In 2014, I won a writing competition where the award was a newly renovated home in Detroit. In the years following my move, the now-defunct program also awarded two nonfiction writers houses in my neighborhood, Liana Agahjanian and Anne Elizabeth Moore. The opening pages of Anne’s memoir Gentrifier recollect the day she moved to Detroit, when it was also announced on a local television station that the organization responsible for bringing us to Detroit would finally be awarding a house to a born and raised Detroiter, Nandi Comer.
The appearance of my full name on the second page of the book threw any semblance of impartiality out the window. In a way, I was happy to be disabused of the notion that I could have engaged objectively so soon into reading it. In the end, I tried my level best to ask the questions I, an author and reader from Detroit, would want to know.
CASEY ROCHETEAU: How are the Catskills? There’s a part of me that wondered why didn’t you name the book from Catroit to the Catskills. I mean, I know why you didn’t name it that, it’s a terrible title, but I’m just saying…
ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: But I can answer it: because I didn’t land in the Catskills until after the title was set. The Catskills are cool! I do have a guest room, FYI, that you’re welcome to at any time. It’s a completely amazing experience to look out my window every single day and just see, like, trees, mountains, and land. You know, my window in Detroit, the only thing that I had that approached a view was out my back window. There was a, like a teeny little—I mean, it was this big [holds up hands about a foot apart] and at certain times of the day you could see through it to the buildings behind me and a little bit of sky, but the sun was setting over here [points to the left] and it rose over here [points to the right]. I would stare out that teeny little window and just think, I can’t even imagine the world right now. It’s remote to me. So that is an amazing thing, to be able to see something vastly different.
CR: Is it… do you live in a small town? Like how tiny is the town?
AEM: It’s amazing. There are fewer than 500 people in this village. It’s not even big enough to be a town! And there are seven independent bookstores. It’s a 68-to-1 people to bookstore ratio. We could all technically fit inside of the bookstores if we really needed to. And this village is home to the world’s largest producer of oxycodone. Oh. And we abolished the police several years ago.
CR: That’s amazing. That’s easier to do when there’s less than 500 people.
AEM: It has a little bit to do with the fact that there are plenty of law enforcement people that retire here. So I think there’s the sense also that we don’t actually need a uniformed force since there’s sort of enough people that do that already, that see the world in a law-enforcement way, but it is a really interesting in terms of what it really means at the end of the day to not have a police force.
CR: I can only imagine.
AEM: There’s nobody to call if something does go wrong, so you use this totally different part of your brain that’s like, “okay, but what is the problem here really? And how do I navigate it?” Totally fascinating. And of course the ever-presence of opioids shifts the dynamic pretty drastically. So it is a little bit like… it’s not entirely clear what the limits of human behavior might be since literally out my studio window 8,500 oxycodone pills are being pressed every single minute.
CR: That’s too much. Why?
AEM: It’s too much. It’s too much for anything!
CR: That’s so wild. You know, there’s so much to compute there that I can’t picture this. It’s so deeply…in the way that I feel like Americanness is defined by the number of weird conflicts or complexity a single space can contain, that feels very deeply American to me.
AEM: Completely. So I’ve gotten questions like, “why would you move from Detroit to this completely opposite situation?” There’s a lot of white folks here, and the landscape is completely different and the social issues are distinct even though there is a similar level of poverty. And it’s like, “well, it’s exactly as weird in totally different ways that are not yet worrying to me, or that I haven’t thought through yet.” I completely agree that there is something distilled about Americanness that happens when all these weird conflagrations get jammed together in this teeny tiny space. And then everyone walks around and they still have regular lives, walking their dogs and stuff.
CR: So obviously as I was reading your book (which is a very fast read) but there’s so much, obviously, that I relate to specifically. I’m one of two other people, with a very specific experience that maps onto yours, and I was thinking about when you describe the sheer number of reporters and outsiders we were asked to entertain as part of this program. I was remembering, there was a French reporter who said that the idea of picking up and moving to a place that you didn’t know much about was, to him, such a specifically American idea. Like the idea that you would just like move your life and not know what’s going to happen next. It’s just like, it’s not a thing that other cultures do. And I was just like, wow, is that true? I don’t know. I’ve never been able to parse it…
AEM: For sure. I spent a fair amount of time in Europe, and then also in Cambodia, and in neither of those places does the project of picking up and moving someplace simply because make any sense. I mean, you and I—well, let me back up for a second.
It’s such a relief and also fascinating to hear that you saw something of your own experience in this book. It’s completely true that I don’t think very many people in the world have had this kind of experience, much less this actual experience. One of the projects of trying to write this book for me was about trying to frame my story in a way in which other stories were possible, particularly yours and Liana’s and Nandi’s.
It was important that I be really aware the entire time that maybe there were things that were gonna match up to what you experienced but some things wouldn’t align. As a journalist, it was hard to figure out how to construct a text where I’m not actually the expert. How do I make a story that doesn’t attempt to be the definitive story about something? What we experienced was also pretty weird in terms of—we kind of picked up and moved because we were, or at least I was, compelled by the project of it, by the idea that we were trying to do something overtly literary that would support certain kinds of activities that hadn’t found a ton of support in this location previously. So it looks on paper like we just picked up and were told, “here’s a house, do whatever.” When my experience was more like, “oh no, there’s a thing that I’m doing, it’s just not evident to very many people.” And then the more quickly that thing disappeared, the more I was like, okay, what am I doing now? This is actually pretty unthinkable, and for good reason, to most of the world.
CR: So what was interesting for me was there are moments where I really readily identified with your experience. I mean, so much of it too, is that we lived in the same neighborhood. That also, I think, shapes a very particular experience of living in Detroit, but there were so many things too, where your experience was vastly different from mine. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but part of it was that I was the first, so there was like literally more infrastructure within the organization when I showed up. So they really made a concerted effort to connect me to folks in a way that you didn’t have, because when you came in, it was like, the Titanic had just hit the iceberg. And then also, I mean, there is just a racial element to it, you know what I mean? I think it was easier for me to move into certain spaces.
AEM: Definitely. I also think that there are certain spaces that I—that it was easier for me to move into, but in many cases, those were not spaces that I was comfortable.
CR: Yeah. I think you’re right. I think that’s one thing because I think central to the book is this feeling of isolation and alienation and at the same time, but at the same time, you were very much enmeshed in your neighborhood. Your neighbors are so present in the book and in a lot of ways, I’m just like, oh, this is hilarious, because that’s the part that I really recognize. That’s exactly what the neighborhood is like, it’s random kids connecting to you in these ways, and them finding out stuff about you on the internet, and then eventually you connect to their parents, their older siblings. It’s very that. What I didn’t see as much of is what you didn’t put on blast the…what I think is a thing that happens, not just in the writing community, but in the arts community where white folks create enclaves in this city in a way that is terrifying to me. And they don’t even recognize that that’s what they’re doing. I think that’s what it is that is frightening.
AEM: That’s fair. And, the organization we were involved in was not attempting to be a white space at all, but it did operate at an echelon in which, especially at the funding level, whiteness was key. So you’re not really accusing me of this, but it would be fair to accuse me if you wanted to, of kind of turning a blind eye to that stuff, because it is atrocious, you’re completely right. But there were a couple things in writing this book that I felt like I would have to have stayed there in order to tackle. And that was one of them. Projects that are sort of about longterm neighborhood health and vitality. What specific communities in Detroit require and should resist. I felt like I wasn’t the right person to be like, “look, this weird new gallery is fucking strange.” So I had to navigate that question of, what I am willing to speak to after the book comes out. I don’t know. Maybe it was a bad decision, but you’re completely right. That deserves way more attention. And in some ways, all of that stuff that was happening in Detroit in 2014 and 2015 was about trying to turn the city into arts central. That involved a lot of white people trying to turn their visibility to advantage but still in a colonialist way. And it fucking failed. It was a disaster.
CR: It’s very odd because there’s so much about the book that feels accurate, right? Like I think you, one of the things that I really appreciated was the way that you see the dysfunction of infrastructure in Detroit, and it’s only getting worse with climate change. That’s not a question, I’m just saying that I feel like you captured that really well.
AEM: Thank you. There’s a level at which I can take that stuff in as a person who moves through the world and thinks certain things are funny. You can add those moments to your list of, like, wacky experiences that happened last week, or whatever. But there’s also this level of…once I was in Cambodia and I was trying to go to this province and interview this guy and about an hour into our four hour bus ride, we had to pull off to the side of the road and wait because the king decided he might want to use the road we were on. So we had to sit next to the road for eight hours until the king decided he wasn’t going to go out after all. It was ridiculous.
But it really did mess up my day and my interview, and therefore my work, so also my, you know, financial security, and therefore like my plans for the week and the month and the year. And so it was one of those things that you tell as a funny story, but while you’re telling it you’re thinking, okay, but what you don’t realize is that not being able to use the road for eight hours, or in Detroit, not having access to the internet for two weeks or whatever it is, is a massive stressor. And if that were the only one, the only stressor, maybe it would be fine, but the fact that I might also get an inexplicable $400 water bill and have no recourse to correct it, or that the road I live on might be blocked on both sides for weeks with no warning, it’s too much. So yeah, I think in the book it plays as comedy, but that stuff is actually really hard to deal with.
CR: I think sometimes it plays as comedy but the accumulation of it, and then it gets into the more like news-based vignettes where you get a real concrete sense of exactly what’s going on. I have a hard time too, and I think you’ve pointed this out in the book, with the idea that “Detroit is over” or that like publishers don’t want to talk about it anymore, and for the same reasons they’ve stopped talking about the fact that Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water.
AEM: “We wrote that news story years ago, so by definition, it’s not news anymore.” Yeah. And if you write one story about how water issues affect people in Detroit, you’re also completely ignoring how the property tax assessment problem is also affecting those same exact people in Detroit. A story isn’t going to do it anyway. It takes a whole book to try to fit those things into the same narrative to really explain what life in that city is like. That’s fascinating to me, and makes the city kind of a unique place in the world, but tricky to write about.
CR: I can’t speak to the full publishing industry, but there’s an interest in stories like yours or like the $500 house, right, where the publishing world is like, “I would love a white person’s perspective on what it is to move to this city” and to the point where that’s become its own genre of literature. I don’t think of your book as doing the same work as the $500 house book…
AEM: I completely hear what you’re saying. I did ask myself a lot, “should I write this book or not?” for those reasons, but one of the things I thought this book might be able to do was underscore what that genre of literature was really about. I first saw it in the art world, and I remember asking one of the white artists giving a presentation on “their project”—living in Detroit—how they felt about the idea of colonialism, whether they vibed with it or not. Of course they did not, but moving into a space as a white person that is primarily inhabited by folks of color, and lower income folks, and especially immigrant or international communities as a project—that’s, I mean, that’s the project of colonialism. And then of course in literature there’s a strong tradition of white settler colonialist narratives, so that’s seen as an established market. And I guess what I wanted to do in Gentrifier was to point out the ways in which what I was doing conformed to those narratives, how my experience in that house echoed or enacted colonialism, although of course mostly through jokes. And now, you know—no offense to the $500 house guy, but there are shelves where my book is going to sit next to his and, hopefully, situate that whole genre differently.
CR: I guess I’m interested in that part of it, because I think there’s so much in the book that is rooted in your desire to explore how complicit you are in this move. How does the writing of the book…I don’t know if it extends that, or if it helps you navigate it, but what does that feel like for you?
AEM: One great thing that the book does is it gives me a reason to not have to answer the question, “Wow! what was it like to win a free house in Detroit?” I am extremely happy to have answered that in as complete a way as I possibly can. But is it weird that it is also another story by a white person living in Detroit? Absolutely.
CR: I don’t think you need my permission, but I think you absolutely are well within your right to tell your story of what happened when you moved here. There are some moments that I have a hard time with, and I think it’s maybe because our experience has been different here. So for instance, like there’s all these little moments where I think it seems to me like you didn’t have, you weren’t connected with like a strong sense of literary community in this way. And I’m just like, yeah, I, at the same time hosted two different writing retreats with like 50 writers in Boston Edison. I know there is a writing community here that is like vastly undervalued by the publishing world at large, but even undervalued by the publishing world in the city overall. One of the things that I wanted to point out for this interview is I don’t want people to walk away from reading your book, thinking that like Detroit is not, there’s not a readership here. I think even while you were here, for instance, Anne Carson came to a play in our neighborhood, you know what I mean? There’s also this looming cloud of Ann Arbor that like doesn’t get talked about in the book that has much more infrastructure for literary community.
AEM: Yeah, that does get complicated. I ran a whole reading series that didn’t get mentioned in the book. And that was because the series got sort of eaten by the organizations that were supposedly fostering it, and the details of how it ended would have only supported the narrative that of how difficult it was to get literary projects going in the city. But also I come from a certain area of the literary world, or I am comfortable or interested in a certain area of the literary world—that is not rooted in poetry. Not out of disinterest but out of a lack of skill, totally willing to put that out there. And so much of what happens in Detroit’s literary world is rooted in poetry. There were just whole conversations taking place that I couldn’t have participated in because they didn’t come from this like intellectual essayistic nonfiction or journalistically-minded literary history that in many ways sort of runs opposite to the world of poetry. In some ways it doesn’t, all arguments are valid against everything I’m saying, but the thing about writing a memoir is that the plot has to emerge from my personal experience.
To underscore what you said, there are definitely readers—and writers—in Detroit. I went to pretty big lengths in the book to try to talk about the ways that literature seemed not to be supported not out of individual choice, but out of systemic failure. Like libraries not having access to books, which is a budget question. And like the fucking governor straight up saying that people in Michigan don’t have the right to learn to read. I think those things do end up filtering out into a culture in a way that I think accumulates and becomes visible. That’s particularly notable within the literary realm, where there should be funds, and multiple organizations, set up to support the talent that already exists in Detroit.
CR: I think you do a very clear job of attributing it to the infrastructure. You’re not saying people in Detroit don’t read.
AEM: Right, which was not my experience at all actually.
CR: I know what you’re talking about, and I also don’t want it to play into the narrative that outsiders already have of the city, you know?
AEM: There are so many ways that the city does fail, and also there are so many ways that the narrative about Detroit fails the people of the city, and sometimes they compound in extremely uncomfortable ways. I totally get your concern. It’s genuinely not the fault of people who would love to read, who would love to have access to books and have all the libraries open 24/7. But there are specific policy measures and budgeting priorities and bad governances that get in the way of that and that continues to be super frustrating.
CR: So tell me, how you did land on the title?
AEM: What I liked about this title was that it allowed me to take that thing that I was constantly accused of and really think it through more thoroughly. I started writing it about a year before I sent it to my agent, which was well before I knew anything about the effed-up ownership history of the house. So it is only when the history of the house comes to light in the narrative that the title is no longer a joke, or a half-joke. So, for me, taking the title Gentrifier was about a play between “ha ha ha, here’s the word that we toss around and don’t necessarily think through very clearly,” to “here’s what the reality of what that can look like.” It can look like a gift, you know; it can look like a free thing that you want to participate in, an opportunity. Congratulations, now let’s toast the depletion of Black wealth in this country. That’s when I kind of fell in love with the title, to the degree that you can fall in love with an idea that you find abhorrent.
CR: And how did you land on a structure? It is vignettes, but they’re all gathered in chapters that are sort of loosely based around a theme.
AEM: Yeah, actually the craft of this book is the thing I’m most interested in talking about.
CR: Well glad we got into it three hours later!
AEM: We had a lot of other interesting things to talk about! There are a lot of ways to approach an experience like this, which you know better than anyone else, particularly the legal implications of this house, but since my tendency is to go in an investigative journalistic direction, I thought that this story was originally going to be that. I thought “we’re going to look into this legal issue and we’re going to find out about property rights and then we’re going to talk to this person.” That’s a whole book in itself—there’s this whole other story indicated by my book, which is that is that this woman [who once owned the house I lived in] is now owed a lot of money by the city. She might not even know.
And yet, journalism isn’t functioning terribly well and I kept getting told by editors that “nobody wants to hear those stories.” So then it’s like, okay, if we’re not going to tell the stark facts version, then I’m going to tell the silly cocktail-party anecdotes version, and it’s going to seem like a joke most of the time. And then, somewhere in the middle, you’re going to realize it’s not actually all that funny. At some point I felt like, if I can pull that off, then maybe I’ve snuck in a more profound aspect to this story than you might find if you’re just browsing the shelves of books by white people who write about Detroit. My hope is that you’ll get sucked in by the jokes, and then you’ll be like, holy shit, the people who run this city are bananas.