Views From the Sierra Club: Desolation Row and Pleasantville

Can a city exist where there is not a distinct dichotomy: Desolation Row and Pleasantville? I have thought a lot about our conversations surrounding regentrification in Detroit, and the more I do, the more helpless I feel. Here are a few moments that have crossed my mind.

~As of late, I’ve been walking to work, and I’ve noticed that my surroundings are drastically changing as I am crossing over streets. Woodward is eclectic– businessmen in gray suits and young women in ruffled blouses and sandals sit at patio tables outside; women jog casually to morning workout songs, or play music as they bike, with bags from Whole Foods on their handlebars. I’ll change direction for a bit, watching and hearing the Qline whisk passed me carrying more, unfamiliar faces. Sometimes, I stop on my way to work to see if any dogs are at the dog park or pick flowers that bloom near Go! Sy Thai, but if I walk all the way down Woodward and turn right just before the Little Caesars Arena to head over to 2nd Ave, I always forget where I am. It’s like Joy said– it is when home becomes obscured, but the change happened so fast that you can’t put your finger or the what, when or why.

~Some days I’ll be running late, so I skip the scenic route and walk down 2nd. Suddenly, I am encompassed by the mythic city. I see Cass Corridor– dilapidated buildings, garbage (ugh, the smell of garbage) and there is graffiti everywhere. I’m sad, and I’m scared. Many homeless people stay in this neighborhood, watching me backpack my way down unkempt streets under precarious trees, and I am reminded of stories about how drugs and violence used to riddle this part of the city. It was when Midtown was less hipster and more criminal– only a decade or two ago.

When I make it to the Sierra Club, and sit down at my desk, having a moment to think over everything, I am overwhelmed with sadness. I’d just walked from the other side of town. I know that sometime soon those groups of people will be displaced. We can’t have homeless people lining the streets so close to the newly established slices of development; how will the businessmen enjoy their brunch– the women comfortably jog– the preppy U-M interns feel safe making their way to work at the Sierra Club?

And therein lies the rub.

See, I don’t feel helpless because there is nothing to do, I feel helpless because there is SO much to do. Few people outside of the Detroiters themselves are disillusioned by the propaganda assault that Detroit is “coming back”–” taking off”–“being rescued from ugly public relations and poor leadership”. They either don’t see or don’t care to see the casualties of the process of gentrification. They won’t ever tour what misery lies just a few streets over. Therefore, A LOT must be done to change this cultural mindset of morality.

But for those few people (for those of us) willing and capable of being understanding to others’ perspectives, I’ll tell you how to fix gentrification, though I am sure you won’t like the answer: educate. Enlighten people on the pejorative, racist nature of gentrification– how it subjugates people; remind them that the city is not just grass and roads, street and dirt: it’s people; do research on candidates, vote intentionally and with good heart, and encourage others to do the same; support local businesses and, if you are from Detroit, find ways to give back to your community. Not every social justice warrior would label herself as such– I surely would not. But I intend to do whatever I can to give agency back to us residents. You know what? I think I’m off to a damn good start.

One thought on “Views From the Sierra Club: Desolation Row and Pleasantville

  • August 28, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    Hi Peggy! My name is Jake Albers with the Opportunity Hub. I have read your blogs from the summer and want to provide a little feedback on your experience. Thank you for sharing over the course of your internship.

    First off, it sounds like you performed some amazing work with the Sierra Club. I had no idea that the organization undertook research centered on the impact of environmental conditions can have on incarceration. It is also great to hear that you have a chance to be a part of the internal plans for building a sense of community within the organization.

    Week two looks like it provided you with some flex time; but also challenged you to work independently and set your own deadlines. This is a great practice to master as you will be faced with similar circumstances as you move into your professional life. I am glad to hear that you were able to attend the AMC in Detroit to learn and network with people within the ecosystem. Even happier to hear that you had fun!

    Indeed you have a great opportunity to examine the school to prison pipeline through soil testing. Poor environmental quality is an unfortunate reality for many people in urban areas, particularly those right in our backyard in within SW Detroit. Hopefully your research can provide the evidence necessary to effect meaningful policy to help not only Detroiters but those affected by poor environmental factors all over the world.

    Thank you for sharing your frustration with the lack of movement made by policy-makers toward improving environmental factors. You have found yourself at an important crossroad as research intersects with policy. It is sad to acknowledge that quite often, even when presented by clear evidence, our policy-makers lack capacity to drive real change. Budgets, organizational capacity, and other barriers can get in the way of important efforts. I am glad to hear that this experience has only served to strengthen your interest in social justice. The project you mentioned in week 5 is further evidence of your commitment!

    I was struck by your final reflection. Thank you for taking the time to share with me the moments that had the most impact on you during your time in Detroit. You touched on such a big issue in Detroit — gentrification. All too often people inside and outside of the city are presented one narrative of Detroit (comeback) without even having to consider the lives of people in surrounding neighborhoods. I know that you feel overwhelmed at the scale of progress still to me made in Detroit; but try to remember that every year there are more people like yourself, leveraging your passion and intellect to make a social impact on lives in the city and all over the world. I hope that your experience this summer has challenged you, expanded your horizons, and helped you to consider what a meaningful career may look like. Thanks again for sharing and have a great year. – Jake


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