I am from East Nashville. Growing up, I never once heard the term “Five Points.” We just called it: “over there off Gallatin Rd., around Woodland.” Today we say Five Points. Because realtors decided so.
Returning after years away, I’ve had the discomfiting experience of people who – having not lived here long enough to see even one cicada land – “instruct” me what the “name” of parts of my city are.
After a while, I learned how to spot the con. The tell-tale sign of a place with a phony realtor name is, Googling the name returns only real estate listings: realtor.com, Trulia, century21, UrbanHouseFitters, point2homes, and so forth. No one actually living in the place calls it its “name.”
“It’s one of the oldest tricks in real estate, The New York Times notes, “pretend that a property is in a more desirable neighborhood…[or] make up a whole new name.” In White Flight, Kevin Kruse documents that when black folks began moving on to Mosley Drive in Atlanta, white homeowners got the city to change the name of “their” part of the street, so they wouldn’t have a “black” address.
That’s exactly what happened in my hometown. Heavily black and immigrant Antioch is the subject of our City Paper’s: “Weekly Obsession: Renaming Antioch.” Antioch is Nashville. But a section had their postal code changed to “Cane Ridge.” One online commenter admitted: “Cane Ridge was created / renamed recently to differentiate from Antioch (bad reputation).”
Invented lines. Imagined spaces.
Donald Trump says Detroit is Detroit because they elect Democrats. But the weight of evidence says: Detroit is Detroit, because they were intentionally made to be so. “The ghetto was a deliberate policy invention,” Matt Yglesias notes. “And investing in a path out of it would have been completely contrary to the point of creating it.”
We need ghettos. And barrios. And trailer parks. Realtors, appraisers, lenders, insurers, the Federal Housing Administration all couldn’t do their job without them. Racism invents places. “Europe ends in Naples, and it ends there rather badly. Calabria, Sicily, all the rest, that’s Africa,” Frenchman Augustin Creuze de Lesse said in 1806, reflecting a rather charitable view for his time. Places are invented all over America when white areas secede from black cities, so they don’t have to live next to, send their kids to school with, share public resources with, and pay taxes for black people.
We go through great lengths to invent these imaginary places. Walpack Township, NJ has 16 people. Pine Valley has just twelve. Tavistock has only five. …so-called “planned communities.” “Planned,” that is, to be 100% white with 0% poverty, as all three are.
Detroit couldn’t be Detroit without 8-Mile Road. An invention. Thus, whenever Trump says, “Detroit,” followed by something about crime, or bad schools, or poverty, that statement would be meaningful if “Detroit” weren’t a completely made-up place. We’ve simply decided by the fiat of incorporation law that the rich parts don’t count as Detroit. But that’s just a naming convention.
There is, and has long been Two Detroits. The one that left. And the one that couldn’t.
Detroit standardized the 8-hour workday, 40-hour work week, popularized unions, and – in so doing – built the white American middle class. Naturally, Detroit’s second act was creating the trappings of 1950s middle-class life. Detroit invented frozen peas, the refrigerator to put them in, mass credit and installment purchasing to buy it and the home they go in, the Lincoln and Chevy to drive there, the cement road to ride it on, and the Motown sound to play along the way. But Detroit also has the distinction of being the only American city to be occupied by federal troops three times. Detroit’s “two-ness” – in DuBois words – is, I suspect, why Marvin Gaye said: “Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.”
Detroit No. 2 formed a “high-income white noose” around the black inner-city, as in other cities, said George Romney. They siphoned away jobs, tax base, and schools. “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the Kerner Commission explained in 1968. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Recognizing this, George Romney tried to cut HUD dollars to cities which intentionally segregate, like Detroit’s suburb Warren, Michigan. Nixon sacked Romney. That’s why today Warren remains white and working class. And Detroit isn’t. It was hardly coincidental, then, that Warren is where Trump chose to do his “black outreach” performance for white people last month.
But it’s particularly villainous duplicity of Trump to play “savior” for a crime in which he conspired. He – of all people – knows exactly how Detroit got to be Detroit. Not because they vote for Democrats, as his revisionist history pretends. Detroit and Warren got that way, the same way Flushing and Jamaica Estates, Queens – where Trump’s family sold real estate – got to be the way they are. Developers like him and his family denied homes to people of color, and “ghettoized” them to certain neighborhoods. “I don’t rent to niggers,” Trump’s dad said flatly.
HUD investigations document persistent nationwide racial discrimination in housing. Realtors also create segregated neighborhoods by “steering.” So when Trump describes black America, I hear Oscar Wilde saying: the whole of it is a pure invention. There is no such place. There are no such people. Poor inner cities are like turtles sitting atop fence posts, we know they didn’t get there by themselves. They were invented. By people like Trump.
Charles Badger is a political strategist and freelance writer. He was coalitions director for Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign.