Detroit’s 21st Century Gentry

By Frank Joyce

Homo Sapiens move around. That’s how the planet came to be populated beyond the African-Asian land mass.  

There is a pull- push dynamic in human migration. One factor is often simple curiosity about what’s over the horizon. So is the search for what constitutes wealth at any given point in evolutionary history. That’s the pull.  

Discontent is the push. Poverty, disease, oppression, climate change, war, family crises and natural disasters also propel the search for “greener pastures.”  

Most migrations involve some level of displacement. According to Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, it took only two centuries after the arrival of humans in New Zealand about eight hundred years ago to cause the extinction of 60% of the native birds and all of the indigenous mega fauna.  

In the continent now known as America, white European migrants relentlessly displaced Indigenous people, animals and all kinds of natural resources. The same invasive species added further disruption by violently enslaving Africans and transporting them to the Northern and Southern hemisphere to build an economy based on racism and destruction.  

In doing so they constructed the idea of whiteness and the ideology of white superiority that dominates the minds of most people to this day.  

Which brings us to gentrification, just another word for seizing land, displacing people of color and establishing control through violence. Specifically, the word ‘gentrify’ derives from the notion of the landed gentry, a super-privileged subset of European whites who are even entitled to displace other Whites as they see fit.  

In Detroit displacement decisions, labeled with euphemisms such as urban renewal, impose devastating short term and long term effects. The destruction of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom are dramatic examples.  

Creating incentives for some people to leave an area, especially while denying those same opportunities to others, is another form of race-based displacement.  Throughout the US, including Detroit, this is how the suburbs were built in the first place. Infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer lines were paid for by all taxpayers. But then, as a matter of government policy, only whites were allowed to buy homes in those suburbs.

After the 1967 rebellion, corporate power moved the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons out of the city to distant suburbs as part of its punishment/control retribution against Detroit. Disinvestment took place on a grand scale. More recently the White elite decided it was in their interest to bring the Lions and the Pistons back—massively subsidized, of course, by Detroit taxpayers.

Over the many years, students in the Detroit Public Schools have been repeatedly displaced by school closings orchestrated by state imposed emergency managers. This has disrupted the students, their parents and school personnel. It has destabilized neighborhoods and the Detroit tax base as well.

Does this mean that all investment is bad? Of course not. As this magazine documents, Detroiters are creatively and extensively investing in their own communities. Sometimes partnerships with profit, non-profit and government participants are a real asset in that process.

But healthy skepticism toward would be saviors is entirely justified. As Viet Thanh Nguyen puts it in his novel, The Sympathizer, it is best to be cautious when dealing with “representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”  

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