Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bicycle rides, race, and gentrification

My boyfriend is starting medical school at Wayne State, because he's awesome like that, and it means that I get to spend more time in Detroit visiting his apartment and meeting his friends. Since I really like Detroit, this is a win/win situation. He recently invited me to join his classmates on a bicycle tour of the city. Since I also really like bicycles, this seemed like a good plan. I managed to stuff my bike into a tiny Ford Focus and zoomed down the freeway towards the riverfront.

(Actually, I stopped zooming before I reached the riverfront, because being totally clueless about sports, I neglected to take into account the Tigers game traffic. Driving in downtown Detroit that day was actually worse than driving in southern Manhattan. Really. I've done both.)

But in any case I got there, extracted my bike, tried my best to pass as a medical student (Ah yes, the hemoglobularpsychoticosis syndrome, very common), and took off with the pack towards the Dequindre Cut (it's Dee-kwin-der, all ye non-locals, and the Cut is a stretch of old rail converted to walking/biking path). Everything is peachy. We gaze at the sanctioned graffiti and look suspiciously at the dark clouds in the distance.

We wander on down to Eastern Market and everything is fine, but then our tour guide decides to show us his friends' urban farm, and starts to take us on the back roads of the East Side. Almost everyone in our group is white and most are from Oakland County suburbs. As the houses become more scarce and the main road fades into the distance behind us and a group of wild dogs tries to chase us but luckily is not fast enough to keep up with our mighty calves, I wonder just how unwelcome we are in the places we're riding through. Do we look like ruin porn tourists? Clueless college kids? Or just random oddities?

The funny thing is, we did get a lot of attention, but not the sort you might expect. People waved at us. Like, frequently. Like, by the end of the bike ride I felt like a local beauty queen riding in the Labor Day parade float. Old folks sitting on their porches called out, kids on the street counted us as we rode by, cars passing honked and drivers gave us thumbs-up. It was incredible. My boyfriend was skeptical. Are people making fun of us? And maybe they were. But I didn't really care.

I think it's morally neutral to ride one's bicycle around a city, although it's good to be conscious of the race and class issues that it might bring up. Be respectful, be honest, be humble. In the conversations about gentrification in general and demographic change in parts of Detroit, the same guidelines apply. I read the Detroit News column about anti-hipster graffiti in Southwest. And while I don't support intimidation to get a certain group of people out of a neighborhood, I understand the resentment, especially when the first hipster interviewed implied that he and his co-hipsters were making the only significant improvements to the neighborhood.

Inequality is something we have to think about, but it's not just something that hipsters moving into Midtown have to think about. It's something everyone who lives or works in this region has to think about. The egregious divide between classes and races in Metro Detroit becomes more visible when it's juxtaposed in the central city, and it carries the additional concern of displacement, of pushing people out. But let's not forget that in large part the region's inequality comes from pushing people in. Ghettos emerged because black people weren't allowed to live anywhere else. This is the legacy of our region, and we all have to deal with it - you can't hide from it by staying safe and cozy in the suburbs. We need to see these problems as regional. We won't get anywhere until we address them as a region.

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