By David Kukier
My earliest memories take place on Detroit’s west side, in the 1980s still a patchwork of working- and middle-class neighborhoods anchored by churches, bars and multigenerational businesses. I would return as a resident in 2003 to a vastly different landscape: holdouts, areas sustained by the sheer tenacity of residents and a strange sense of freedom created by so much disinvestment and mismanagement.
In the real estate boom of 2006, Detroit’s core neighborhoods would suddenly enjoy a renaissance of those drawn back to urban life and a market buoyed by rising demand. And I would move again, from a century-old hodgepodge of artists, eccentrics and a fellow tenant who once welcomed my arrival by vaguely threatening me with a knife while trimming roses, cautioning me to ignore the cocaine-induced violence that his apartment played host to on Saturdays. I settled in the low-rent district of a shabby but workable immigrant enclave, where the process would repeat itself again a decade later, the standard Craigslist banner screaming, “Tired of outrageous Midtown rents? Move here!”
Recession slightly slowed development downtown and along the Woodward corridor, but its effect in the neighborhoods was devastating. Suddenly anyone still working at all could afford to flee failing schools and the constant specter of crime for the relative peace of the suburbs. Mortgage scams imploded and neighborhoods I drove through daily started to disappear as owners and tenants walked, and scrappers, firebugs and the elements moved through.
On an arid September day in 2010, I gathered with a group of strangers to watch a block of Moenart burn, one of the first in an afternoon of some eighty-five fires on the east side, fueled by arson and illegal electrical hookups. Blocks away, Chris McGrane was slowly rebuilding a house that would become home base for Buffalo Street Farm. Bit by bit, McGrane would acquire three-quarters of an acre across a city block, negotiating bureaucracy and uncooperative private owners holding onto plots they had walked away from decades ago. “I just kept going downtown, putting out the word, knocking on doors,” McGrane says.
Buffalo Street 2015 looks like a lot of the outlying neighborhoods, what McGrane describes as the “shotgun blast” that positions a smattering of well-maintained homes alongside overgrown fields and collapsing homes. The rows of produce, small vineyard and chicken coop are half a decade in the making. “It was just a very slow process of integrating into a very hard hit neighborhood where, frankly, no one is friendly in a normal way,” McGrane recalls, “because it’s a liability to be like that with a stranger.”
But work marched on. The house got siding, the garden grew, and neighbors set aside their squatter assumptions. “They just watched the progress of this thing,” he says, and eventually would become regular visitors to the farm, offering advice and expressing their approval of one block’s progress.
On the opposite side of town, in one of the more densely populated areas of Southwest, Antonio Cosme is preparing a 275-gallon rainwater container for the lots he tends. He too has been slowly acquiring lots in an area bolstered by a growing Yemeni immigrant community and longtime residents with multiple generations living on the same block. Behind his house, there are plans to turn the open basement of a demolished house into a twenty-four-foot submerged greenhouse.
Cosme has spent his life on Ogden Street, excepting a few years away at college. He is the unofficial big brother of the neighborhood, keeping his gates unlocked for the kids who stop by to play with his dog or get admonished for fighting and other juvenile indulgences. He has painted murals on the boarded-up windows of scorched houses on the street, cut grass and helped with innumerable maintenance projects. He shows me an enormous tree stump on the easement of one home that has grown through a sewer line. On a hot day the stench can become so overpowering that windows close and the stump is burned. The city, for its part, has been wholly unresponsive to the issue. Adjacent front lawns have begun to slope into the sinkhole it’s created and Cosme has used found wood and logs to construct retaining walls against further erosion.
One goal of his labor is simple. “I want people to stay,” he says, having watched the outward migration from Southwest to downriver suburbs like Lincoln Park and Melvindale, lured by marginal improvements in schools and safety. The strategy for government would be simple. “We need an equitable distribution of resources,” he says. And ideally an FDR-esque initiative to rebuild the city’s infrastructure. “There is plenty of work to be done in Detroit,” a city that by estimates hovers around fifty percent unemployment. The challenge is moving financial resources to the most critical projects and connecting the jobless with them.
In the ten years I’ve known Robert Williams he has worn many hats in Detroit: clothing store owner, realtor, landlord and purveyor of goods in one of the hardest hustles, the street-corner tent market. Businessman to the core, Williams zeroes in on commercial activity as the key to reviving neighborhoods. Shortly after his inauguration, Williams had the opportunity at an event to ask Mayor Mike Duggan, “Is there any emphasis that you guys are going to put on retail in the city?” He was told flat out that it wasn’t a high priority at this time. “How do you expect the neighborhoods to come back with no retail?”
When incomes vacated the city its retailers did, too, and Williams questions whether or not Detroit can go back to relying on the paychecks of large employers to sustain commerce in the neighborhoods. That, he suggests, will have to come from an entrepreneurial base and an effort to spend locally. “You have a siphoning of the core population,” he says. “The dollar doesn’t rotate in the community. Detroiters have to be about the business of Detroit neighborhoods.”
“We need a holistic approach to development,” Cosme maintains. “Slow gentrification.” Schools, jobs, and a manageable approach to the inclusion of neighborhoods. “It’s not happening like that.” All three agree: wealth and its advantages, which in Detroit often boil down to simple things like better policing and improved lighting, are not working into the outer quadrants yet. And Cosme doesn’t hesitate to echo a common sentiment often only mentioned in private: some areas, for their beautiful turn-of-the-century housing stock, access to amenities and geographic convenience, will undergo an administrative purging of tenured residents.
“If you don’t have resources, you’re out of luck with him,” Williams says of the mayor. For all of the victories in downtown and Midtown, there is a sense that those would have happened regardless of administration simply due to the sudden influx of private capital. “He was gifted a number of things,” Williams says.
Back on Buffalo, a daylong rain breaks and as the sun emerges the hoop house quickly becomes a sauna. We step outside, and across rows of strawberries stand two modest houses, one neatly kempt, one sagging into the earth. Away from the dollars and charm of the core city, it’s an apt depiction of Detroit present day: those who stayed, those who left, those who came, and the opportunity and hardship present.