In my last year of undergrad, I realized I had to take a history course to graduate. Thumbing through the course options guide, I noticed a graduate-level class: Black Detroit. Long a fan of the Detroit Tigers and interested in the city’s unique spirit, I signed up. I was immediately warned by the professor that reading history books was not like reading novels for my English major. Convincing him I was okay, he signed the waiver allowing me, an undergrad, into this graduate course. I was terrified of failing.
Black Detroit ended up being my favorite class of my entire education. Covering everything from Motown Records to the great migration, unions to organizations that met black folks when they arrived to “clean them up” and “properly” represent the race to white Detroit, there was so much to uncover. I wrote a paper about Amiri Baraka, a black poet. You may remember that one of the only all-black poetry presses was started in Detroit by Dudley Randall.
Thus, Detroit Hustle caught my attention when I was in an indie bookstore. Where is Detroit today on housing? I’d read about Detroit’s super cheap homes in the news, how artists are moving in for next to nothing. I was hesitant that the entire memoir would be about gentrification, but I purchased it. Gotta support indies, right?
Amy Haimerl grew up in a poverty-stricken area in Colorado. Her father started his own business, which he lost during the recession circa 2008. She went to college, became a journalist, and moved to Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Even at this point, I was skeptical. She writes, “Our rent was topping $3,500 a month, and we were working just to keep our middle-class life afloat.” I’m not well-versed in the financial class system, but $3,500 doesn’t sound like the middle to me. She and her husband were active in the community — volunteering at farms, organizing free movies in the park, etc. Eventually, tourists come to the area and rent goes up. Haimerl implies the area is being gentrified, and she’s disgusted.
Luckily, just before Hurricane Sandy destroys Red Hook, Haimerl and her husband had moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan so she can take a visiting professor position. They want a forever home, though, that is in a neighborhood similar to the now-decimated, waterlogged Red Hook. She notes, “. . . we wanted a place that was forging its future, not relaxing on its accomplishments. We wanted a working-class town with an entrepreneurial spirit.” Detroit it was.
The book is well-written and easy to follow along. Really, the question is should you read this book for the content?
There are lots of parts that feel icky. The house they purchase is $35,000, which they pay for in cash. Haimerl hopes they can get a loan for the massive renovation by putting down $100,000 in cash, but they don’t. Banks aren’t willing to invest in Detroit homes that, once renovated, are still worth less than the loan because of Detroit stigma.
As time goes on, Haimerl whines that she feels like she’s obligated to apologize for being middle class. She admits her house, post-renovation, cost over $400,000. Not very middle class to me. To get an idea of the size of this house for two people with no children (and none wanted), it has 65 windows, 24 interior doors, and 4 bathrooms. When she and her husband run out of money to pay contractors, it’s donated by family.
Her privilege is everywhere. Think of the black families that were displaced after neighborhoods collapsed due to white flight, who can’t get loans because of their skin color, who were evicted during the recession. Think about this: “[Detroit] is still 83 percent African American, but you can walk through downtown and see very few black faces. . . .On the outside I look like a gentrifier. I appear white and affluent. But in my head I am still just a poor girl from [Colorado].” Erm, I’m not sure what Haimerl means when she says she “appears white.” She is white. I’m not sure why she identifies as “a poor girl” when she’s in her 40s and has been affluent for quite some time. Think about that $135,000 in cash she had for her house.
Race is oddly everywhere and no where in Detroit Hustle. The synopsis claims the memoir is more about the people of Detroit than the renovation, but I could get over how often Haimerl used the word “I.”
Yes, she acknowledges that she has privilege, but she never owns it. There’s always a “but” close behind. She mentions that their dog, a rottweiler, isn’t what people think of as a white gentrifier’s dog. It’s a breed historically connected to race, in case you aren’t picking up what I’m throwing down. This detail coming from Haimerl, who “appears white.” Right.
Near the end of the memoir, page 262 out of 269, Haimerl drops a bomb on the reader, and I wanted to call bullshit on everything she said about community building and saying “hi” to neighbors:
But standing in this party, filled with beautiful people I love, all of whom have the best of hearts and intentions for their lives and this city, I can’t help but notice that we are a gaggle of all-white faces.
These neighbors she’s been writing about the whole book? They’re all white in a city with a population 83% African American. That doesn’t include the 5% of people who identify as Hispanic or Latino. Which means the percentage of white people is tiny. And she just happened to find a white community? Why keep this from the reader until the end? I think Haimerl isn’t being terribly honest with herself — or her readers. Perhaps the book should have been called Dear White Guilt: Neener, Neener, Neener, I Can’t Hear You.