Action First: Organizing Against Gentrification in Ypsilanti — Interview with Sarah Schulman

Interview between Sarah Schulman, Amber Fellows, Isaac Levine, and Bryan Foley Conversation transcribed by Karlie Ebersole Intro written by Isaac Levine

Sarah Schulman is an acclaimed activist, novelist and AIDS historian who has written books such as Conflict is Not Abuse and Gentrification of the Mind in addition to being a prominent member and historian of the ACT UP AIDS activism group. In early November Isaac Levine, Amber Fellows, and Bryan Foley were lucky enough to have some time with her for a phone interview about gentrification in Ypsilanti.

While visiting Ypsi for a presentation at EMU, Schulman attended a dinner with Ypsi Mayor Beth Bashert and discussed gentrification. In the phone call, we chatted about that interaction, her impression of the housing situation in Ypsilanti, and the most effective ways to get rent control policy passed. Bryan Foley joins in part-way through the conversation. 

[Sarah begins reviewing her discussion with Mayor Bashert. She recalls that Bashert mentioned that white people are buying houses in Black neighborhoods, and that the Black population is not diminishing in numbers]

Sarah Schulman: …And the question was is that gentrification? And my answer is yes, for a number of reasons. One is that Black communities are cultural arenas and diffusing them is homogenization. But also that Black businesses depend on Black consumers. And I was told that in Ypsilanti, for example, sometimes people do hair in their homes and businesses that are home-based and that requires a geographical community. So yes, that is gentrification.

The next thing we discussed was the question of one building that has different rental rates inside the building which we call here graduated income housing. And the question is: is that gentrification? I would say absolutely yes. What history has shown is that graduated income housing means that businesses that serve poor people go out of business and they become replaced. So you will see, for example, a second-hand refrigerator store will get replaced with a dry-cleaner type of thing. Graduated income housing has not maintained the culture of working-class and poor communities.

And then the third thing that came up was Ypsilanti becoming an easy train stop to Ann Arbor and also to Chicago. And yes, of course, that will gentrify, I mean it makes Ypsilanti more of a bedroom community. 

So that’s clear. So then the question is: well, what would help?

One of the things that would help, obviously there has to be very significant rent control and rent stabilization. You also need to have commercial rent control and also a limit on franchises, so businesses that have three or more outlets should be fined for renting a count. So that would mean a fast-food chain or any kind of chain. And that is an incentive for local businesses to be able to thrive and also it creates differencescultural. So there should be a vacancy sign for people who keep their storefronts empty. I don’t know if you have that yet but that’s something that’s happening around the country.

Isaac: Right. I think the big question that we’re having is this whole homeowners-versus-renters thing. Again you have white people buying houses in the Black community… it means that the Black community is becoming a higher proportion of renters than homeowners. So it seems like changing the nature of property ownership is kind of crucial in ending the process of gentrification, right? 

Sarah: Yeah but it needs to be done in concrete ways that are doable. So for example, fine people who sell houses buy-to-flip rather than buy-to-live… That’s a thing that can happen, where you have a city impose a fine if something is flipped within a certain period of time, for example.

Isaac: Yeah, I agree with you entirely. […] In your work with ACT UP you did a great deal of agitation work to get complacent straight or unaffected people to recognize AIDS, but I think that right now what we’re dealing with is how to get homeowners to recognize that the housing crisis for renters is a very real force and so I’m just wondering if you have any perspective on that.

Sarah: Sure. I would say to go through the list of all the things I just said, all the concrete things and I’m sure you’ve got your own to add to that, and you pick the one that you think is the most winnable and then you run an actual campaign around that one thing and you use that campaign to argue for a larger perspective. It always is more effective to focus on one concrete goal that is winnable, reasonable, and doable, where you have designed the solution and you’re presenting a solution. And then you campaign for it. That’s the best structure in my view. If you have too much stuff people are not gonna understand and if you have one victory you can win more because you’ll be… in running a campaign you’ll be growing your rank and file.

Isaac: Sounds great. That is what a lot of us are attempting to do, and are having critical conversations about. There is a lot of the population that isn’t engaged in these conversations or doesn’t have the requisite knowledge to, or are homeowners that actively protest this sort of conversation. I think it has become the moment when we have to change people’s belief system and get people the information they need to act. 

Sarah: Well, pick your issue that is the most likely to support whatever you think concrete change you think is most viable. And then you just completely are everywhere in that district; you’re where people eat breakfast. You know, you’re everywhere you are constantly talking to people so that everyone who lives there is part of the conversation and you have a vote or a petition that you’re trying to get signed to get something on the ballot.

“The thing about gentrification is that it’s a matter of political will. So for example, if New York City had five-hundred thousand affordable housing units, gentrification would end.”

Amber: Just to jump in, I do think it’s important context that Ypsilanti… seventy percent of the households in Ypsilanti are renter households, so renters are a bigger part of the population here but have such little voice and I think that what you’re speaking to as far as, you know, to work on one project, there’s a lot of potential there just because of how many renters are here compared to the homeowners. Starting that narrative has been a challenge even in the last few years, but it has been happening.

Sarah: Yeah, you can pick the neighborhood or, I don’t know how you guys are divided up but pick where you think you have the best chance because there’s nothing that ignites a movement more than a victory.

Amber: Right. We’ve had a couple, luckily. 

Isaac: … You co-founded New York Experimental and Gay Film Festival (which makes a forum for advancing radical narratives in the queer and gay community)—I’m just wondering: can you imagine what a radical creative forum for housing insecure people would look like? 

Sarah: I mean this is a time when so many different communities are under attack, like everyone is under attack. Right? So I think that this is a time for big tent politics. I think there’s a mistake… I mean I’m just finishing an eight hundred page book on the history of ACT UP in New York, and one of the big reasons that ACT UP was successful was that […] they did not ask for principles of unity beyond one’s line which was direct action to end the AIDS crisis. Anything that was within that was fine. And so I think that right now running a copy campaign will give you a lot of allies across all kinds of lines. Because there’s only one thing that you’re asking people to unite on.

Isaac: Which is to action?

Sarah: Right, and it’s not theoretical. It’s applied. And through that process, you will develop affinities. And from there you can see where you go. You know I think it’s better to… I think that your theory will evolve from your action. You know, don’t go theory first. Go action first. And then see who you can connect with and what their needs are and what ideas they bring and what they want to do and what kind of coalitions or whatever evolve from those experiences together… I think that the days of theorizing coalition is over. It’s not appropriate to the time that we’re living in now.

Isaac: Right, right. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, a lot of our questions are about different tactics but I feel like you just brought up a cool set of them and I like them a lot. Is it alright if I ask you questions about New York?

Sarah: Yeah, sure.

Isaac: You wrote Gentrification of the Mind a few years ago and I’m wondering if your views on the state of gentrification have changed since you wrote it.

Sarah: A lot has happened since then. So I was describing… So I think that book came out in 2012 or 2009 or something like that. But it had been written years before, it took years to get it published. So what I was describing was really the first wave of gentrification which was when organic mixed neighborhoods became homogenized through new businesses and new housing that were aimed at basically like this suburban aesthetic. What’s happened since then is that those businesses actually themselves got gentrified out of existence, because commercial rents went up so high that they were then followed by chain stores. So then we were inundated with Dunkin Donuts and banks and those kinds of things. And then what comes after that is a sort of late-stage gentrification where landlords find that it’s more advantageous to keep the storefronts empty than even to rent to chains. So we have historic neighborhoods like Greenwich Village with blocks and blocks of empty storefronts because people are buying online, right? So storefronts are decorative and cities are not conceptualized as places for people to live. They’re only conceptualized in terms of commerce. So if you look at a map of New York City with every construction that’s been approved, if you look at what it would look like when they’re all built, you see that basically an entire other city has been superimposed on the existing housing stock which has all been seized. And that new city is not designed for public space. It’s only designed for privatization. So they’re not building new schools or hospitals or anything like that. Some of them have heliports… but the apartments, they’re kind of like those drawers in banks where people put their jewels. That’s kind of like what apartments are. People sneak their money into them but they’re not… the future image of the city is not as a place for people to live. Now the thing is, the thing about gentrification is that it’s a matter of political will. So for example, if New York City had 500,000 affordable housing units, gentrification would end. If we had commercial, very strict commercial rent control, so that people could open their own businesses and not have franchises, we would be able to rejuvenate culturally. But it’s a matter of decision.

Isaac: Right, right. So this collective leadership moment where people really make that decision all at once

Sarah: Well, don’t count on that. We’ll see what’s gonna happen. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen.

Amber: Did you have any impressions of Ypsilanti when you visited?

Sarah: Yes, very nice housing stock. It was all brick buildings and everything. I could see it easily being turned into a suburban bedroom community.

Amber: Oh yeah, mhm. In the context of electoral politics—what do you think about, like, is it worth running candidates?

Sarah: Well, I mean the most exciting thing going on in this country right now are these young women of color in Congress. You know, absolutely. You know, that’s why I’m saying don’t approach it theoretically. Approach it practically. You make decisions based on what you think is going to move you forward. And that means that you have to cross lines. You may need to run a candidate for city council at some point or, you know… but you always have to have a grassroots movement because if you rely on the elected official without that pressure then you won’t get anything. You know, you try to play it on as many different levels as possible. As long as it’s actual, as long as it’s a concrete thing that you can organize around.

Amber: Speaking to electoral politics again, what do you make of the rise of Pete Buttigieg in his public standing and the instrumentalization of LGBTQ acceptance in kind of service to the neoliberal audience?

Sarah: That happened a long time ago. I mean, the gay movement… after AIDS it really became a gay rights movement and the gay liberation movement really ended with the AIDS crisis. So this has been going on for a long time. You know, he’s not my candidate but it’s interesting to see… he’s trying to make it be okay. You know he’s a centrist and so that’s not my politics. I mean there are, there’s a lot of gay men who are very sentimental and have emotional attachments to him because they’re having an experience of watching a gay man like themselves being respected and you know it’s a visceral thing but I don’t share that and he’s not my candidate.

Isaac: I like how in Gentrification of the Mind you say, “discomfort is a thing that accountable people experience.” I’m wondering if you’ve had any role models in channeling this discomfort into these heart perceptions and these really really crucial reflections?

Sarah: Well, Sara Ahmed, do you know her work?

Isaac: I don’t.

Sarah: She invented the term the ‘feminist killjoy’ if you’ve ever heard of that. She’s a really really smart writer who’s in England. She wrote a book called “The Purpose of Happiness” and in that book she talked about this idea that some very privileged people have that they have the right to never be uncomfortable and how the only way you could actually be comfortable all the time is if other people are suppressed. And I think I quote her in there. So that was the first time I heard that articulated, so I’ve learned a lot from her.

Amber: We are writing for this local newspaper that we’ve all had a hand in starting—so I don’t know, Sarah, if you’ve had any experience with local reporting but… How can we help fight gentrification as a newspaper, as a community newspaper.

Sarah: Well, you know, you link your newspaper to a movement in a community, right? Because what makes people read a newspaper is that they’re reading about themselves and if you’re writing about things that people are doing that nobody else is covering then you start to build a very engaged readership. So if you are gonna run campaigns, then your paper will be even more relevant as you build the movement around the campaign. What you don’t wanna do is just lecture people, right? It needs to be interactive. I’ve worked on a lot of community newspapers over the years and you know, people who are ignored by the media become very loyal to movement press.

Amber: Appreciate that comment.

Isaac: Yeah

Amber: Yeah. I’m kind of jumping around our list of questions but one of the questions we wrote is just—there’s been this issue of the city cracking down on inspections for rental buildings and there seems to be a sort of back and forth between, on the one hand, sort of like… keeping landlords to account and having their buildings be safe and habitable and then on the other hand, landlords sort of seeing their own improvements to their housing as an excuse to raise the rents and… so I was thinking, where is the sweet spot?

Sarah: Capital improvements, right? Is that what you’re talking about? It’s like, it’s usually something in the lease that if there’s a capital improvement they can raise the rent. It doesn’t sound like the inspection is the problem. It sounds like the lack of rent control is the problem. So I mean I would like to identify every single vulnerable community that you have. People over sixty-two, people on disability… you know, whatever, unemployed people, whatever, and try to get something through your city council that provides rent control for that sector. Start with the most vulnerable communities. Until you have quite a bit of people with rent control. You know, but the first community that you pick should be a community that is a little bit organized, that maybe has their own organizations, so you can work with them and try to build a coalition there. So then if you can’t get total rent control in the city, maybe you can get it in some sectors.

Amber: I think, you know, as far as the conversation, it’s been very fruitful and even learning specific tactics and I really appreciate that. Part of the reason why we’re calling you is because of, you know, we were informed about the conversation you had with the mayor and I know you spoke to some of the things she directly brought up and it sounds like you gave her some very direct advice as well. Was she receptive to the advice or opinions?

Sarah: It was like a back and forth, you know, we were just really talking about ‘what is gentrification?’ I think people are confused somewhat about whatyou know things like graduated income housing, a lot of people think that that’s beneficial. Many communities are fighting for that. And if it’s the only thing you can get, it is beneficial. But long term experience with it shows that it does gentrify and that’s not evident if you don’t have experience with it. […] I mean I don’t know her, I only met her once. But I think with these people with power, you design a concrete solution and you present it to them. I mean this is what Dr. King talked about in his article “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” right? That’s where he lays out his campaign strategy. And he’s like, you become the expert on the issue. You design the solution. You present the fully functional solution to the powers that be. Then, when they refuse you, then you do nonviolent civil disobedience. You wanna have the ethical upper hand at every point. You want to show that you’ve done the work, you know all the issues, you have all the statistics, you know all the budgets. You’ve come up with something that actually would work. You can show the flowchart. Then, if they say no, it’s so much easier to build a campaign.

Amber: It does take a lot of work, too, and maybe some capital and definitely support and resources and mutual aid.

Sarah: Well, if you’re connected to the university, you don’t need capital to do that. You just need activists who are involved and who have a policy bent. You know, if you’re connected to the university, and I don’t know the situation there, but if you can get graduate students or people who crunch numbers or… because you wanna know what it is you’re fighting for. I mean, ACT UP, people came in and they didn’t know anything and they became science experts and they started telling the government how to reorganize their clinical trials… And these are just like regular guys. They did the work and learned it. 

Amber: I guess my comment was more towards a lot of the activists that we are working with are very low-income to no income and don’t have sometimes resources or even like the executive functioning capacity to do this stuff…

Sarah: Yeah, but that’s always the case. You know, not everybody has to do the work but if people, especially people who don’t have time and don’t have resources, you wanna present something to them that’s real. I mean it’s part of the labor of building movements. It’s part of the responsibility. It’s concretizing your vision.

“Cities are not conceptualized as places for people to live.”

Amber: Thank you so much… Alright, I’m gonna add Bryan [Foley] right now. One moment.

Bryan: I really wish I could’ve been in on the dialogue on the discussion to hear what has been prior said. Like I said, I apologize, I had a prearranged engagement with My Brother’s Keeper which is very important but… I just wanted to, you know, if I had any dialogue I could offer…

Amber: We were speaking about different strategies as far as working with the mayor and, you know, Sarah has only met the mayor one time but I was asking about her impressions of the mayor and… One thing, Sarah, is that we were informed to some very specific comments that the mayor made about the activism and the pushback against some of her policies, that the mayor said that everyone’s, say, either a college student that’s not really housing insecure or that Black leaders in Ypsilanti are “fake Black leaders.” Is that what the mayor said?

Sarah: That is what she said. We had a candid conversation and I tried to explain to her what I feel and she sought me out and I told her. [Sarah reviews the discussion so far for Bryan]

Bryan: And I want to thank you for sharing that because I respect that that’s a very viable and doable thing and fortunately, Amber, Desiraé, Brian, and there’s a few other people including myself, we have been very active in bringing that awareness to our community and we’re organizing and […] to watch them actually do the groundwork and do a thing… I’m very amazed and touched with what they’re doing. And then they’re actually doing some things, they really are and I’m just really, a little pissed that Amber wasn’t reappointed to the Human Relations Commission to share to our city…

Sarah: Oh, Amber, you’re that person.

Bryan: Yeah.

Sarah: I didn’t realize that. Okay.

Bryan: Yeah, Amber was not reappointed for personal reasons and the mayor said them, but what they are, she may have stated them, I’m not aware if she did say they were personal but not to reappoint somebody who really has a heart and a love for the city for those issues that we are speaking of and who is actually doing work…

Sarah: Right

Bryan: And to not appoint her, reappoint her, that’s very disturbing.

Sarah: Right. And now I understand. I didn’t put it all together, okay, now I get it.

Bryan: Yes.

Sarah: Okay.

Amber: Thank you, Bryan.

Bryan: Yes. And so, for me to watch this from afar and to see it, I don’t understand why our mayor or any other leader for that matter would not reappoint someone who definitely has the support of the community, of the commission, has the experience, the willingness

Sarah: I understand

Bryan: … and demonstrated these things, and for her to not be reappointed and for the mayor to…

Sarah: What are you guys gonna do? What’s your plan?

Bryan: Oh. One of the things that I have witnessed, like I said, on the Master Plan there is a housing commission or a subcommittee of those who have actually put plans in place, I have seen them, to deal with rent control, to address solutions and plans for affordability, to talk about gentrification, those things which we’re talking about and those things have been addressed and they have been packaged together to present to the city and what better place to present them other than a person who actually has a seat at the table and a voice who is very aware, has the metrics, the information, and is doing the groundwork, spearheading it, and for her to be removed from that…

Sarah: Yes, I understand

Bryan: Yeah we already have those in place. One of the things that I am doing is we’re bringing those issues to the table and making them aware to our community and one of the things we’re talking about doing is getting a land-based trust to build up and purchase the houses that are on the market and do those things. So we are actively engaged in those things. It’s a matter of, what my view is, is getting the city to actually sign on and begin support of these ideas.

Sarah: I see. Okay. Now I understand. I didn’t know any of this until you just told me. I didn’t know Amber was the person, I didn’t know any of this. Okay, now I know what’s going on.

Bryan: Yes, yes. Okay.

Amber: Well, thank you, Bryan, for saying all those things but… yeah, I don’t know, Sarah, if I was mentioned to you at some point or not but… yeah, the mayor doesn’t like me. So that’s important context.

Sarah: Right, I understand. You were not reappointed. Yeah, I heard about this.

Amber: Yeah. There has been quite a bit of organizing the last few years and there has been some successes in that many people didn’t run or were ousted from the city government. A development that was really shady was taken down and we did enact a Community Benefits Ordinance, so there has been a lot of successes but there’s… you know, we were just wondering, outside of municipal stuff, what we could be doing. But it sounds like in your opinion, the work of just getting behind a single issue and a strategy and going towards it is the most effective, which I agree with.

Sarah: Why don’t you run for mayor?

Amber: I have never seen that as something that I wanted to do but you know… it’s interesting. I don’t think it would go over well, personally, but… there’s a lot of vocal people.

Sarah: Well the thing is that you have a very, I’m just saying this off the top of my head, I don’t know anything about your city and I don’t know you, right? But I’m just saying if you ran a symbolic campaign and you have very very concrete platform, you could show that you have a constituency. You never know, it might get you some more power in the city structure. Or if you guys have someone else you wanna run.

Amber: I would very much love for Desiraé Simmons to get into office eventually. She did run and did not make it this last time but…

Sarah: But even if you don’t win, you might be able to get some things on the table.

Amber: Oh, definitely, yeah. Definitely. Yeah, I really appreciate it.

 [Bryan leaves the conversation]

Sarah: Yeah, so you’re the opposition basically, right?

Amber: Yes.

Sarah: Okay, well that’s your place of strength. You know, you’re not a part of the power system and you can say things that need to be said and you know, you run a campaign, not because you think you’re gonna win but to try to position yourself as someone who can’t be disregarded.

Amber: Right, right. Yeah. This is all very affirming and I appreciate you just saying these things. What do you think is kind of like, do you think that this is the moment that people can really try to seize power and change things?

Sarah: I don’t know. Do you know the people who ran Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Amber: Justice Democrats? I think. Is that who you’re talking about?

Sarah: That’s not the name I’m thinking of. There’s a think tank that found her. But maybe if you could find out who they are, maybe you could get in touch with them. Because they’re all about developing… especially women and women of color candidates for things. And they provide a lot of training. They have training workshops and all that kind of stuff. You know they found her.

Amber: Right, right. Yeah we have our own connection to that group. Rashida Tlaib was also a part of that group…

Sarah: That’s right.

Amber: … and she’s in Detroit. She actually came to Ypsilanti and helped us with enacting the community benefits ordinance. So she’s very near and dear to me.

Sarah: Yeah, ’cause there’s all kinds of grassroots development going on now, where they’re training people and developing people, preparing them to be candidates for things, even on very local levels. Maybe that’s something you wanna get involved in.

Amber: Right. Do you think that there’s anything comparable to ACT UP, or is there something, because ACT UP was such a single—it’s not a single issue but it’s like something that people coalesce over that was so… existential.

Sarah: You know, there isn’t right now. There were the Dreamers [who] were kind of amazing for a while. I think the election, I think everything is so crazy right now that people don’t know what to do. And the election is kind of overwhelming grassroots stuff. I don’t see it out there. If it’s out there, I’m not aware of it. But like I said, no one knows what’s going to happen. It’s a very strange time, the zeitgeist is very intangible. But people like yourself who are in the grassroots are waiting to emerge as leaders and people are looking for leaders.

Amber: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. Does anybody else have anything?

Isaac: No, I just appreciate listening to the last half of the interview. That was amazing. I think Bryan gave some really crucial context at a really important time. Amber, I know you’re trying to be a little bit remote but I’m really glad that your credentials were brought up because you’ve been doing so much. This is really a focal point of a lot of it. I appreciate, Sarah, that you went beyond the normal energy format, too, to just talk to us.

Sarah: If I had known that’s what you wanted, we could have done it from the start. Sorry it took so long. Alright, well good luck you guys.