‘Gentrifier’ Asks Tough Questions Wrapped in Cozy Experiences

It’s a common fairy-tale trope, the magical boon that comes with untold strings. It’s less common as a theme in a memoir, but that’s ultimately where Anne Elizabeth Moore goes in her latest, Gentrifier.

The Moore’s case, the gift is a house in Detroit, with the deed signed over to her free and clear after living there and following a few conditions for two years. The organization acting as witch or fairy godmother is one whose stated purpose is to revitalize Detroit and entice writers to come and work in the struggling city. Moore is one of four writers chosen for the free homes, and she moves in with her two cats. Surrounded by primarily Bengali immigrants, Moore’s ways seem strange to her neighbors, starting with the fact that she is unmarried, unencumbered by children, and unbothered by both of these things.

To make her house a home, Moore puts in long hours in her yard, turning it from a lawless jungle to a flourishing Eden. She also tries to use her status as a professional writer, and as a writing teacher, to enhance the literary community in Detroit. But she finds unexpected struggles, too. The conditions of the free-house agreement require that she spend a specific number of days within city limits, making it hard for her to take jobs that would make her have to travel or stay elsewhere for any length of time. The conditions also mean she essentially has to be on-call for speaking engagements and interviews about the organization’s work. Still, life with a free house is more or less thought provoking but pleasant—until, quite suddenly, it isn’t.

The cover of Gentrifier, featuring a modest bungalow with slices showing a run-down version and a fixed-up version. White, drawn lines represent an overgrown yard against a deep green background.
Where is the line between improvement and gentrification? Anne Elisabeth Moore wishes she knew.

Throughout Gentrifier, Moore frets about whether or not, and to what extent, she fits the book’s title. On the one hand, she is a white, cis-gender woman who has been given a house. On the other, the strings that come attached with that gift mean that she, the bearer of multiple chronic and degenerative diseases, has to decide between hidden house costs and her prescription medication. And while she does look like the kind of middle-class resident that might signal an incoming Starbucks location, the neighborhood continues to lack basic amenities such as sidewalks in good enough shape to shovel during winter, or regular visits from a street sweeper. Still, the perception persists. If her house was going to be demolished, is she gentrifying the neighborhood, or helping to keep it from getting worse? If no one wanted to live where she lives, has she made housing unaffordable for anyone? Whether she is the gentrifier or isn’t, the perception stubbornly remains that the presence of “[her] whiteness” is linked to upward mobility for the neighborhood by many. 

Though Gentrifier is a memoir of Moore’s experience with this free house, it tells the story thematically, rather than linearly. This narrative choice gives us vignettes untethered to the calendar, but free to develop and arc and loop as they see fit. For those bothered by the approach, cause and effect does become clear by the end of the book, when all the vignettes are taken in their totality. I think there’s strength in taking them as they are, though. With the removal of traditional chronology, Gentrifier reminds me a little of Carmen Maria Machado‘s In The Dream House in every good way.

Yet in the last chapters of Gentrifier, chronology returns to upend the understanding of Moore’s experience—both hers and ours. Moore’s decision to move comes on the heels of the organization failing to meet the lofty standards it advertised. Her subsequent efforts to move reveal a much stranger, and sadder, story than she expected to be a part of, and requires her to question her role as a gentrifier in a completely new way. There’s a difference between improvement and gentrification, she has discovered, but where is the line? And what cost is acceptable to reach either?

“It’s all well and good to be given a free house to write in,” she writes. “But when one discovers that the house was acquired by way of several different likely illegal but certainly unethical methods, something about the experience feels so deeply American it sickens.”

It’s only when looking back at Moore’s time living in the free house that you can see the breadcrumbs that ultimately led to that sad place: that while her personal experience was positive, the workings of the larger machine around her amounted to a cost, literal and metaphorical, that might have been far higher than what she would have been willing to pay for it to start with.

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