Brush Park and hope

In her red Dodge Durango, Patricia Holmes-Douglas creeps through Brush Park, one of Detroit’s oldest and, at one time, wealthiest neighborhoods. She heads down Winder Street where abandoned brick homes with crumbling porches and missing windows face the multimillion-dollar Comerica Park. Young men stand on street corners of the drug-infested area and peer suspiciously at the SUV. Holmes-Douglas slowly weaves through blocks of rotting Victorian homes that sit adjacent to vacant lots where similar structures once stood, before neglect and time devoured them.

“I’m from Detroit and moved back five years ago,” says the executive director of the Brush Park Development Corporation, who had been gone 15 years. “To see it in this state was devastating to me.”

It is sad to see a neighborhood where Detroit’s elite lived a century ago erode into a wasteland of mostly unkempt lots and collapsing brick caverns. But Homes-Douglas’ neighborhood group and other nonprofit organizations are working to restore Brush Park. With the city’s support, the groups have brought in a private developer who is building one of Detroit’s largest residential projects: 375 market-rate condos and possibly hundreds more. A senior-citizen complex is to open next summer; public funds are available to renovate private homes; other projects also are under way.

Soon, say city officials, Brush Park will be a premier neighborhood — again.

But getting Brush Park on track wasn’t easy and keeping it on track will be difficult given the conflicting interests of private developers, the city bureaucracy and sometimes divisive community groups. Some longtime residents also fear that they will be driven out as property values — and city taxes — soar. A neighborhood group recently sued the city for allegedly forcing some residents out and acquiring their homes for private development. Other residents and community activists welcome the long-awaited rebirth and dismiss these claims as petty.

Whether this once-forgotten community that sits north of the new ballpark and theater district will be transformed — and what shape it will take — only time will tell. But Holmes-Douglas and others who have worked here for years are confident that Brush Park is ready to rise from the ashes.

Rocky roads

About 300 homes sprouted from former farmland in Brush Park between 1850 and the turn of the century, the neighborhood’s heyday. Victorian mansions, about 70 in all, were built for the city’s economic elite, people such as lumber baron David Whitney Jr. and department store owner J.L. Hudson. Families with modest incomes built smaller dwellings, says Katherine Clarkson, executive director of Preservation Wayne, a Detroit architectural preservation group.

But around 1895, the rich began to leave for newer upscale neighborhoods such as Boston-Edison and Indian Village where more modern homes included indoor plumbing, electricity and central heat. By 1910 many Brush Park mansions were converted into boarding houses, says Clarkson.

When city residents began a long exodus after World War II — the population shrinking from 2 million to about half that — Brush Park was one of the neighborhoods that was nearly obliterated.

Efforts in the past couple decades to rejuvenate the three block-by-eight block area usually ended with little success. Kathy Janiszek, who has lived in the area with her husband Paul for 22 years, knows this better than most.

“I used to be the Brush Park Lady,” says Janiszek, who once tacked maps of the neighborhood to her wall so she could track every resident and building.

The couple had high hopes for their tiny community, which has about 225 residents compared to hundreds more when she arrived; about 154 original structures remain in the area.

“We wanted the houses renovated and more people living here,” she recalls.

The Janiszeks and a couple other residents formed the Brush Park Citizen’s District Council in 1979. The CDC, which was made up of residents and is still active today, asked the city to help renovate the neighborhood, says Janiszek.

“We wanted the architectural history preserved,” Janiszek says. Clarkson stresses the importance of saving the rare economic and architectural history embodied in the Victorian-era houses.

But the Coleman Young administration was not very receptive.

“It seemed like there was roadblock after roadblock after roadblock. And after spending hour after hour after hour — and raising a family — and seeing nothing happen, you lose hope,” says Janiszek, who was an active CDC member for 10 years.

Chuck Squires, who has lived in Brush Park 19 years, also poured his heart into the neighborhood. In 1987, Squires was elected president of the Brush Park Development Corporation, an arm of the CDC charged with putting together a renewal plan for the area. When Squires headed the corporation, he says that there was constant squabbling between residents, other Brush Park-based organizations and the city over how the area should be redeveloped.

“The Young administration basically wanted to demolish everything and rebuild,” he says.

After countless meetings and hours of bickering, a Brush Park renewal plan was adopted in 1990.

“It was a good compromise,” says Squires, who gave up his post as president of the Development Corporation around 1996, burned out by the bickering. “It’s basically what’s going on now, new building in the south and conservation in the north.”

Signs of progress

Holmes-Douglas sits in her Brush Park office, pointing at a neighborhood map dotted with R’s for properties to be renovated and a few D’s for those to be demolished. The soft-spoken 44-year-old woman with shoulder-length braids has been the executive director of the Brush Park Development Corporation for about 16 months. The city-funded nonprofit has received about $62,000 annually the last two years.

“I was gone 15 years and when I returned some neighborhoods were just flattened and gone,” says Holmes-Douglas, who recently retired from the National Guard and has a background in public administration. “I wanted to work and help revive the neighborhoods. It’s just a love for Detroit.”

And Holmes-Douglas seems to be exactly what the neighborhood needs.

“She is phenomenal,” says Elaine Hearns, a Development Corporation board member who has been active in the neighborhood for about seven years.

Before Holmes-Douglas came along, progress was slow, says Hearns, who credits her with getting the Historic Brush Park Facade-Easement program off the ground. About six years ago, the city set aside $500,000 for this program which provides up to $60,000 to match residents’ personal investment to restore the outsides of their homes.

Some older residents were suspicious, says Hearns, and didn’t want to provide personal information the city required.

“So Patricia went to them one-on-one and explained the program,” says Hearns. “She is willing to make that effort and that’s what made the difference.”

According to Holmes-Douglas, about half a dozen people have taken advantage of the matching funds.

City project manager Jim Marusich also credits this program and the Brush Park comeback in general to Holmes-Douglas and neighborhood groups such as the Joint Fraternal Development Corporation.

“They are like our eyes and ears,” says Marusich, who has been working on Brush Park for about five years.

The Joint Fraternal Development Corporation, for instance, is made up of three African-American fraternities that are based in Brush Park. Marusich says the group has been especially helpful in keeping the Red Cross in the neighborhood after a threatened move to the suburbs around 1992. The fraternal corporation also helped convince Hospice of Michigan to move its Southfield headquarters to Brush Park on Mack where a 4,900-square-foot office is scheduled to be completed next August.

But the most obvious sign of progress is Woodward Place, a condominium development on Woodward near Comerica Park. About five years ago, the city chose Crosswinds Communities to develop housing for Brush Park. Following a lengthy effort to win additional city and community approvals, the project finally broke ground last year.

According to James Long, Brush Park Development Corporation president, Crosswinds agreed to do more than build condos. For every unit sold, Crosswinds is giving the community about $4,000 to renovate at least seven historic homes in the neighborhood and build a community center, says Long.

Crosswinds Communities owner and president Bernie Glieberman says that the condos are selling well, attracting mainly couples, both young and old, and racially diverse. Starting at $199,900, they are moderately priced compared to condos elsewhere in the city, according to real estate agent Jim Saros who has worked in the Detroit market for nearly three decades.

“We recently had two sales, one in Harbor Town on Jefferson for $325,000 and one in Indian Village Manor on the waterfront … for $330,000,” says Saros.

“There is a demand for condos in the downtown area. How that will hold up will depend on services, police and fire. There need to be grocery stores in the area, shopping and safety,” he says.

Window view

Glieberman says his company has sold about 37 units — even though only 28 are completed and occupied.

He once projected that 375 condos would be plenty for Brush Park. Now Glieberman hopes the city will approve his plans for as many as 800 units. That decision could be months away.

Glieberman attributes the demand for market-rate housing to Mayor Archer, to GM and Compuware moving downtown, the new stadiums and the new wave of folks who want to live where the action is.

Ruby Howze-Ward is one of those people.

“I really like the view and being near historic Eastern Market,” she says.

Howze-Ward, who works in the auto industry, moved to Woodward Place from the northwest side last summer. Her condominium is one of the 1,750-square-foot models with two bedrooms and two baths and a starting price of $259,900. The 1,300-square-foot models start at $199,900.

From her window, the native Detroiter can see Woodward with Comerica Park and the theater district just south of her. Behind her unit are some historic Brush Park homes and other condominiums. But east of the condominium complex, drug deals are said to go down regularly. “There are drug areas all over Detroit and in the suburbs too,” says Howze-Ward, who is unfazed.

Other housing going up in the area includes a 113-unit senior complex, says Long. The fraternal organizations and Holmes-Douglas’ group are working with the nonprofit Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, which has similar projects around the state; the Brush Park facility is to be completed next summer.

A chapter of the Masons, Most Worshipful King David Grand Lodge, is planning a 270-room hotel and convention center on Woodward between Erskine and Watson, which is estimated to cost $70 million.

“The new construction has sparked interest,” says Long. “You have absentee homeowners coming in and trying to find out what they can do to renovate the older Victorian homes. There are at least 10 new homeowners in the last four years.”

Murmurs of discontent

Not everyone is happy with the new development. Gwen Mingo bought a home on Watson in 1995 and soon became chairperson of the Brush Park Citizen’s District Council. Mingo and the CDC last summer served the Archer administration with a class action lawsuit, claiming residents were forced out of the neighborhood after redevelopment plans were announced a decade ago.

That first Brush Park renewal listed dozens of private properties to be condemned and acquired for development. Mingo’s suit claims that after announcing its plan, the city did little to maintain the area, which drove residents out and property values down, The city avoided paying to relocate residents and acquired property cheaply by foreclosing after owners defaulted on taxes, says Mingo.

In the most dramatic example presented by Mingo and other critics, Annie and Nathaniel Jackson lived in their garage after the city tore down their house in 1993, saying the house had become a hazard through disrepair. The Jacksons lived in their garage until November when Nathaniel died and, according to neighbors, Annie moved in with relatives. A lawsuit against the city on the Jacksons’ individual claims has been dismissed.

But last month Wayne County Circuit Court Judge William Giovan approved the Mingo-CDC as a class action. According to Mingo’s attorney, Stephen Wasinger, in the past decade at least 300 tenants and owners were forced from their homes and are entitled to relocation benefits and compensation.

Wasinger says that he plans to seek an injunction to prevent the city from acquiring other private property.

“My main objective is to be sure people are treated fairly,” says Mingo. “If they want to leave, give them relocation money. If they don’t want to leave, give them low- or moderate-income homes.”

Marusich says that low- and moderate-income housing is already in the plans. The city owns about eight acres in the center of Brush Park’s 105 acres. The center is slated for residential development; at least 25 percent of which is to be low- and moderate-income units.

“We don’t want any one site in particular for this type of housing, but want to spread it throughout the community,” says Marusich.

That kind of integration is a commendable goal, says George Galster, a Wayne State University professor in the urban affairs department. Galster is recognized nationally as an expert on neighborhood development.

“It is only fair that we protect one of the most vulnerable populations in society,” he says of the poor, “and it’s good social policy.”

Higher-income residents serve as role models for successful lifestyles. They also have disposable income, which creates retail jobs in their neighborhoods for low-income people, says Galster.

But Mingo’s lawsuit accuses the city of more than driving out the poor. It alleges that the city excluded the CDC’s input on redevelopment plans. According to Mingo, the city stopped funding the CDC in 1995; the money was eventually given to the Development Corporation, which the city required to separate from the CDC. Residents debate why Archer did this, but many say they do not want to get bogged down in petty squabbles; they say that they would rather work on revitalizing the neighborhood.

Holmes-Douglas and other Development Corporation members say that they regularly ask Mingo and CDC members for input on the development plans, but get little response.

Ricky Brown, who has lived in Brush Park about eight years, was a CDC member before joining the Development Corporation in 1997. He says that he tried to convince Mingo, whom he considers a close friend, to drop the lawsuit and participate in the development plans.

“I used to tell Gwen we need to work together,” says Brown.

Galster says “turf battles” are typical in neighborhoods that are being redeveloped.

Though there is no one way to resolve these conflicts, Galster suggests that keeping the development process open to as many people as possible minimizes controversy.

“I guess I’m saying that I like the redevelopment game played fairly, on an even playing field,” says Galster. “It rarely is, I’m afraid.”

Mingo is not the only one accusing the city of not playing fair. Karen Anderson, co-owner of City Cab, says the city is trying to drive the company out of the area. For instance, last spring, in order to lay new lighting cables and sewage pipes for the neighborhood, the city planned to tear up Adelaide Street where cabs enter and exit the company garage. She says the city notified the company by handing one of its mechanics a flier the day before work began.

“You don’t treat a business that has been in the city 70 years like this,” says Anderson.

When the city refused to cooperate, about 200 cabbies parked along Adelaide to prevent the city from tearing up the street.

The city, according to Marusich, wants to move the cab company out of Brush Park which is primarily residential. He says the city is working on finding another location for the business.

“It is time to do something with this area and we’re not fighting this at all, but we don’t think they should just put us out,” says Anderson.

The city made two offers to purchase the property, but the company rejected both; Anderson would not disclose the amounts. She suspects that the city will attempt to acquire the property by condemning it. Until then, she says, “We are still here. But we know the clock is ticking on us.”

A new era

Michael Farrell has lived in a beautiful Victorian home in Brush Park for 20 years. Farrell says that when he moved in he hoped that all the homes would be restored. But after years of listening to grand plans go nowhere, he is skeptical that the Brush Park he once envisioned will come to be. Farrell pulls out a large scrapbook and points to old newspaper articles with headlines that read: “Fighting to Save Brush Park,” “Urban Pioneers,” and “Preserving History.” All were written in the early to mid-1980s.

“People thought that things were going to happen here,” says Farrell. “And they’re never going to happen.”

He points to an apartment building across from his home, where he says drug addicts and prostitutes come and go around the clock.

“The cops are around the stadiums, the cops are around the casinos, but they aren’t here,” says Farrell. “Is it too much to ask for a secure and safe neighborhood? I don’t think so.”

Don Wiley lived next door to Farrell for about 18 years in a Victorian home that was purchased by a law firm last summer. Wiley, who now lives in Detroit’s East English Village, took remarkable care of the gorgeous dwelling. Like Farrell he also wanted to see the neighborhood come back.

“At the time it had so much potential, all the homes could have been restored, but the city turned its back,” says Wiley. “It could have been a showplace. We all hoped for that when we first moved here. Now it’s at the point where there are not that many houses left.”

Wiley left Brush Park for several reasons, but says that the drug-infested apartment building across the street was the last straw.

“The last two years it was out of control,” says Wiley. “The cops were there every single day of the week. If it was anyplace else, it would be closed up.”

As to the future, Wiley is optimistic and realistic: “It is going to be a very nice area, but it’s not going to be restored to the Victorian Era.”

Galster cites a 70-year-old theory to chart what’s ahead.

“According to the theory, neighborhoods are like biological organisms,” he says. “They were born, then matured and then showed signs of wear and tear.”

As the neighborhood falls apart, it is abandoned and further decays, explains Galster.

“This would set the stage for the land to be built upon again. That seems to be exactly what took place in Brush Park,” he says. “It took 150 years, but it’s a classic case.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send e-mail to [email protected]
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