A View from Inside the Donut

DonutsOne of chestnuts gleaned from my otherwise overpriced graduate school experience is the memory of gravel-voiced, mustachioed Columbia professor Sigurd Grava describing a typology of different urban forms. Among these forms was that of the “donut city” – a metropolis hollowed-out at the middle but rich around the outside. I knew, of course, even before Professor Grava said it out loud, that the primary, prototypical donut city in his typology would be Detroit.

One of the many merits of Angela Flournoy’s national book award-nominated novel The Turner House is that it gives a view from inside the hole of the donut, and in so doing complicates the vision of an empty Detroit. This is not to say that abandonment does not play into the set of feelings Flournoy creates about the city. By the late 2000’s great recession “present” of the novel, the home on Yarrow Street where late 1940’s great migration participants Francis and Viola Turner raised their thirteen children still stands, but stands empty. Or almost empty, since Lelah, the youngest of the thirteen kids, who has become homeless and is hiding the fact from the rest of the family, has moved back in.

Lelah needs to move furtively in and out of the Yarrow Street home not merely because she is hiding from her brothers and sisters. After all, there are very real issue of crime to consider. And while none of the other Turner children are homeless, all of them share in a complicated set of feelings about the dichotomy between the run-down house of reality on Yarrow Street and the full, noisy, loved house of memory. Flournoy gives voice to the following thought, for instance, from Cha-Cha, Lelah’s eldest brother. “The phenomenon of disappearing landmarks used to distress Cha-Cha, mostly because new buildings never replaced them, and it felt like the old ones never existed.” “But,” she goes on to add, “over time he realized it didn’t matter; memory needed no visual cue to do its work.”

It is not too much of a spoiler, I think, to reveal that the Turner family never quite figures out what do with their beloved home. Indeed, what would you do, dear reader, with with a home worth a mind-bogglingly low price of $4,000, especially when this is far less than the value of the mortgage still held by aging matriarch Viola?

This key dilemma of what to do with the house seemed especially vivid as I read the book given the happenstance that my wife and I have lately been in the process of selling the home in which we raised our boys through their core childhood years. The process is emotionally very difficult, even given in the buoyant housing market of 2016 Northern California. Even standing in a good position to make a profitable sale, the process of actually selling comes together with strong feelings of loss.

What would the same dilemma feel like if the tables were turned and we were in the position of the Turner family? People who know me well know that am much less willing than most liberals to spot white privilege hiding beneath every stone. Even so, housing wealth is one of the areas where the evidence of disadvantage experienced by African Americans is most overwhelming.

The huge difference in median wealth between black and white households, is, of course, increasingly well-known, with studies pointing to a figure in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars. A big part of this difference has to do with real estate wealth. As this excellent article in The New Republic points out, “blacks’ disadvantages only start with their historical segregation in neighborhoods suffering from underinvestment and lower prices.” Here I’m thinking of just the kind of Detroit neighborhood Turner describes in her book, or others much closer to home in Sacramento or practically any other city.

More than this, though, the New Republic piece goes on to note that, “because African Americans end up receiving less in inheritances and gifts from parents for a down payment, they wind up waiting, on average, eight years longer than whites to buy their first homes – and therefore hold less equity.” It makes sense that little family support would be there for down payments if your family comes from a neighborhood like the Turners’ where basically nobody is in a position to accumulate housing wealth in the first place.

Flournoy’s The Turner House operates primarily as a novel, of course, not as a piece of urban analysis. It is worth reading primarily for its interesting characters and its complex depiction of both parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. But it is also worthwhile for the insights it gives about Detroit, and the way it sends some love and some light to the very real place that sits at the center of what may not be a donut city, after all.