Local revival

From stadiums to casinos, attempts to upgrade Detroit’s downtown have garnered much recent attention.

While these large-scale projects command the spotlight, it is the success of Detroit’s residential neighborhoods that tells the truest story of the city’s perceived recovery.

In Corktown and Boston-Edison, as well as other historic neighborhoods such as University District, Green Acres and Indian Village, communities are strong, despite a certain neglect on the part of government and private business. But these neighborhoods foster the kind of growth that comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.

However, Melvin Williams Sr., one of the founders of the Detroit Historic Neighborhoods Coalition, worries that downtown development could distract the city from maintaining its residential communities.

“The downtown is important,” he concedes, “but not at the expense of the neighborhoods.”

The coalition brings together representatives from more than 20 of Detroit’s designated historic neighborhoods. But its agenda reaches further.

“Our main goal is not just for historic preservation,” Williams explains, “but to get the city to be responsive to the citizens.”

For many residents, the grace and beauty of Detroit’s historic neighborhoods compensates somewhat for the city’s comparatively high income taxes and notoriously poor services. But Williams and others recognize that the city government needs to do more to support its residential communities.

In June, the Chicago Tribune ran a major story on the importance of the 2000 census to the ultimate success or failure of efforts to renew Detroit. In the article, Tribune writer Evan Osnos hypothesizes about the impact of the census on Detroit — especially should the head count fall short of 1 million. He also questions the methods Detroit has adopted in its efforts to bring back a vital urban zone.

“How much has the city’s development incorporated the neighborhoods?” he asks. “And how much has the recent influx actually changed life in Detroit?”

Osnos implies the results of the census will provide a clearer understanding of where the city is headed, but leaves us with the sense that much evidence of Detroit’s purported growth is anecdotal.

It’s no secret that Detroit has struggled with a history of racial tension, segregation, economic stratification and excessive poverty. But in spite of — or, perhaps, because of — these challenges, the neighborhoods are improving and becoming ever more popular as new buyers opt to return to a city their parents left years ago.

Property values have been climbing steadily, a boon for longtime homeowners who, in some cases, have seen their investments triple in value over the past decade or so.

“Prices are escalating quite drastically,” says Detroit real estate agent Chris Cetlinski, who specializes in the city’s historic districts. “People are finally realizing the historic value and the architectural value of these homes and realizing that there are only so many.”

Purchasers are finding the houses themselves to be a primary incentive to live in the city. From Corktown, with houses built as early as the 1830s, to the grand auto-money mansions of the Boston-Edison district, Detroit boasts a collection of residential architecture that any city would envy.

There’s a wider cultural force at work too: As we move into the new millennium, living in an elegant older home has become a popular dream. Television programs such as “This Old House” and “The Antiques Road Show” encourage people to embrace nostalgia, and to revalue the artistry and skill of yesteryear.

There is also a certain prestige associated with structures built with quality materials and craftsmanship frequently missing in newer construction. In Detroit, owning this type of home — with features such as original leaded glass windows, decorative plaster work, Pewabic tile, wrought iron railings, grand staircases and hand-carved wooden banisters — is still within reach for many buyers.

But it’s not merely about aesthetics. For Williams, “The historic neighborhoods bring a sense of stability, of knowing where you came from.”

According to Cetlinski, Detroit neighborhoods provide an old-fashioned community feeling. In contrast with some of the suburbs, “When you get into the historic areas you get people that are more willing to … know their neighbors,” says Cetlinski, who is a resident of the Boston-Edison district. “Here we have our Christmas tour, we have an Easter egg hunt, a Halloween party, we have Picnic in the Park for people in the community. We have a joint attic sale. (We do) things that small communities can do.”

Margaret Palmer, who has lived in the Woodbridge neighborhood since 1984, is a real estate agent specializing in historic homes downtown. She says she has noticed a definite trend of younger buyers moving into the city, and is excited that people who have lived in the suburbs are deciding to move to Detroit.

“A lot of people have heard about Woodbridge or Corktown,” remarks Palmer. “(The neighborhoods) are very tight, very close-knit.”

Still, those who elect to live in Detroit neighborhoods make certain sacrifices. Perhaps the biggest sacrifice would-be Detroiters consider is the public school system.

“This is our biggest problem,” says Cetlinski. “I always say that it took 30 or 40 years to build the city, it took one night to destroy it. It’s not going to take five or 10 years to rebuild, it’s going to take 30 years to rebuild.”

The city needs to focus on the schools, he asserts. “Until a family can buy a house and send their children to a local school, the city is really not going to thrive. It really needs that school system to support the family. Period.”

Palmer articulates the same concern. “We do have babies and children and families in Woodbridge and Corktown,” she says with emphasis, as if she wants the city to hear. People who opt into Detroit neighborhoods frequently send children to private schools. But, Palmer believes, the trade-off can be a good one.

“You get much better influence for your children (in Detroit) because it’s got such a mixture of lifestyles. The people that have their children down here want their children to grow up among other cultures. It’s a deeper way of life here because we aren’t homogenized.”

Another problem, says Palmer, is the lack of retail and commercial businesses.

“Many of us who are in historic districts are wanting more for the neighborhoods, and we thought we were going to have that,” she says. Yet she remains optimistic about local development: “We’re confident it’ll still come.”

Cetlinski has already begun to see evidence of small retail businesses showing interest in Detroit. He predicts, “The people who sign those leases in the next few years are going to be glad they did because in the relative future it is going to be a boom.”

It’s clear that these concerns don’t dissuade would-be residents. At a recent open house — for a stunning brick Tudor home with four bedrooms in the University District (near the University of Detroit) — I spoke with several people eager to buy houses in Detroit neighborhoods. One of the most common stories was that of young, middle-class buyers — both black and white — wanting to return to neighborhoods their families left years before.

Hester and Andrew Cleveland of Wayne, a black couple about to celebrate their first anniversary, were drawn to the open house from the suburbs. Hester has family living in the area, and Andrew says they’re looking for a metropolitan lifestyle. They admire the quietness and dignity of the stately University District.

“You’ve got to have enough city so that everything is at your disposal,” says Andrew. “But where it’s not encroaching on your private space.”

Another couple at the open house preferred to remain anonymous, but said they’ve lived in the University District for 16 years. When she, a homemaker and small business owner, moved here from the East Coast in the early ’80s with her attorney husband, they considered buying in Indian Village or Palmer Woods, where they could have bought a lot of house for a small amount. They quickly learned, however, that “The upkeep of some of those houses was so intense, people could afford the mortgage, but then the heating bill would come and it was bigger than the mortgage.”

She recalls, “You had to ask not just can you afford to buy it, but can you afford to live in it!”

They ultimately bought a Colonial-style home near Seven Mile. “More people were moving out than in,” she recalls. “People were expecting Detroit to disappear.”

That, however, has changed as the neighborhood continues to increase in value. Today, home prices in the University District can reach as much as $300,000.

Cetlinski’s professional track record suggests that buying in Detroit is an excellent investment. But his strong advocacy of investing in Detroit is also personal.

“I look at my home as my bankbook,” he quips. “Instead of having money in the bank which does nothing — you don’t enjoy it — I put it into my home. At least (you) can enjoy it and when (you) need to cash in, you put the sign out in front if that’s what you need to do.”

“I would rather have nothing in the bank and a wonderful home than vice versa.”

Audrey Becker is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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