If you’ve tried to have a conversation with a white friend about gentrification, it’s pretty likely you reached an impasse the moment you posed any sort of critique of “revitalization.” If you’ve tried to have such a conversation with a white Ypsilanti resident about the readily apparent gentrification of this city, it’s even more likely your critiques have inspired irritability. We could explore the origins of white reactivity (to critiques of racism, of gentrification, of centrism, of civility) at length in another post, but for the moment, suffice it to say that when you call attention, at one and the same moment, to a destructive pattern white people have not only passively participated in, but also benefited from, it can be like swatting at wasps. Our intense preference is to be left to our “quiet” complicity, unremarked and definitely uncriticized.
Personally, I’m way past the days of rooting for everyone to stay chill and get along—rising tides lift only yachts. Every day in Ypsilanti is another day a cop is pulling over a non-white resident because of skintone and car condition; every month we see new businesses opening that we know aren’t opening to serve the city’s least resourced residents; every month we get the junk mail local realtors use to boast about how the market’s booming and people are offering thousands of dollars above listing price.
We’re obligated not only to name these phenomena—gentrification—but also to critique and challenge them, because actual lives are on the line. Who benefits from gentrification? Upwardly mobile white people, real estate agencies, landlords, banks, and mortgage lenders. Who expedites it? This is more complex, but we know from studying other cities that trendy lifestyle accoutrements—right now it’s boutique coffee, microbreweries, tech hubs/coworking spaces, depoliticized “art” spaces, white-oriented craft fairs, yoga studios, luxury bodegas, etc.—begin to proliferate, and with them, so does the pull on comfortable people who are looking for a hip town in which to buy a house. Corporate marketing campaigns like Ypsi Real must also be flagged here, concocted as they are by Chambers of Commerce and “local business leaders” to convince spectators that the cities these brand strategies serve are destinations with lots to offer if you like quirk, white culture, and have disposable income. Rather than allow ourselves to be persuaded by a market-based campaign that the city in which we live is cool, let’s commit ourselves instead to spotlighting and agitating for those who are actually harmed by the “Realing” of Ypsilanti: its black, brown, and student residents; its unsheltered folks; its small-business owners; and then, by extension, all of us who decline to want to live in a town that’s predominantly white, hip, and tidy.
Which is why two of today’s stories in the right-leaning, affluence-positive MLive are so stunning. Check out this headline: “Ann Arbor’s Historically Black Neighborhood Is the Hottest Market in Town.” You don’t even need to read the article—its title contains everything you should (and probably do already) know: 1) Black neighborhoods in Ann Arbor are history, and 2) a hot market in a rich city like Ann Arbor is going to be off-limits to 95% of people in Washtenaw County.
But if you’re a Gentrification Skeptic, read the other article that MLive published today: “‘Old Neighborhood’ Residents Recall Life in Ann Arbor in the ’50s and ’60s.” If DeLong’s Bar-B-Q Pit had to shutter after 30-odd years of sustaining the diners of Ann Arbor, and its neighborhood is no longer black but is currently “hot,” and if young white people are now buying houses in Ypsilanti’s South Side, you can’t argue our black and under-resourced populations won’t continue to be displaced.
This is why the slogan (and ensuing movement) Keep Ypsi Black was launched. And while your average white Ypsilanti resident never supported that slogan, it’s likely they support Ypsi Real, or any campaign that aims to “keep” their own assets and leisure activities a priority.