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Two Detroits

As my city continues to wrestle with a “new” and “old” Detroit, downtown/midtown versus every other neighborhood, Black versus White, “is it really gentrification if people aren’t displaced?”– people who look like me are literally “displaced” from the conversation. I first heard the term ‘psychological gentrification’ from George N’Namdi of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art just over a month ago at the Michigan Citizen’s “Two Detroits? Gentrification?” forum. As George eloquently shared, the future of the city does not include images that look like him or me, while subtitles of Detroit’s narrative point to folks who look like us as responsible for the city’s demise. To me, psychological gentrification is the first step in a shifting narrative of who belongs, who is responsible for past, and who will shape our future.

I am a 34-year-old African American woman who has lived in the city for 10 years. I came here by choice and have the privilege, accountability, and responsibility associated with my choice. My personal mantra is to ensure that the world I touch is a better place for the children who will grow up in it. I am committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity in my work and play. And I straddle the “Two Detroits” most visibly as part of an interracial relationship and the narrowly constructed bookend black-white conversation. Many of the images of the city’s futures show young vibrant couples walking dogs who all happen to not look a thing like me, but almost always, reflect my partner who is white.

Most recently I have been following the Facebook invite and comments on how the Detroit Artist Market (DAM) has an upcoming 313 contemporary art exhibition featuring nine artists. One line from the show’s description states the, “exhibition is filled with uplifting images that touch on a variety of Detroit-centric themes, including car culture, immigration and diversity, urban agriculture, and notable city architecture.” There are no African American artist featured in the exhibition in a city that is majority African American. There are artist of color featured in the show (2 out of nine). African Americans participated in the selection of the exhibition. And, African Americans are presented as visual images within the show. African Americans, however, are not curators of the any of the images displayed.

And by curators, I mean African Americans are not the literal and physical voices behind any of the uplifting images. The absence of African Americans artist from the curation is a subtle oversight, a micro aggression (death by a thousand cuts), that “uplifting images” are not created by people who look like me in this city. Erasing African Americans from our visuals and muting their voices is a short step to a gentrification defined by physical displacement.

So while we battle with gentrification and ensuring an equitable, vibrant Detroit for all its’ residents, we have a responsibility to ensure that psychological gentrification isn’t the first step on a slippery slope.

And, that our curation of what Detroit has been, is, and will be, isn’t at the detriment of what people who look like me have already built and are building.

The 313 art exhibition is now open. I was fortunate to have had a great and reflective conversation with DAM’s new director who has committed himself to the “big picture” and putting a strategic plan in place so that exhibitions reflect the diverse experience of our city. Additionally, he easily “laundry listed” the names of African American artists who have been included and had exhibitions at the DAM. He also shared it was “too late” to change any part of the 313 art exhibition. I can’t afford for the same to be true of our city.

Laura Hughes
Laura Hughes is a Program Officer at the Skillman Foundation in Detroit. In this capacity, Laura leads strategic planning for a youth development portfolio designed to increase high school graduation rates, work readiness, and college access. This program includes supporting the leadership of a network of 150 youth development providers, and building public support for a citywide youth development system. In addition, she serves on the foundation’s community leadership and change making teams. Prior to joining the Foundation, Laura served as the Executive Director of the Ruth Ellis Center, which addresses the needs of more than 4,000 homeless and runaway LGBTQ youth each year. Laura, her partner Marc, two dogs, and two cats reside in Corktown.