Last week, Bridge Magazine published an article about an artist community in the Grand River Creative Corridor that is being evicted by Allied Media Projects (AMP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to “cultivating media for liberation” and “dismantling supremacist systems as the operate upon us and within us.” AMP’s director said that the group is committed, “in this very difficult and contradiction-wrought situation” to “preserve the history” of the artist community by completing an oral history or mural to commemorate their term in the building. The article generated debate about what gentrification entails and who gets to define and use the term to describe displacement and urban change.

A reporter for the Detroit Free Press expressed frustration with the article on Twitter, calling the writer’s take on the situation “facile” and “salacious” and implying that people who think that an anti-gentrification group like Allied Media Projects could do gentrification don’t really understand what the term means.

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But AMP didn’t just buy a building, they bought a building and evicted a community that had been there for 18 years, after initially telling them that they would set aside space for them. Their own director describes what they’re doing as “gentrification” in the Bridge interview. Many people on social media objected to fact that AMP–which does good, important work in their community–is being held to a much higher standard than your run-of-the-mill condo developers, property speculators, and billionaires (i.e. the groups we normally associate with gentrification in Detroit). But AMP helped set the standard to which they’re now being held, and they seem to be aware of that fact. 

Another artist collective weighed in on the AMP situation on Facebook, placing some responsibility on the displaced artists, saying that if they’d “done their homework” they would have recognized that the long-term plan of the building’s owners was to sell and make a profit. Here the onus is again on the artists/renters to ‘know better’, taking for granted the fact that everything is profit-driven and plan accordingly, instead of questioning why the city has allowed speculators to amass and sit on large numbers of properties (often without maintaining them or even paying property taxes on them) and then sell them from under their tenants for a nice profit whenever it suits them. But even if the artists had recognized their landlords’ motives, would it have enabled them to find somewhere affordable to relocate to? Probably not.

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We see so few examples of equitable development that we tend to fall back on “at least it’s not lofts!” instead of using situations like this, which challenge our ideas about what gentrification is and who does it, to investigate and intervene in the conditions that create displacement and gentrification in the first place. These debates tend to pit community against community, distracting us from the real drivers of inequity. The Bridge article discusses some of these larger contributing factors, including rising rents in parts of the city, property speculation, rising property taxes, and the new drainage fee that dramatically increased water bills. These are all concrete issues that we could be focusing on and addressing instead of arguing with one another on social media about whether or not this or that particular group can really do gentrification.

Detroit’s newly-hired Director of Arts and Culture declined to comment on the situation, and the city is not especially known for its support of artists and creative communities in any official capacity. Mayor Duggan has waged a war against graffiti and mural art that has resulted in over 50 arrests and $1.2 million in fines. The war expanded to involve private property owners who had commissioned murals on their buildings or who had simply created a space for free expression only to be fined by the city. City law requires that property owners submit all building art for city approval, including images of the proposed artwork and the creators’ names. This can make artists whose work might have been legal in one context but not in another vulnerable to having legal action taken against them. Given this history and climate, expecting the city to step up for and protect artists (these particular artists or others) is not realistic.

When AMP says that they want to “remediate the impacts of gentrification”, who are the envisioned/implied participants and beneficiaries of that remediation? What are the realities of attempting to memorialize a community that one is actively displacing/destroying? There was no indication that the artist community would participate in an oral history or do a mural project to grace the new workspace of the organization that evicted them. AMP had opportunities to not displace this community or to at least mitigate the impacts of gentrification, including buying another building or setting aside space for the artists in this one, but they ultimately opted not to do the things that would have made the most difference to the affected community, and they seem willing to take the flak for it.