In city, neighborhoods build community 

Neighborhood power.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO.
  • Courtesy photo.

As a longtime city dweller, I can say that I love city life. Now, in most parts of the United States, saying “I love living in the city” is not controversial. But say it in some parts of suburban Detroit, and then stand back. 

Outside Detroit, throughout Michigan, I’ve encountered the narrative that Detroit is a horrible place. To speak favorably of life in the city is to turn the world on its head, something people don’t take lightly. But if I were allowed to explain, I’d point to certain things you get in the city that are hard to find in the suburbs. 

For instance, almost 20 years ago, I moved into a strange neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was a solidly Italian neighborhood — so Italian, in fact, that my neighbors were named Rocky, Vinnie, and Dominick. The main drag was full of old-time neighborhood businesses, mostly run by Italians, including the fishmonger’s, the pasticceria, the pizzeria, and the hole-in-the-wall bar. A guy named Mario ran the butcher shop. But there was also a Chinese couple who ran the corner takeout place, and some Yemeni cousins who ran a bodega (what New Yorkers call a party store) nearby.

Here was an old neighborhood, not a “cool” neighborhood (yet), and I was very, very conscious of being an outsider. I made a conscious effort to get to know my neighbors, to talk to them and earn their trust. It took a few years, but I’m proud to say every one of my neighbors finally warmed up to me and invited me over for coffee and cake. When my apartment was ripped off and the dog was let go, my neighbors rallied and helped recover the lost mutt, and were glad to see her back. Once, I realized I was short at the bodega, and before the Yemeni guys could tell me to pay them later, old Mario, who was in the store, pulled out a roll of cash that could choke a horse and asked me how much I needed to borrow!

I’ve had similar incidents in Hamtramck, where I live. I’ve been told I can pay later at several different local businesses, and one even forgave the debt entirely. 

What I’m trying to say is that when everybody lives on top of each other and runs the little neighborhood businesses, you have a kind of “community capital,” the little decencies, loans and forbearances that come with a tight community.

And I think that’s what’s different about urban life. We city-dwellers trade in intangibilities. Smiles, jokes, stories and confidences among people have a value, and when the fellow behind the counter knows you, it’s a warm and valuable difference.

I’m not saying these things don’t happen in the suburbs, far from it. I know of a Northville resident who pays his bar tab once a month, and anywhere that small businesses exist you’ll find this kind of give-and-take. But the preponderance of large chains in the suburbs has largely reduced that community capital to the take-a-penny tray. Forget paying less or later, and good luck chatting up the staff. These days you’re lucky if you roll up to the register and don’t get asked your phone number right away. The transactions are all-business. 

You get exactly what you pay for. What’s more, you get it whether you’re kind and chatty or a king-sized asshole. I remember one customer at a fancy suburban restaurant who chewed out a waitress for not asking about cocktails first. A new waitress took the table while the dressed-down waitress cried her eyes out in the kitchen. In the city, I imagine this hothead would have been thrown out instead of mollified.

It seems to me that larger businesses are more impersonal, while family businesses and proprietorships tend to the intensely personal, often providing the best service.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Michael Warholak, whose family has run Warholak Tire on McGraw near Wyoming since 1931. Warholak is a self-described “old neighborhood guy” who grew up on the west side of Detroit in the 1960s. He runs his store the old-fashioned way, getting his customers what they need with a little teasing and a few jokes along the way. 

He sees this neighborhood vs. chain thing not as geographical but as generational. He told me, “I think there’s an entire generation that has grown up in an era when service wasn’t a consideration. Their whole life, everything was a commodity. They didn’t experience a world where you had a pharmacist on the corner who knew your name and knew your family. Or a butcher who knew what sort of cut your family liked. These were service industries. Everything has been commodified: It’s all about price and convenience.

He added, “I think young people are starting to appreciate service, and I think that’s reflected in the type of businesses that are growing in Detroit right now: Little coffee shops, small restaurants, delis, stores, brewpubs, where detailed individual service is important.”

There’s a reason those sorts of places are cropping up. They never really left some places, such as the Avenue of Fashion, Vernor Highway in Mexicantown, or the boozy neighborhood fixtures of Hamtramck. In recent years, even a sleepy mile-long stretch of Michigan Avenue has seen the gleam of small-business owners staking their claims. And their clients are people who prefer the experience.

Some people look at the city’s vacant streetscapes and say a resurgence is impossible. But parts of downtown New York looked no different 30 years ago. What’s more, Detroit’s “old bones” provide something small-business owners can put meat on, even if it looks shabby today. To quote Warholak again: “I remember what the Cass Corridor was like in the early ’70s. It was a shithole. But there was still sort of a bohemian feel about it. But that’s what’s attractive about Detroit: It doesn’t cost a lot to stake your claim.”

Neighborhoods are important. They represent the grass roots of the city’s economic strength. People need to eat, they need their clothes mended and pressed, they need new tires — and there are quirky small-business owners who live and breathe to serve them. And maybe Warholak is right about that generation gap: Demographic studies show that millennials, some of our newest city-dwellers, are markedly more interested in this kind of neighborhood life. 

Unfortunately, neighborhoods are the place where Detroit has failed the worst. Perhaps instead of showering downtown Detroit with subsidies and tax abatements all these years, we might have thought more of the mom-and-pop shops whose owners swept their walks every morning.

I’ve had some city folks say something like, “I just wish we had a Trader Joe’s here in the city.” It suggests to me that they’re just not looking. Or that they’re among the countless city residents who spend hundreds of millions of dollars at suburban stores, where that money leaves the community. Chains have their place, I suppose, but I wish more people patronized the local businesses where that money remains in local circulation, funding their neighborhood microeconomy.

That’s what I guess I’m getting at. Anywhere dense enough to be walkable is a great place to get to know all different kinds of people and do business with them daily. It does more than keep our money in our community; it builds community the better we know each other. That’s neighborhood power. You won’t see it when you’re whizzing by at 70 miles per hour, but it’s one of the great things about neighborhood life. 

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