Arts & Entertainment
Book Review - A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home - By Laura Gottesdiener
Earlier this year in a disturbing essay in The New Yorker, writer George Packer reflected on a once great city: “At the bottom of the American economy lies Detroit. In 1931, it was the temporarily paralyzed dynamo of industrial capitalism. In the nineteen-fifties, it was one of the richest cities in the world. Half a century later, it had been left for dead. Then came the financial crisis, and the collapse of the auto industry, and Detroit’s spectacular decay became a symbol of the country’s distress.”
Despite the economic catastrophe that has befallen that city, long-time resident Bertha Garrett was determined to remain in the house that for many years had been home to her family. Garrett and her disabled husband had paid off their first $40,000 mortgage. Says Garrett: “They told me that I needed to invest in the equity of my home and that an adjustable-rate mortgage would set me up for investments.” On taking out that second mortgage, Bertha embarked on an unexpected and horrifying experience, one that has overwhelmed the lives of numerous citizens throughout the country caught up in the quagmire of predatory loans.
By focusing on the plight of Garrett and three other individuals and their families, freelance journalist Laura Gottesdiener’s “A Dream Foreclosed” puts human faces to the alarming and vicious phenomenon of home foreclosures. Gottesdiener has deliberately highlighted how foreclosures have impacted African Americans and their communities in the most brutal fashion. The Garretts and others featured in this chronicle — Griggs Wimbley, Michael Hutchins and Martha Biggs — are black. On the importance of home and community Garrett speaks with conviction: “Memory lives in a space. This is what people don’t understand. We raised our kids here. It’s more than just an investment.”
Writing in the book’s foreword, historian Clarence Lusane states that the legacy of slavery and emancipation has made the matter of property ownership particularly poignant for black citizens: “The notion of people who were once ‘property’ now owning property was a radical one that challenged long-held views about the place of African Americans in U.S. society. Historically, from sharecroppers’ fields to urban ghettos, the struggle over land and home has embodied the complex dialogue between race and belonging.” Lusane argues that widespread predatory loans in black communities became the “new shackles, ending dreams and futures.”
Sixty years ago, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the nation. Today there are square miles utterly vacant “except for the occasional deer or fox scampering through the shells of old industrial plants.” Over the decade ending in 2010, about 250,000 residents of the city had been involuntarily forced out due to the virulent policies of the banks.
Gottesdiener quotes housing lawyer Jerry Goldberg: “Not one of the many newspaper articles discussing this lost population puts the blame where it belongs — on the major banks, which have leveled neighborhoods throughout Detroit with mass foreclosures driven by racist, predatory lending.”
Some residents were driven to resist displacement by confronting eviction bailiffs with weapons. One such man was shot and killed by a SWAT team. In the face of losing her home, Garrett adhered to her peaceful convictions, but she understood the desperation that drove some to arm themselves. She said, “We are fighting for a city that so many have already declared abandoned.”
This crisis has wrought havoc across the nation’s ethnic spectrum. Though more whites have been displaced than any other group of citizens since 2007, Gottesdiener maintains that blacks “have been disproportionately victimized by predatory loans and illegal mortgage servicing practices.” Compared with whites “African Americans are twice as likely to be forced from their homes through bank-pursued eviction.”
While the experiences of the individuals depicted in this volume are harrowing, each story ends with some degree of hope. Michael Hutchins of Chattanooga has a story in which triumph trumps tragedy. He was a pleasant kid who grew up in a high crime neighborhood. A superb athlete, Hutchins’ life was shattered when a speeding car accidently ran him down. His injuries were horrific. At 21 Hutchins suddenly found himself in a near helpless condition.
Though permanently disabled, he gradually recovered enough to live on his own in public housing. Gottesdiener describes how Hutchins went from a solitary and shy member of the community to a leader who in solidarity with neighbors and housing advocates became an outspoken advocate for affordable housing preservation. His story is truly inspirational.
Garrett and her husband ultimately hang on to their home. Martha Biggs and her family find a house to call home. And after an arduous, gut-wrenching decade in which he received about 40 fraudulent foreclosure filings, Griggs Wimbley keeps his home. Wimbley no longer feels isolated, but he is disgusted with the system that nearly destroyed him and continues to upend so many others. Writes Gottesdiener: “He foresees more devastation and collapse in store for the United States economy, since he knows that power and wealth are even more concentrated than before the collapse. Nevertheless, he remains committed to doing everything he can to stop it.”
“A Dream Foreclosed” is a concise survey of an ongoing injustice that has ruined too many Americans and their communities. It is a call to action and a demand for laws that will practically control loan pushers and truly penalize the banks that promote corporate criminality. For those who have been victimized by these atrocious practices, Gottesdiener states: “Their struggle is ours. And for the sake of all of us, it is one that we must win.”
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