Aaron Foley grabs the third rail of a high-voltage Detroit topic in the second edition of his guide to respectful local living. He calls it “by far the most difficult subject that I or any other writer in this town has ever had to tackle.”
Here’s where he dares to go: “Perhaps Detroit is in a position to finally afford some gentrification.”
Foley knows this is risky to say, so he takes nearly 2,300 words in a new chapter of “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” to explain — carefully, vividly, persuasively — why the G-word doesn’t apply to all urban redevelopment. (The update of his 2015 paperback, coming next week from Belt Publishing, can be ordered here.)
The full chapter, “How to Discuss Detroit’s Most Difficult Topic,” is posted by Belt Magazine. Ford Motor Company’s plans for Michigan Central Station, and the expected impact on Corktown and possibly Mexicantown, are the entry point:
You would think—you would think!—that after 32 years vacant, this structure, the very same vacant structure that has come to symbolize Detroit ruin-porn on an international scale, getting some TLC from an entity with lots of money to burn would be good news to everyone. But of course, this is Detroit, and it’s not. . . .
I’m tired of seeing it empty. I think people that live around the station are tired of seeing it empty.
These additional portions show why Foley’s nuanced reflections are worth reading in full:
I don’t think rehabbing a building empty since 1986 and filling it with technical employees is gentrification. . . .
Something I’ve been wrestling with lately is whether it’s OK to be a black Detroiter that favors new development and doesn’t fear any potential ripple effects that may come with it.
Let me explain. I just don’t want to see another goddamn empty building that could be put back to perfectly good use in this city again. . . .
I do not think gentrification’s broader definition can be applied to the city of Detroit. And that is one of the most difficult things to say out loud, because a black person saying this can be seen as traitorous unless they give a very damned good reason why.
On the surface, my reason is simple. An empty house being fixed up, or an empty train station being fixed up, that has no one occupying it, is not gentrification. There are no people being pushed out of that space, so there is no displacement.
Going deeper, I’d like to think that because all the powers that be are aware of what gentrification does look like in other cities, this liberal-leaning town will take care to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes as those other cities whose residents are now looking at Detroit as a safe haven. No one wants their legacy to be that of a gentrifier. . . .
To not be a jackass in Detroit is to be willing to accept change, and that some things should not stay the same way they are.
Now, that doesn’t mean accept change at any cost. All new development need checks and balances, and Lord knows we don’t want things to spiral out of control as they have in other cities. (And let’s not forget how large Detroit is and how far away we are from our city looking even remotely like anyone else’s does right now.) But I look at the people who are making the comments asking whether Detroit is losing its identity with all the new developments happening. Its identity as what, exactly—a city full of empty buildings? . . .
I get a little angry because some of the people I see making this commentary are young white millennials who moved into the city less than five years ago, and seem to already be dictating what they want in a city. I wrestle with my emotions again as a black man because I don’t want to scare them off, but also because I don’t want to hide my black-ass feelings and tell them how I really feel. I keep wanting to say how misguided they are because they came into a Detroit with all this wreckage but are living among people who remember when the wreckage wasn’t here, and how arrogant and selfish it is to want it to stay just the way it is to please their own newfound sensibilities without taking into consideration everybody who wants all this shit to change.
I get a little angry at my own people because sometimes I hear us saying we don’t want things to change either. And then I wrestle more because you start to feel those traitorous feelings again, whether you’re letting your own people down because this is the stance you want to take. And I get a little angry at myself for letting all these feelings collide, because talking about gentrification in Detroit is really fucking delicate and complicated.
Buy the book:
How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass — Second Edition | $18 ($2 below cover price) and $2.50 shipping per order