The Other Detroit
I take Interstate 96 eastbound from Ann Arbor. It’s the first warm day of 2008, and the combination of a bright sun and light breeze makes for a beautiful spring afternoon. After 35 miles of Midwestern nothing, I reach the city limits of Detroit. Small, decrepit housing lines the edges of the Southfield Freeway as I approach the exit for North Rosedale, a neighborhood located on the northwest side of the city. As I pull into the local Community House and park—the only privately owned park in the city—the smell of freshly cut grass is almost intrusive. A youth softball game is underway, and parents lounge in folding chairs. Along the edges of the park, residents—predominantly African-Americans—walk their dogs by large, single-family English Tudors. Almost without exception, each two-story house on each tree-lined street adorns a perfectly manicured lawn and a large wooden front door. It’s a middle-class oasis. A distinctly suburban feel, in fact. But it’s not the suburbs. It’s Detroit.
Every journalist and armchair pundit seems to have an opinion on Detroit’s decline, ranging from the well-reasoned to the downright asinine. TIME magazine recently announced Assignment: Detroit, a year-long investigation. Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution wrote a thoughtful piece at the New Republic titled “The Detroit Project,” providing a blueprint for Detroit’s resurgence. Next month, PBS will air “Beyond the Motor City,” part of the network’s “Blueprint: America” series that explores the future of U.S. transportation policy. But each article—each slideshow of “ruin porn”—is incomplete. Each investigation of the “tragedy” of Detroit fails to account for neighborhoods like North Rosedale Park, centers of affluence struggling amidst the decay.
Don’t let the tree-lined streets fool you; North Rosedale has its problems. Indeed, nearly 200 low-income homes in disrepair, many of them vacant, bisect the neighborhood along two streets. According to the Grandmont/Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC), a resident-led community development corporation serving the housing and commercial needs of five neighborhoods on Detroit’s northwest side, the concentrated decline is causing blight to spread throughout the neighborhood, inducing middle-class flight from the city. Still, the neighborhood boasts one of the highest median incomes in the city—nearly $90,000 according to the 2000 Census.
It’s the conundrum of affluence in Detroit: beautiful, historic homes exist, but poverty encroaches from all sides. And it is this conundrum—the irony of being affluent in Detroit—that threatens middle-class stability.
I spent three months commuting to North Rosedale Park during the summer of 2006, and another year and a half checking back periodically for research related to my undergraduate Honors thesis. As a GRDC intern, I administered surveys throughout North Rosedale’s sliver of blight, asking residents for input about their neighborhood. GRDC later used this research to apply for a Neighborhood Preservation grant in December 2006, funding that would have allowed the organization to renovate vacant homes on the two streets and provide homeowners with 0% interest loans for home repairs. But, as I later found out, only “low to moderate income” neighborhoods were eligible for the grant—and the “low income” portion of North Rosedale was too small for Census data to capture. Perhaps ironically, North Rosedale’s ability to contain blight thwarted the neighborhood’s capacity to receive state funding for revitalization.
Still, during the three months of survey collection, I immersed myself in the neighborhood, determined to provide GRDC with the necessary information for the grant application. I networked heavily in the area, asking interviewees to help me set up meetings with their neighbors. I called past donors to GRDC living in North Rosedale, using their networks to build my own within the community. I attended block club meetings, conversing with residents on a group level. Along the way, I became connected to the community, learning more about Rosedale’s anomalous past and troubling present with every interview conducted.
According to neighborhood folklore, CEOs and Presidents of the Big Three auto manufacturers used to call North Rosedale Park home in the 1940s and 1950s. There really isn’t much evidence of this, but what is certain is that Rosedale has always been a hub for the affluent. Originally a suburb of Detroit, North Rosedale was incorporated into the city in 1923—part of the last round of incorporations that ended in 1926. Residents debated the incorporation, but ultimately acquiesced in hopes of more adequate public works. Since they enjoyed about five miles of undeveloped farmland separating them from downtown Detroit, incorporation didn’t come with much responsibility; physical distance from the rest of the city afforded quite literal class isolation. A slice of land—the present-day blighted area—remained undeveloped until the post-WWII housing boom. This new era required new types of housing—in the case of these two streets, affordable housing for WWII veterans. While a single developer meticulously crafted the surrounding 1,500 homes, private, independent developers sporadically constructed 200 affordable homes in the center of the neighborhood.
Still, aggregate neighborhood affluence persisted well through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Whereas the rest of the city experienced rapid racial turnover following the 1967 riot and 1974 Milliken v. Bradley school desegregation Supreme Court case, “white flight” was really “white replacement” in North Rosedale. Many white residents were swapped for a new kind of white Detroiter—the anti-racist, food co-op, open school movement cosmopolitan. North Rosedale is still about 15% white, designating the neighborhood as one of the whitest in the city. And the blacks that moved into North Rosedale in the 1970s weren’t the poor ghetto-dwellers many whites had feared. No, these blacks were—and still are today—among the wealthiest Detroit professionals.
North Rosedale Park is the anti-slum. A middle-class majority remained after racial turnover, separating North Rosedale from countless other urban neighborhoods throughout the country. Homes are large, and social cohesion throughout the neighborhood is strong. Residents are tremendously proud of their neighborhood, and perhaps more importantly, committed to the city they call home.
This pride is perhaps most evident in the story of David and Lois Draft, two elderly African-Americans that had lived in North Rosedale for over 25 years when I spoke with them in 2007. We sat and talked for over three hours, with Lois recounting the couple’s courtship and marriage as David smiled and nodded. We talked about Lois’s job in the 1960s as a secretary for Michigan Bell, and David’s job with the City’s Department of Urban Development. At one point, Lois pulled out a handful of loose photos from block parties and June Day parades, glowing as she noted her role as neighborhood matriarch. “Some of the people on the block still call us Mr. and Mrs. Draft,” she explained. “When they get a girlfriend, they bring the girlfriend over to meet us, and we have to check her out.” This respect for “old heads”—sociologist Elijah Anderson’s term for neighborhood elders, mentors, and role models for young people—gives North Rosedale a distinctly communal feel, in every sense of the word.
But North Rosedale isn’t entirely insulated from the crime associated with the rest of Detroit. On one particularly hot day during my survey research in 2006, a middle-aged African-American resident invited me into his kitchen for a cold glass of Faygo cola, a Detroit-manufactured soft drink. He worked for Chrysler, somehow avoiding factory layoffs for nearly three decades. Our conversation was simple enough; I was just happy to be out of the hot sun’s glare, even if his kitchen was a bit stuffy. As we neared the end of the survey, my questions focused on issues of neighborhood violence. When I asked this resident how safe he felt in North Rosedale, he remarked—quickly and confidently—that he felt exceptionally safe in his neighborhood. He then unzipped his windbreaker, and as my eyes widened, revealed a Glock 9 mm handgun firmly attached to his chest. “Who wouldn’t feel safe with this?” he joked.
He quickly assured me that he had “all the necessary paperwork” to carry a concealed weapon, and even told me the story behind his purchase (his wife had her car stolen a few years back). Still, he carried a gun for a reason. While I never saw any robberies, or feared any harm against myself, I certainly noticed a few, shall we say, transgressions during my three-month tenure with the GRDC. More than a few times I caught the unmistakable aroma of marijuana wafting from the handful of front porches where young men congregated. A few teenagers—from outside the neighborhood, I learned—hung out on the porches of abandoned homes, much to the chagrin of older residents. But these were isolated incidents; by and large, North Rosedale felt like Anywhere, USA.
No story or investigative report has captured this side of Detroit, the North Rosedale side. It’s not the bombed out train station, nor is it the urban prairie. It’s not the empty factory, nor is it the large housing project. It’s not the homeless man pushing his cart down a desolate downtown, nor is it the young woman waiting in line for a welfare check.
No, it’s the daily struggle of the urban middle class, the plight of a forgotten population. It’s the neighborhood where Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm lived briefly before ultimately moving to the suburbs. It’s half a mile from where Detroit historian Thomas Sugrue grew up, a neighborhood his parents hoped to one day “be wealthy enough” to call home. It’s the tree-lined streets, the well-maintained community park. It’s the colorful gardens and golden retrievers. It’s the uneasy, yet unwavering middle class in an otherwise unsettling and unsure urban abyss.
It’s the other Detroit.
Jeremy Levine is a doctoral fellow in the Inequality and Social Policy Program at Harvard University. He blogs at Social Science Lite.