I just moved (again) and I’ve been thinking a lot about place.
I don’t write about where I live, generally speaking. This is not an accident. It isn’t because it slipped my mind or because the place I live doesn’t interest me. It’s a very conscious decision, and it’s one I keep making again and again. A few months back, I was soliciting blog topics from friends and readers, and one of the questions that kept coming up was “why do you live in Detroit?” I politely (I hope it was polite) declined to answer.
“I don’t write about Detroit.” I said. And it’s the truth. I mostly don’t write about Detroit. I don’t write about Detroit, frankly, because I’m a young-ish white person. And there are scores of young-ish white people writing about Detroit, about why they live here, what they love about the city, how they want to help the city, so much so that they are monopolizing the conversation. In a city that is majority black, where residents (particularly black residents, long term residents, and low income residents, and those who fall in all three categories) face some pretty serious hardships, the conversation has been monopolized by young-ish white folk who mostly want to talk about how rosy it is.
White privilege exists.
I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t think my perspective on Detroit is particularly interesting, particularly unique, or particularly worthy of being heard. I moved to this city eight years ago (to get away from an abusive ex) and I stayed (because I liked it here and I made friends) and that puts me in the category of scores and scores of first wave gentrifiers who’s opinions on what the city is or should be are not particularly relevant. Being a white, relatively recent, transplant to the city, does not give me a particularly important or interesting perspective on what’s going on here. You want to read about Detroit? Seek out the voices of people who have been here for awhile, not people like me.
But today, I am slightly breaking (or maybe just bending) my rule about writing about Detroit, to talk about a classist and racist assumption that I have recently been noticing and trying to wrap my head around.
I grew up in a working class family, and when I was little, we moved around quite a bit. When I was in the fourth grade, my parents were finally able to achieve their dream of home ownership, and they haven’t moved since then. About a week before my eighteenth birthday, I moved out of my parents home, and since then, I haven’t really stopped moving. Since that first move, I have moved twelve times in my adult life, and the longest I’ve stayed in once residence was just over two years. The reasons for the moves have been varied — the collective is splitting up, I’m moving in with my partner, I can’t afford the rent anymore, I hate living with roommates, I hate my racist landlord, this apartment is too small for my cats, I need to get away from my abuser — and to my mind I’ve rarely moved just for the sake of moving, but there’s no denying I’ve been transient. This last move is my third since the birth of my child, and my wife and I are so sick of moving around that we’ve affectionately joked “this is the rental we’re going to die in, they’ll have to bury us in the backyard.”
All of this moving around feels pretty reminiscent, to be honest, of the moving around I did with my family as a child. Again, lots of different reasons — the owners were only renting this house until they could sell it, my dad’s job was transferred, we need to be closer to family, this house was never big enough for a family of four, we hate this house so much we’ve all been calling it “the ucky house” all four months we’ve lived here — and the transience was created, to some degree, by being renters.
But back to the present! This most recent move, we were actually excited about. We like the house and neighborhood we are living in, and we want to be here. It feels like a good fit for us, as opposed to just a “well, we’ve gotta live somewhere” situation. And as we’ve talked to people, informing them of our change in residence, there has been one response we’ve gotten over and over again. So much so, that it has started to wear on me.
“Oh cool! Did you guys buy a house over there?”
I’m not qualified to give you a real lesson on Detroit real estate, I haven’t been here long enough and I haven’t studied in thoroughly enough. But I can tell you that in Detroit, a lot of families have lost their homes due to foreclosure in recent memory. Detroit is a big spread out kind of city, and there are empty homes here. As newcomers, especially white middle class people, have come to the city, they have often seen it as a place where home ownership was more readily accessible to them. I have known young professionals who’ve bought huge mansions in Detroit and fixed them up, because in the suburbs they’d only be able to afford a fairly modest home, and working folks who bought houses on the cheap at auction (from the city) that probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve that American Dream of home ownership without that opportunity.
Again, I don’t know enough about all of this to give you a good run down on all the ins and outs here. Detroit is, like all places, a complicated place. What I do know, though, is that one of those realities (newcomers, who are mostly white, being able to buy homes for relatively cheap) is directly related to and often dependent on the other reality (long time residents, who are mostly black, losing their homes due to foreclosure). And the new residents who are cashing in on this are often very resistant to acknowledging any connection.
My wife and I are white, and we live in a predominantly black city. As such, we carry a lot of white privilege. Sometimes we fight against it, but other times (like when you know you’re being more seriously considered for a job because of your race, but like, if you don’t get the job you’re going to end up homeless) we can’t really afford to. Though we have lived near or below the poverty line for years now, we are often assumed to be middle class because of our race. It is assumed that we both have college degrees (we do not) or are currently in school (we are not). If people are aware of our financial situation, it is assumed to be temporary.
In essence, white privilege gives us the benefit of the doubt. In a culture where the poor are vilified, being assumed to have more than you do is a kind of power. People who come from upper middle class backgrounds, people who are afraid to take the bus in Detroit because of poor black people, people who assume that homelessness is the result of laziness, those people often treat us as their peers. Their actions and words seem to say, “oh, but you’re not like those poor people.”
And as we move through the city, a white couple with our white son, we benefit immensely in ways that our neighbors of color do not. Yes, sure, we definitely face homophobia from time to time, but our whiteness acts as an incredible shield to many of the harsher realities of life in the city. It is not fair, and it is not ok.
That is how people can look at us, people can know that we were, only six months ago, technically homeless and crashing with friends, and assume that we’re now home owners. It feels like a weird moment of cognitive dissonance, it feels like the odd place where race and class intersect, and along with the politics of place, this is what we get. “Did you guys buy a house?”
I was briefly chatting with a friend about the very concept of long term renting. To a lot of people, in a lot of communities, it’s normal, but to others it is a foreign concept. Long term renting is, in essence, contrary to the American Dream. The American Dream says that we can own the land, with a deed from the government in our hand that says so, and that ownership will give us the control and stability that we crave. We might not have much, but with home ownership, we can all be some kind of upwardly mobile. There’s some truth to it. I knew a family that, a few years back, suffered major financial hardship. But their house was already paid off, and because of that they were able to weather a storm that would have destroyed them otherwise.
But aside from the practical, it’s about the ideological. America is built, largely, on the backs of white homesteaders who stole native lands. Private ownership is one of the cornerstones of American culture. It’s how we manage to pretend we are self sufficient. It’s one of the reasons capitalism, and my own personal boogeyman the nuclear family, took hold so completely here. To many, the idea of paying a fee to live in a building that someone else owns is insulting.
But I cannot, at least in the foreseeable future, buy a home. I don’t have the credit required for a mortgage. I don’t have the cash to buy a home outright or frankly, even for a downpayment. And I don’t have the skills, time, or energy, to fix up a fixer-upper. My family hovers around the poverty line, my wife has serious back issues that prevent her from doing a lot of manual labor, we both work, and we have a one year old. For us, the dream is just a decent place to live, that we can afford, where we can feel good about raising our child. Our last rental was not that, our new one is. We’re extremely happy with that, which is not something that I think a lot of middle class people can wrap their heads around.
When we were discussing renting this house with the wonderful people who own it, we mentioned being sick of moving around. We mentioned wanting to live in a neighborhood we could maybe put down roots in. We mentioned wanting some stability for our kid. One of the questions they asked us, kind of in response to that, was whether or not we would be happy in a rental, or would be looking to buy as soon as possible, as part of that “putting down roots” idea. It was difficult not to laugh.
“Did you guys buy a house over there?” acquaintances ask me excitedly when I tell them which neighborhood we’ve moved to. When I say no, we’re renting, I catch a brief moment of confusion cross their faces. Their excitement evaporates, and instead of congratulating us on this next chapter of our lives, they say “Oh… ok.”