I am a lifelong resident of Baltimore, a city that has a fair amount in common with Detroit so I was interested in reading Gentrifier: A Memoir by Anne Elizabeth Moore
I was really disappointed. She presents most of the stories as sort of vignettes without a lot of depth or discussion. This happened, this happened, this happened all broken into thematic sections. It’s not chronological which is fine but it is a little off-putting to read about a cat funeral and then have the cat alive and well in a later section. There was also very little about gentrification or the ethics of it in the book. Most of the book was literally about her house and block.
She complains early on about a street light that the neighborhood had asked the city to repair long before she moves in. They finally take care of it but while she admits that at least it’s a signal the city responds to something the residents want she feels to the need to share that it is too bright and therefore personally annoying to her. This seems insignificant but really sets a tone for a lot of the book. Buy some curtains! Choose a different bedroom! Way to make a systemic issue all about you.
She knows one of the conditions of the house program (she got the house for free if she lived there for two years as a writer) was that she not travel more than 30% of the year then talks about how this means she is unemployed for 8 months because she can’t work because her writing requires travel. Why did she accept the house under those conditions? It’s nonsensical. She spends a lot of time talking about how she gave up so much to move to Detroit for the free house. What did she think she was going to do there? If she can’t write in the house then why accept it? Did she think she had some work she could do and it fell through? She never really explains this.
She moves into the house without a formal inspection and eventually, she finds out that the roof is falling apart and the house isn’t up to code. She knows when she moves in the org removed (!) the steps to her attic because they didn’t have the funds to fix up the attic but this didn’t raise any red flags to her? The organization seems well-meaning but doesn’t seem to do its due diligence which is unfortunate but neither does she. The org should have taken care of the roof themselves but I also feel like she should have done the bare minimum of seeing if the house was safe to live in before she moved in? The roof replacement was expensive and I’m sorry she had to deal with that but homeownership is expensive. How did she think she was going to pay for any of it after the two years were up and she owned the house outright?
She seems interested in her largely Bengali neighbors only on her own terms. She describes how racist they are and how they can’t grasp the word “band” (part of her cat’s name, “Metal Band”) implying that they can’t grasp the concept of a band in nearly every section. We got the point the first time. Despite this, her neighbors seem to genuinely enjoy her. They bring her meals for holidays and even throw her a party when she sells the house and invite her to a family wedding even if she describes it as being “expected” to participate in rather than invited. The neighborhood children take walks with her and even do creative projects with her but she always seems to hold them apart from her. It’s odd because the neighborhood seems incredibly inviting to her, the outsider. They cook food for her cat! But she paints them as sort of mysterious and aloof, she doesn’t even give most of the adults’ names, they are simply “neighbor girl”’s mother or father. The girls in the neighborhood were a real bright spot in this book. I hope she had permission to include so much about them as they were children at the time she lived there.
It’s not just her neighbors she had issues with. I found her repeated disdain for her students who she paints as unable to learn or understand basic concepts and uniformly sexist off-putting. She clearly shares the negative review of her teaching by her university because she feels it was unjust but it included the critique that she should teach the students information that she later tests them on. Did she not do that? Why did only one of her students do the assignment correctly for her art history class? Any teacher (or student) can tell you when the failure is that big it’s not the students, it’s you.
She tells us over and over again that people in Detroit do not read or know anything about books or writing. She makes 100 buttons to give out to anyone who reads and tells us she still has 30 left. She tells us she donates some books to a local school because they don’t have many. She talks about the lack of an arts scene in Detroit which seems off to me but she also doesn’t seem to be interested in contributing to it or actively seeking it out. She does start a reading program of some sort (she doesn’t share the details) but it ends because she says people don’t want to drive to it.
She includes a story about wanting to exchange euros for dollars at her local bank (something that in my limited experience, requires an appointment) to share that the teller had never seen a euro before and thought they were fake money. What was the point? To remind us she travels? To point out how dumb and backward bank workers in Detroit are?
Another story she shares with no comment—She wears a brightly colored paisley dress to the gas station and the man there remarks cheerfully that she “looks like a Pakistani woman” and that she gives him a “look of dismay” that he notices and then he says “I know you are really from Bangladesh”. What? Literally, what is supposed to be our takeaway here?
There is a whole section on her dating life (or lack thereof) where she tells us multiple times that men are constantly asking her out but she is uninterested. Everywhere she goes, it seems, men beg her for dates. I’m not sure why any of this was in the book? It didn’t seem to have much to do with anything. What was the point of including that a woman she knew in Cambodia who picked up one of the books the author wrote that had queer themes let it “seep into her interests” and inform her identity and that she is now married to a woman and heads up an international LGBTQ+ organization. Is she taking credit for this woman’s sexuality, marriage, and career? Relationships and sexuality are, of course, important but she didn’t really connect any of it to the rest of the book (besides the fact that she only chatted with a “source” through a dating app who ultimately didn’t give her the info she wanted) so it didn’t flow or add much value.
Unsurprisingly she decides to sell the house directly after her two years are up and that too is rife with problems. She is the owner but somehow she doesn’t realize the title isn’t clear and then that her name isn’t even on the title until later. Sure she’s a first-time homeowner via a funky program but she’s also as she reminds us regularly a very educated investigative journalist. Why didn’t she at any point do the bare minimum to see if the paperwork was in order or the house was up to code? She doesn’t understand the difference between a deed and a title until she is trying to sell. She was like a very inactive passenger in her own life. She only seems to become interested in the housing crisis in Detroit after she has lived there for two years and it really starts to affect her ability to sell the house while working on a comics project she mentions a fair amount yet without any detail.
The whole book was strange. She didn’t seem to like Detroit and the people she encountered were largely portrayed as stupid, racist, sexist, and uncultured. I’m truly baffled why she moved there, leaving what she calls a good job, which I feel like should have been explicitly addressed at some point. Part of this might be the odd writing style she chose where she presents little stories with little exposition. Then the reader is left with having to parse her word choice and the inclusion of these vignettes for meaning. Unfortunately, none of my conclusions are particularly positive.