size is small and limited to just a few bars. The bars in question significantly overlap in clientele. Yet there is at least one, and probably two, other kinds of gentrification discussions taking place in other social spheres. The capitalist class – those financially driving large scale gentrification like Dan Gilbert, the Ilitches, John Hantz and ilk – did not frequent these establishments with regularity (and when they did, did not hang out at the bar). The crustpunk, artist and “progressive gentrifiers” too did not frequent these establishments with regularity, except as employees, and they are normally the first gentrifiers in a neighborhood. Both of these groups probably articulate the process a little differently and that is not represented here. And last, I’m a participant/observer in the conversations with exactly zero anthropological and sociological training. I frequently pushed back against gentrification cheerleading which makes it likely I rarely heard certain kinds of conversations, specifically those with cruder racist articulations. Alternately put, here my studied tribe is the gentrifiers and I am an antagonistic observer who frequently participated in and thus helped shape the observed discourse. That shaping must be considered into what follows.

Creating a new White Map for Detroit

This essay focuses on new arrivals that primarily relocated for social and economic opportunities provided by a Black city’s poverty and perceived malleability though they very rarely conceive of it in these terms. Other people move to Detroit primarily for family reasons and work. These categories are not mutually exclusive and some measure of blurring is common enough. The two bars I mostly draw from are located in West Village and Downtown. One, a bar/restaurant is on the site of a famous, Black-owned French restaurant and the other is the site of an old white-owned pharmacy. Neither the old restaurant nor pharmacy had been in operation for several years prior to the examined bars opening and the new bars are entirely unrelated to the old spots closing as in, the old was not pushed out for the new directly or indirectly though both are still part of gentrification. One opened in late 2013 and the other in mid 2016.

The bar located in West Village is frequented by a mix of locals, suburbanites and new arrivals with the latter two being a strong majority most nights. The bar Downtown had an even higher percentage of New Detroiters and suburbanites and is normally much whiter in clientele than Detroit is Black (well over 80% of Detroiters are Black). Many New Detroiters come from the sprawling suburbs across 8 Mile or to the city’s south and west. Others come from other parts of the state, country and globe. When they encounter each other they normally lack shared reference points from their past histories. Their only shared context is as gentrifiers.

New restaurants and bars are frequent topics of conversation. They have to be as schools, neighborhoods (apart from the small core of gentrifying geography they mostly don’t know Dexter-Davison from Conant Gardens) and local politics (they don’t know by appearance nor politics the difference between Saunteel Jenkins and JoAnn Watson though they do know Detroit’s current white mayor Mike Duggan) are mostly unknown or not held in common. “Have you been to Katoi?” “Have you been to Selden Standard?” “What do you like at Republic?” “Oh my friend is bartending there.” “We just came from Sloe’s.” “You’ve gotta go to Parks & Rec for brunch!” “I can’t wait for the light rail to go in!” “Have you tried the Two James bourbon?” “Oh my god Eastern Market was so crowded today.” These experiences form a shared basis for further interactions and grease the wheels of camaraderie. They also set up a shared set of cultural reference points, familiar objects and sites, destinations and how to get to them, all totaling a New Detroit geography. Once started the conversation can go anywhere but the gentrification process is the premise for the very sociality of New Detroiters. They do not have a way to be together with other people without it due to a refusal to meaningfully interact with the Black city they encountered when they arrived.

This is not the same as settler colonialism with a separate, invading sovereignty (although because it happens inside the United States settler colony it is part of settler colonialism). That some gentrifiers use the language of pioneering and homesteading should not be conflated with the actual histories of pioneering and homesteading even though there are superficial similarities. Nor should the appeals to Detroit’s early history as a French fur and slave colony like the “Marche Du Nain Rouge” or new food companies named after French slave-owning families like the Beaubiens. It is not a new sovereignty but it is a new map that under construction. The New Detroit map largely lacks reference points to the Black city. It is so stark that even Nolan Finley, an apologist for everything awful for the right-wing Detroit News asks, quite incoherently, “Where are the Black people?”

The new map that includes solely gentrifying areas builds a new white geography for the city. The New Detroiters do not appreciate this map alone. An older generation of white Detroiters visiting the city to go to the new restaurants and bars shares this narration. In one example a roughly 60-year-old man narrated the following to one of the bar owners (a recent arrival):

20 years ago I’d be making a delivery downtown and it was a ghost town! There was nobody here. Then a few years back I saw a white girl on a bicycle in the Cass Corridor and thought, “There is definitely something wrong here!” That’s how I knew something was going on.

Discussions that include stories about how “it’s so nice to see downtown bustling again” and cursing the former “ghost town” – a phrase I heard time and again – form a narrative bridge between the old white Detroit and the new one that is examined further below. New Detroit businesses play up this bridge as with Detroit City Distillery and Grey Ghost invoking lineages to Prohibition era smuggling. The Detroit City Distillery menu reads, “In the roaring twenties, Detroit fueled prohibition and an entrepreneurial spirit that didn’t follow the rules. A century later, eight childhood friends started a small distillery to make alcohol the old fashioned way. […] The result is a drink of distinction made for the revolutionaries rewriting the history of a great American city.” These “revolutionaries” imagine connections to older Detroit narratives of criminalized river crossings to and from Canada but none connect with the actual revolutionaries operating the Underground Railroad’s criminalized river crossings despite large monuments honoring it on the riverfront itself. Huh.

A variant among White Flighters is a visceral white supremacist affirmation that comes when they say a version of, “They had their chance” in reference to Black people governing. Where I worked it was somewhat uncommon but it is a popular theme in the suburbs. I frequently heard implied versions with things like “We’ve finally got a good mayor again,” in reference to Mike Duggan, Detroit’s first white mayor in forty years.

Detroit’s anti-Black “revitalization”

Revitalizing Detroit as told by the media and gentrifiers at the bar is the increasing occupancy levels in housing Downtown, along Woodward Ave. from Downtown north to New Center, along Michigan Ave. west through Corktown and a little deeper into Southwest, in West Village, Eastern Market and the traditionally wealthier neighborhoods like Boston Edison, North Rosedale Park and Indian Village, in total amounting to around 5% of the city’s geography. The higher occupancy rates are paired with the opening of new restaurants and stores, Quicken Loans and other firms moving offices to the city and modest levels of new construction.

Detroit real estate prices are high for those living in poverty yet they are incredibly low compared to virtually every other US town and city. It is a city where someone can buy a perfectly inhabitable house for as little as one-tenth the price of a comparable house in most cities or even Detroit’s suburbs and less than one one-hundredth of comparable buildings in places like Manhattan or San Francisco. The low prices and lack of protections for residents make Detroit casually exploitable and underlay the “Detroit is a blank canvas” narrative that, if not as popular as it was from around 2008-2013, still has currency.

For decades Detroit has been a city with a very large Black majority. The former white majority started to flee to the suburbs in the 1950s, fled faster after the 1967 Rebellion and by the early 1970s Detroit was a Black majority city eventually peaking at over 85% Black. Normative narratives do mention white flight as part of the economic decline but rarely name Detroit as a Black city nor connections between increasing Blackness and increasing poverty even though capital and industry joined white in flight. These are simply understood and need not be spoken aloud.

The unspoken part is because capital, prosperity and industry are naturalized with white in the US’s white settler discourse while poverty, crime and death are similarly naturalized with Black. This stems from what Orlando Patterson described as the “social death” of African Slavery. In this narrative, as expounded upon by Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson and others, Black, in anti-Blackness’ narrative, is not a human identity but instead a site of capital accumulation, property and location for gratuitous violence. Hence when the Guardian described the “death of a great American city” it described Detroit’s transformation into a Black metropolis. This is the “devitalization” of Detroit but that word is never uttered because, as noted previously, the racist connotations of “revitalization” would be too obvious.

Fred Moten says, “social death is a house party for smart people.” Indeed, why would Detroit, a city with a larger than usual number of residents undertaking transformative actions, with its own dances, music forms and vernacular, need an injection of life, vitality, revitalization? The fact of Black life doesn’t interfere with white imaginings and processes of Black social death. And why does revitalization refer only to young white people and major capital moving to the city? Because you can only revitalize something seen as lifeless. This is what I read in phrasings about Detroit formerly being a “ghost town”. The man quoted above saw a city of over 1.2 million people (at the time) to be, to paraphrase Moten, a zone devoid of human habitation with Blackness as the haunting spectre, the ghost.

What the “blank canvas” narrative exemplified was the nonexistence of Detroit’s Black population. Black Detroit could be overwritten with whatever fantasy one had. And since harm to Black people is unrecognizable as harm in U.S. discourse — in Saidiya Hartman’s concise phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize so such crime.” — one need not imagine that one’s actions have consequences.

At the more immediate, visceral level this plays out with property speculators buying houses at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction then offering them for sale on Craigslist or elsewhere noting that “property may be occupied” and that evicting the former homeowners or renters — a common event is a landlord being foreclosed upon without the tenants ever knowing — was the responsibility of the new owner. Or with suburbanites downtown visiting the new stadiums after a Lions, Tigers or Red Wings game walking around drunk and pissing in people’s yards and knocking over their trash barrels. I read this as basically a casually, completely unthought white supremacist negative of one of the most incredible direct action efforts I know of, Detroit’s 1943 “bumping campaign”. Black activists deliberately bumped into white people on sidewalks and in elevators as a means of protest and claiming public space in a city where Black life was restricted in a highly segregated geography. The everyday aggression of whiteness described is at least as laborious as the Bumping Campaign but it is completely unthought of as effort.

At the broader level you see it with bars and restaurants opening that serve and employ mostly white (or non-Black at any rate) people in both front and back of the house. Historic buildings in areas close to new jobs are rehabbed and then rented to mostly white tenants. Firms employing disproportionately, most often predominantly, white people move their offices to the city from the suburbs. In this latter example the functionings of racism are unusually clear. By the employers it is imagined as effortless, but the amount of labor it takes to employ a majority or exclusively white workforce in a in a city over 80% Black with high unemployment is tremendous. An entire infrastructure separate from the Black city must be built. But, as ever, anti-Black efforts aren’t seen as laborious at all, simply the way things are done.

Detroit’s gentrification appears a little different in Southwest – a Latinx majority neighborhood – which paints in relief the broader anti-Black processes. In the case of Southwest gentrification is no less harmful but gentrifiers described it differently at the bars. They would pass along recommendations about which restaurant has the best tacos or tamales and attempt to position themselves as arbiters of a fetishized, ‘authentic’ Southwest experience. The Latinx neighborhood is not a blank canvas. The population adds flavor – in the case of food quite literally through actual seasoning – to the gentrifying experience. This is different, not to say better or worse, than what is done in the rest of Detroit.

It isn’t just that the redevelopment schemes are largely leaving out Detroit’s Black population, it’s that in 95% of Detroit’s geography conditions are worsening. Unemployment is higher in 2017 than in 2010. Poverty is higher in 2017 than in 2010. And 2010 is considered the bottom of the Great Recession for the rest of the country. Detroit’s “revitalization” plays significantly into the national economic recovery narrative but there has been no recovery for Detroiters, not even a stabilization. This is happening mostly for the New Detroiters. And they are celebrating the process. Indeed it is the process itself that gives them meaning as a community. Or, at least, that’s how they tell it.

 

 

 

A side note on revolting service

Beyond the specific critique, this essay also aspires to connect together my laboring hours with my ethical and political ideals. As workers we fight for pay, benefits, hours and more. This essay aspires to go beyond that towards an older labor goal: shop control. Shop control is the idea that workers should not only receive fair pay and work in safety, but should also be able to define exactly what our work is. A rivethead shouldn’t be compelled to assemble any old thing. Those who work in aerospace assembly or design should, for example, have the power to not make missiles or combat aircraft when they really want to build a craft to Mars. Both antagonizing gentrifiers while they socialize in ‘their’ spaces and critiquing and reporting on their conduct can play a small role towards shop control in a service economy. To the degree it changes customer behavior or, better, keeps certain customers out altogether it improves the work environment for laborers and gets out of the servile “the customer is always right” paradigm (that is, if the laborers ourselves are not gentrifiers which, in these types of bars and restaurants in Detroit is depressingly rare). Further, if service industry venues are not places safe to discuss and celebrate the dispossession of a Black metropolis for fear of public disclosure or confrontation then the work itself has become more friendly to the citizenry and is a small corner of the requested Hoodlum Intelligence Agency. As service industry professionals we hear and see so much. Why do we not report on it more?

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