Media stories pertaining to developments in Detroit constantly toss around the word “gentrification.” Gentrification, which is defined most simply as the restoration of run-down urban areas by the middle class, can often leave low-income residents feeling as if they’ve been carelessly shoved aside. If you take a look around midtown, it’s hard to believe that the low-income population along Woodward Ave has much use for a Starbucks, a Whole Foods, a raw vegan cafe, and a trendy new yoga studio. Around the corner, Wayne State University students have built a middle class haven of newly renovated learning halls, carry out restaurants, and high-security apartment buildings that house a larger population of white teenagers than any other area in the city. It’s no surprise that long-time residents are left to ask themselves “who are these people” and, more importantly “what do they want?”
When leaving the aforementioned trendy yoga studio last week, I overheard a woman telling her friend that midtown isn’t really part of Detroit with all the white people walking around here. I guess it’s hard to cry racism when you’re part of the most historically privileged and statistically advantaged race in the United States, but I can’t deny that it stings to have people use my skin color to overlook my family’s strong connections to the city and my personal desire to immerse myself in Detroit. When expressing these feelings to my supervisor, who has lived in Detroit her entire life, she astutely pointed out that people don’t dislike us as much as they are unfamiliar with us. By us, I specifically mean the Semester in Detroit program; we aren’t a random assortment of middle class white teenagers that want to lounge in Starbucks and study Detroit residents like they’re subjects in a zoo. We’re people who are committed to living and learning in Detroit, and building a relationship with the city that makes it more of a home than a distant memory. So, how do we make a formal introduction?
Maybe it starts with some name dropping. When someone strikes up a conversation, just getting the name out there with a brief “I’m Shannon from the Semester in Detroit program” will help with simple word-of-mouth familiarity. Maybe it takes an open house at the U of M Detroit Center to instigate some solid mingling with residents. People might be skeptical about us, but no one can turn down the promise of free Avalon baked goods and Russel Street Deli coffee, right?! It will also take many semesters of showing our curious and smiling faces at internships, community events, and local venues before people come to recognize us as fellow residents rather than purveyors of gentrification.
My point, though, is that we have to start somewhere when it comes to removing the threat and apprehension that surrounds our presence in the city. In some capacity or another, we’re going to be here for a while. Detroit… meet SiD.