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"Gentrification in Progress" banner in Detroit by artist Ann Lewis
Courtesy Ann Lewis. Artist Ann Lewis put a banner and caution tape reading “Gentrification in Progress” on a building in the Detroit neighborhood of Eastern Market owned by controversial developer Sanford Nelson.

“I didn’t come in with New York guns blazing, usurping resources and opportunities. I sat quietly, listened and knew it was not my place to say a damn thing.”

Saturday morning, neon yellow caution tape reading “GENTRIFICATION IN PROGRESS” covered three Eastern Market storefronts in a building owned by embattled developer Sanford Nelson. A giant banner with the same message was hung from the roof. Not for long — all the signs, installed by artist Ann Lewis, were taken down within a few hours.
But the symbolism has plenty of staying power, as Nelson’s practices as a landlord are scrutinized. He’s bought 20 properties in the neighborhood, and complaints that he’s raised rents and pushed out tenants came to a head with the announcement that Russell Street Deli would leave after the owners’ dispute with Nelson over money.

Lewis moved to Detroit a couple years ago; previously, she lived in New York City, where her work tackled similar issues around development and gentrification. But the influx of mostly white newcomers and New York artists has been a concern among Detroiters who worry about rising displacement and wonder why long-time residents don’t receive the same attention and resources.

Lewis took the time to explain the work, part of her project “Define Progress,” and how she approaches the tension between her role as a newcomer to Detroit and her experience as an artist committed to fighting gentrification.

I completely get why people may respond negatively to someone who wasn’t born and raised here discussing gentrification. I’ve lived here for two-and-a-half years and have spent that entire time listening, observing and learning about Detroit, who Detroiters are, what is important to them and why the city is the way that it is. I didn’t come in with New York guns blazing, usurping resources and opportunities. I sat quietly, listened and knew it was not my place to say a damn thing.

I even watched the Nelson situation develop in Eastern Market for months. I wanted to act, but really recognized I needed to fully understand the situation before responding.

People can paint “transplants” with a broad brush, but we’re not all gentrifiers, many of us want to integrate into the community — which, to be honest, is super hard in Detroit, especially the art world. It’s not incredibly welcoming for newcomers past the friendly “hellos” on the street, and after a few years, I get why, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve realized that it takes time to be accepted no matter where you move, especially as an adult, which is why I waited so long to do anything that made waves. It’s fascinating to be considered a gentrifier when I was so community-focused in NYC and then got here and wasn’t really welcomed into those spaces.

As someone who has been displaced because of gentrification (my whole 28-unit live/work building in Brooklyn was evicted to make way for luxury rentals), I have a genuine understanding of being broke with no steady income to prove I can pay rent consistently while looking for housing. I saw developers destroy the cultural fabric of my neighborhood. One company was so seeped in supremacy that they used the word “colony” to name their development. So when I heard about the onslaught of changes happening in Eastern Market at some point, I had just had enough, because I had seen it all before.

Displacing businesses that have served the community for decades is incongruent with the Detroit I have spent the last two years observing. This town is about community. Full stop. Lifelong residents of this town have endured so much, so they look out for one another. When outsiders come in and buy up a ton of land and properties, and profit off of the hard times Detroit has seen — it doesn’t feel right to anyone. I get that. I get that people might think that’s who I am. Detroiters have no reason to trust me, and I know I have to build that trust. Calling out situations like this is a first step. People may think it’s hypocritical until they get to know me and understand I’ve been having this conversation for years. And it doesn’t matter who says it, injustice is injustice. I believe that if I have the ability to challenge injustice, then it’s my responsibility to do so.

And yes, I understand that change is inevitable. But we have to step forward on a new path as a nation and challenge the status quo that is mutating our amazing cities into corporate, soulless hells. There is such a powerful opportunity to transform our neighborhoods, so the working class and creative communities can thrive. Just bringing in corporate money isn’t going to do it. Putting up luxury rentals is going to do the opposite.

Equitable development needs to be vigorously debated and designed if we want to chip away at the vast chasm of wealth disparity in this country. My greater statement with this body of work “Define Progress” is not so much to call out greedy developers, but to instigate conversations and actions within the community to seek alternative, equitable and sustainable paths forward. Because the last thing I want to see is Detroit become another New York City.

In New York, it felt like a losing battle. There was no way I was going to change anything within the epicenter of U.S. capitalism. Detroit feels different: developers are constantly being called out, people are pissed and it’s small enough that those voices can be heard. So why not use my work to amplify that discussion and bring developers to the table to reconsider how they run their businesses? Maybe we won’t change their minds, but on the off-chance that we can, then any backlash from being from NYC and talking about gentrification is absolutely worth it.

Ann Lewis owns a home in Detroit. You might have seen her work in Eastern Market previously — last year, she created a piece about voting for Murals in the Market, with ACLU of Michigan organizers on-site registering people to vote while she painted.

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