gentrification with a capital G — Matthew

Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out of the Temple, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. He told the dove merchants, “Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall! — John 2:15–16, The Message

We have lived in Pingree Park on Detroit’s eastside for exactly one week. Our street is in a neighborhood, so we’ve heard from neighbors, was once predominantly Italian-American, but for the last 50–60 years has been primarily African-American. There are a few other families and couples with skin the same color as ours, but it is definitely a neighborhood of mostly brown-skinned people.

In these seven days, we have experienced significant hospitality from individuals of all the skin tones here. Some of them are Christian, some of them are not Christian, all of them have a significant stake in the ongoing story of Detroit. Before I unpacked my tools, a neighbor across the street lent me his hammer and some screwdrivers; a mother of four learned I tried to eat mostly gluten-free and baked us a peach cobbler coffee-cake; we were allowed to be judges in a pogo-stick competition, twice; the mailman has cracked some jokes to test us, I think (especially when he watched us witness a neighborhood fight breakout while our moving pod was being unpacked); the movers who helped us couldn’t deliver my piano, so they personally made sure it was cared for and brought it back a few days later. Did I mention that two of them grew up in this neighborhood? Several neighbors have invited us onto their porch where we’ve talked history and racism and hope and Jesus. Sometimes we’ve talked about the smoker out of which they sell ribs on the sidewalk on certain days. Older residents have told us they will watch out for our girls and might even yell at them if they start to cross the street without us (we do get cars going 90 down our street from time to time as a cut through between Mack and Gratiot). Moms have offered to watch our youngest while Darcie (the woman who agreed to marry me and still finds that to be a good idea) and I go off on job prospects. 7 days. As I’m writing this, I feel like I’m forgetting something…..

Oh, right, I haven’t said that the house we are living in for the better part of this year has been arranged by members of a church that is focused on intentional community empowerment. They have a deep commitment to multi-cultural and multi-classed shared living in a very local sense. That’s the best way I can describe it. They have a vision, and have graciously allowed us to step into their vision for now.

Another way to say this: we are standing on sacred ground. There is love and lament here. I just heard distant gunshots right as I typed that. I just learned of neighbors taking care of mothers and fathers in their childhood homes because years of inadequate health care has caused all kinds of complications. Neighbors are interested in knowing one another and reaching out. This street has a holy history. I am humbled to be welcomed, at least in this first week.

When we first felt the tug to move Eastward to Detroit, we were very inspired by a street in between New Center and the Boston-Edison neighborhoods, about 10 minutes from here, where some friends we consider family relocated 4 years ago. They moved from Los Angeles, and have been sending dispatch all these years about the hope and gritty healing of Detroit. In our imaginations we thought we would live on that street with them. That street also feels holy, so much that I had a dream where I was expected to remove my shoes when I walked down their sidewalks.

But God had a different starting point in mind. Not to say we didn’t try.

Enter “Dusty.” I’ll call him that because that was the first word he said to me as he reached his pink-skinned hand out to shake mine. He was referring to the plaster caked into his skin as he is a “very busy guy.” Dusty’s wife had been a reference from our friends on the street of our original plan when we realized that we were not yet in a position to buy.

Dusty was eager to show off his work in the apartment down the street from our Los Angelean friends, along with another property around the corner. Dusty was putting in all kinds of new-fangled upgrades. Dusty was a long-winded salesperson, mostly emphasizing the pride of his work. Dusty is from Nashville. He still actually lives in Nashville, but he kept slipping in that he was telling Detroit that his “address” was one of his Detroit properties because it made it appear that he was an actual resident of Michigan and that helped him qualify for certain tax-breaks and benefits. Dusty kept emphasizing how “nice” this apartment was for family “like us.” Dusty was not friendly to the brown-skinned neighbors who lived directly next door. Dusty actually called my friend Billy a “buffoon,” once.

Dusty owns 40 properties. Dusty is hoodwinking the city for his own benefit. Dusty is rude to people who don’t look like him. Dusty is flipping properties and has plans to sell them for roughly 3 times what he paid.

I actually walked away from him mid-sentence (partially because he was never going to stop talking, partially because he was causing my blood to boil. I’ve only written a fraction of all the many statements he was firing at us.)

I thought of the verse I opened with. I wanted to turn over his tables. I wanted to drive him out of the city, a place I very much feel God at work, feel God’s Spirit present. He was taking advantage of the bankruptcy of a city and seeking to amass a fortune to take back to his ranch in Nashville. Where he has 20 horses, by the way.

We couldn’t rent from this guy.

I’m still not sure I know what we’re doing, but it was clear that I did not want a dime of our money to go into Dusty’s fortune. I want it to be circulated within the city of Detroit, by the people of Detroit. I know that Dusty will produce property tax revenue and that will, in turn, help the city. But the core question comes down to this: who will it help? Who is seen as the valuable population of Detroit? Is it just for people like me and my family? In Dusty’s math, yes. But shouldn’t Detroit’s upgrade, if that’s what is truly happening, be first for the thousands of families who have weathered, some by choice and some without a choice, the decades of Detroit’s downgrade? The electricians and skilled manufacturers who have struggled to find work within the city limits for awhile. I stood with protestors a few weeks ago, of European, African, and South-American descent, who were asking that the city developers have some balance in regards to hiring local workers instead of just bringing in outside (mostly suburban) labor. More on that effort here at http://www.EquitableDetroit.org

Dusty doesn’t care what the long-term residents of Detroit think about him because his sole mission is to make money off the wave of white people moving in. As one of those white persons moving in, well actually as four of them, this is complicated for us. So complicated, that I should wrestle daily with that tension and welcome that wrestling. I will. But Dusty will not, at least not in his current state of mind, and that to me is one of the most dangerous sides of Whiteousness. Gentrification that focuses on profit for one people group over another.

My favorite album of all time, Under the Pink, was almost titled “god with a capital G.” I can’t find it, but I remember Tori Amos explaining on MTV News, Spin, or Rolling Stone that in her life, she had experienced all of these abusively greedy white pastors who hadn’t come to terms with their own god-complexes. I may have added the “white” piece, as Tori was clearly going after the dominating tendencies of patriarchal power, but then again, I know many of the same people she writes about. Not to say there aren’t black pastors who have preyed upon their congregations, as power can do all kinds of things to every single person. But in my life, I have seen white power get away with all kinds of things…

It was uncanny to me, then, that the song “God” from Under the Pink should be played on the radio later that day, 22 years after it was released. I couldn’t help but imagine Dusty as the “god” character in this song, making it rain, making decisions about who gets blessings and who gets punishment. And the “her” in the song is the city of Detroit, or more pointedly, the people of Detroit. See how it hits you.

god sometimes you just don’t come through

god sometimes you just don’t come through

do you need a woman to look after you

god sometimes you just don’t come through

you make pretty daisies, pretty daisies love

I’ve gotta find find find what you’re doing about things, here

a few witches burning gets a little toasty, here

I gotta find find find why you always go when the wind blows

god sometimes you just don’t come through

god sometimes you just don’t come through, babe

god, by Tori Amos

do you need a woman to look after you

god sometimes you just don’t come through

well, tell me you’re crazy maybe then I’ll understand

(come down and tell me what you mean, now)

you got your 9 iron in the back seat just in case

heard you’ve gone south well, babe, you love your new 4 wheel

(hey, now, what do you know, what do you know)

I gotta find why you always go when the wind blows

“Give not thy strength unto women nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings”

will you even tell her if you decide to make the sky fall?

will you even tell her if you decide to make the sky?

Under my pink skin I’m also pink, just like every single one of my neighbors. Under our pink, we all have bones and a heart. And we are all precious to our Creator, to our Savior, and to the Spirit that binds each and everyone one us in a sacred community. Taking advantage of others is something that turns my pink into red, and I need the hospitality of this neighborhood to help me chill it out.

peace by peace by peace,

@matthewjschmitt

+Matthew John Schmitt

www.TheTableSetters.com