What everyone remembers about Virginia Woolf’s 1929 lecture-turned-essay “A Room of One’s Own” is the adage that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
At the core of the essay, though, is not advice for individual women but, instead, for society at large. Woolf’s larger thesis is that in considering the subject of “women and fiction,” we must first consider the relationships among gender, money, education, creativity and opportunity.
In her new memoir Gentrifier, Eisner Award-winning culture critic Anne Elizabeth Moore revisits Woolf’s premise, refracting it through the lens of her experience of being awarded a “free” house in Detroit in which to live and write. Write A House, the now-defunct arts organization that gave Moore a bungalow in 2016, cast their mission as revising the concept of writer’s residencies by “giving the writer the residence, forever.”
The residences in question were to be vacant, decrepit houses in Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood, renovated with grant and donor funding. Detroit, which Moore writes was “quite literally shaped by the auto industry,” had been in a long decline since the 1950s, starting with competition from foreign car manufacturers. By the time the city declared bankruptcy and was placed under public management in 2013, the population was less than half of what it had been its heyday, and the city was filled with blight.
In exchange for “a room of one’s own,” the Write A House recipient would, by dint of taking up residence, contribute to growing the city’s literary community. “The project is one of branding,” Moore writes. “By the mid-2010s, the media narrative surrounding Detroit has grown far more dire than the city itself will ever be…the genius of the plan is that it would fundamentally shift the narrative about Detroit by bestowing gifts upon the exact folks who craft narratives for a living.”
In Gentrifier, Moore does craft a narrative about Detroit. Through a series of darkly comic vignettes with epigraphs from Woolf’s essay framing each chapter, she uncovers the city’s incompetent governance. Municipal services cannot be relied upon to function; the school system cannot be relied upon to teach children to read. Greed and cruelty drive water shutoffs that “target poor communities of color but ignore corporations owing millions.” More than a quarter of residents lose their homes to property tax foreclosure. But Moore’s project here is not just to illuminate the city’s chaos and who profits from it. Gentrifier is also an investigation of the costs — monetary, psychological, ethical — of her free house, and an ode to the neighbors who gave her life there inflections of joy.
Gentrifier‘s overarching structure is linear, chronicling Moore’s residence in the house, her brief ownership of it (the contract stipulated that she would receive the deed after two years), and her decision to sell it after she sinks money she does not have into repairs and realizes that she cannot make a living as a writer in Detroit. Each chapter, though, unfolds in nonlinear fragments that combine jokes, facts, and reflections, all in the present tense. We might jump from an anecdote about municipal workers arriving on Moore’s block to clean up a lot in preparation for a community center that will never materialize to the story of a white woman coining the phrase “Say nice things about Detroit” in the 1970s, which she later trademarks. This approach reenacts the exasperating paradoxes of life in the city, giving the feel of a comedy of errors.
As to the title, the question of whether or not Moore sees herself as a gentrifier — a participant in the displacement of earlier residents — is complicated. Early on, Moore acknowledges that being a “a white girl in a Bengali Muslim neighborhood in a majority Black city” looks “colonialist.” But she also reminds us of all the baggage “gentrification” has accumulated, a valid call for nuance that also seems to sidestep the issue: “We have few ways of talking about the nuances of the housing crisis in America, so the term ‘gentrification’ often stands in for larger questions about affordable housing, policies of segregation, the displacement of folks of color, nonexistent safety nets for people in poverty…” This hedging can be chalked up to the fact that Moore initially buys the narrative the organization sells her: that the bungalow had been abandoned for eight years before she came to occupy it, that it would have been demolished, an act that would cost the city money that could otherwise go toward staving off foreclosures. In time, Moore learns the true history — the previous owner was likely the victim of the same tax foreclosure crisis that Moore covered in her graphic journalism for Truthout. The revelation rejiggers the calculus, and Moore is sickened by her complicity in profiting from the foreclosure crisis — an experience she calls “deeply American.”
When Moore decides to leave the house that wasn’t really free or hers and that does not enable her to write, she must also leave behind the Bangladeshi neighbors who have provided her with community and whom she has come to love. The portraits she paints of Nishat and Sadia — two young teenagers with whom she takes “Evening Constitutional” walks and gossips about boys, school, and YouTube celebrities — are tributes to girlhood. But the girls, too, are vexed by the city’s disorder. When Moore asks Sadia what the biggest problem facing Detroit is, she responds by “cataloging regular threats to her health and safety posed by her school” — gas leaks, undrinkable water, a crumbling ceiling.
Moore writes that during her time in Banglatown, she “put every imaginable effort into convincing the young women of Detroit…not only to love and value literature but to wield it as a tool.” She found success with this mission in Cambodia, making zines with the first generation of post-Khmer Rouge female college students, as she chronicled in Cambodia Grrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh. But just as Gentrifier is a potent testament that it takes more than just money and stable space in order to write, it also proves that individual will alone cannot create a culture that values women in literature.
Kristen Martin’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.