What the F@#! is Midtown?

by Eli Day

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. By inviting an old friend to a Midtown bar I opened myself to a collision of worlds, or rather the recognition that one was being displaced by another. Together we had survived Detroit’s most devastated communities, and awkwardly traversed its most affluent. His response to my invitation was piercing: “What the fuck is Midtown?”

It made sense in the most straightforward way: the area was long known as Cass Corridor to those familiar with its brutalized, but resilient history. Yet his query was as penetrating as it was plain. There’s a certain clarity that only an F-bomb can summon, and his shattered a convenient fantasy: that the coming Detroit—young, vibrant, and white—wouldn’t erase the old Detroit— disempowered, economically vulnerable, and largely black.

Ever defiant, the afflicted won’t stand for it. Gentrification is widely criticized by activists, community organizers, concerned citizens, and even the occasional elected official. Most critiques take the form of condemning the displacement of long-time residents, who are disproportionately poor people of color. It’s an important point, one I often employ and have found to be generally effective at disarming claims of gentrification’s value. But if displacement is gentrification’s defining feature, erasure is its most venomous—requiring a separate, but parallel, conversation.

The reasons are manifold. For one, people can be callous and even the most air-tight argument against displacement is no match for adherents to stale wisdom: that it’s a natural, even if regrettable, consequence of market forces (a claim worth eviscerating another time) or that those advantaged by gentrification are the ones truly under attack. It’s a boring and utterly predictable pattern. More importantly, cultivating perspective that adds to the hard-earned wisdom in the fight against a non-inclusive “revival” is a worthy tactical pursuit.

Erasure is an agent of silent destruction. People don’t have to be removed for it to take place. This isn’t to say that the process isn’t material. It certainly is. It materializes as entire communities with rich physical histories are redeveloped in unrecognizable ways, while long- time residents are pushed out with all the respect accorded to space invaders. But erasure is uniquely heinous because it torments not only the displaced, but also those who remain. The long-term resident who escapes displacement finds herself in a community that’s changing at a pace more rapid and absolute every day, with no mention of what was lost, as if its recognition would bring the onslaught of change to a screeching halt. By erasing the past, gentrification moves forward without us ever seriously acknowledging that it’s occurring.

When the past is rendered immaterial to the present moment (or worse, invisible) historical connections are lost, and with them the ability to file grievances. Yet ours is the challenge, and the tradition, of confronting the world as it is. We shatter the myths that obscure truth and we’ll continue to do so. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that hope thrives amongst those that have suffered the greatest injury. 

Posted on February 1, 2015 .