If a neighborhood can be viewed as a brand, Southwest Detroit's Mexicantown might be one of its most successful. A dense and vibrant community, it attracts visitors from across the metropolitan region with its many dining and retail options, and its proximity to the bridge to Canada makes it a destination for international travelers as well.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Detroit's Mexican community used to refer to that business district as "La Bagley" after its main drag, where everyone knew you could watch Spanish-language films or buy tortillas and other Mexican groceries. The term "Mexicantown" didn't catch on until much later, bolstered by a PR effort in the '80s that was by and large embraced by the community and expanded organically.
Today, though, we're not here for the tamales. We're on the other side of the tracks, at the intersection of Springwells and Chamberlain streets, walking under a railroad viaduct that serves as a natural boundary between the heart of Mexicantown and the rest of Southwest Detroit. A viaduct like this is the perfect place for street artists to practice their craft, and, in fact, just about every square inch of it is covered in spray-paint.
"A lot of people say this is tearing the community up, but if they'd remember, a lot of this shit used to be gang graffiti," says our guide for the day, an artist, educator, and community organizer who goes by the name Sacramento Knoxx. "That used to be really problematic. This street art, it's a little bit less harsh than the gang stuff."
These days, the viaduct isn't the turf for territorial gang wars so much as a canvas for artists to hone their skills. But as we emerge from underneath the viaduct, Knoxx turns our attention to a hand-painted sign that isn't like the rest of the graffiti. It's more like a billboard, with a circular logo and the phrase "Southwest Detroit's Springwells Village" greeting passing cars as they cross through.
Knoxx, a longtime resident of the community, says he was perplexed when he first saw the sign appear — "Springwells Village" simply wasn't the name that the people he knew who lived here used to refer to the area. "To see that pop up — it wasn't on my radar, and I'm pretty tied in with people," Knoxx says. "So what's going on with this? Where's this coming from?"
A Google search for "Springwells Village" yields a website where you'll find the same circular logo from the viaduct as well as pages touting the neighborhood's restaurants, bars, and taco trucks, along with art attractions and community resources. The pages are brightly colored, warm and inviting, sometimes using a hand-drawn font. At the bottom is a note that the page is managed by the nonprofit Urban Neighborhoods Initiatives.
Knoxx is a member of Enclave, an ad-hoc committee he says supports development without displacement. Displacement, other members of Enclave will tell me, doesn't necessarily refer to physical displacement — it can be cultural too. And that's why the "Springwells Village" moniker has some Enclave members up in arms.
"My perspective is more broad than just the name change," Antonio Cosme, another member of Enclave, tells us later. "I think what we're seeing in Detroit is, I would call it a neocolonial moment, honestly."
In Cosme's view, post-bankruptcy Detroit is in the process of being "cantonized" by various entities, which will see investment in certain communities and divestment in others. Cosme sees it as all part of the think tank Detroit Future City's 50-year framework for restructuring the city by moving people from less-populated areas into denser ones.
"Springwells is slated to become one of those enclaves that gets the investment, whereas the other communities around it don't," he says. "In Detroit, where the most marginal communities are — where the most water shut-offs have been happening, where the most people are getting kicked out of their houses — they're getting divested in. The other neighborhoods that they want people to move in — they rebrand it."
Cosme says these neighborhood nonprofits act like fiefdoms. "These nonprofit fiefdoms, they're not interested in working in these areas and supporting the larger Southwest Detroit," he says. "They draw imaginary lines on a map and call it a neighborhood and say, 'This is where we're going to invest our time and energy,' and they soak up private foundation dollars."
Cosme calls it the "nonprofit-industrial complex."
"They're beholden to foundation dollars and to their funders," he says. "That's the pitfall of depending on nonprofits for the things that the government should be doing.
"Everybody's interested in Detroit as a thing, but not the people in it."
Mexicantown, along with what some call Springwells Village, aren't the only neighborhoods in Detroit to undergo rebranding campaigns, of course. And it's not the first time in Detroit that an area has been renamed by people who don't live in that area or recently moved in.
In recent years, we've seen the neighborhood north of Hamtramck called everything from "Banglatown" for its influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to, mockingly, "Honky Heidelberg" as white artists like Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert transformed some of its dirt-cheap houses into art installations à la Tyree Guyton's famous project.
We've also seen the same neighborhood referred to as "NoHam" — but only in press releases for the well-publicized Write a House campaign to move writers into the area, or on the real estate blog Curbed Detroit. Anecdotally, we haven't noticed the NoHam moniker stick — especially among the people who live there. In a 2012 post on Curbed, then-editor Sarah Cox implored readers to adopt the name. "Even people that live in it don't know what to call the neighborhood in Detroit north of the city of Hamtramck," she wrote. "It's either No Ham or BanglaTown or Hamtramck Heights or Davison. Can we just save us all some typing and go all out for the use of No Ham? It is the shortest. Maybe even NoHam. Aren't there enough vegetarian and vegan artists now to agree with us?"
An informal survey during a visit to the Bangladeshi restaurant Aladdin Sweets & Café in Hamtramck revealed most patrons knew of the name Banglatown but simply referred to their community as either Detroit or Hamtramck depending on which side of the border they lived. And while there is a Bangla Town Market nearby, one customer remarked that he didn't see the point in referring to his own community by the name of the ethnic group he belonged to. (Nobody we spoke with had heard of NoHam.)
Elsewhere, Green Dot Stables owner Jacques Driscoll caught flack in a WDET piece for jokingly referring to his restaurant as being located in "Corktown Shores" — a reference to the nearby hotspot Corktown that has seen resurgence in recent years — and not its historic Southwest Detroit neighborhood of Hubbard-Richard. They even sold T-shirts at Green Dot emblazoned with the fictitious name, and you can now see Corktown Shores marked on a map posted by Curbed.
Other developers are trying to cash in on the Corktown neighborhood's recent success by creating a buzz for an adjacent "West Corktown." In a Model D article titled "West Corktown: Creating Detroit's newest neighborhood," one commenter joked that the brand was such a hit that eventually every neighborhood in Detroit would one day be defined by its relationship to Corktown.
"My neighborhood will be Northeast Corktown," the commenter wrote. "Dearborn will be Extreme West Corktown. Seven Mile and Gratiot will be New Corktown Heights. In 2025, the city of Detroit will be renamed (excuse me, 'rebranded') Corktownville and Phil Cooley will be elected mayor for life on the slogan 'Every neighborhood has a Corktown.' The unicorns will begin arriving shortly thereafter."
Over at the Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI) office, located farther up on Springwells Street from the viaduct, executive director Dennis Nordmoe is obsessed with maps. "I've been map-crazy," he admits, showing us various ways of defining Southwest Detroit.
It's a huge swath of land, which Nordmoe says encompasses 75,000 people depending on where you draw the boundaries. He shows us a map of the Detroit Police Department's Fourth Precinct and another of the recently instated Detroit City Council District 6, represented by councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-Lopez.
He then pulls out a computer printout of an old region map from 1893. "Notice the boundary of the city of Detroit is right there, around Livernois," he says. Outside of city limits to the west was a sizeable chunk of land called Springwells Township, which would later get incorporated into Dearborn and Detroit, forming what would become what we now call Southwest Detroit. Essentially, with Springwells Village, Nordmoe and UNI are reviving a defunct brand.
Nordmoe's propensity for cartography, he says, comes from his days working for the city of Detroit, where he spent 30 years working in substance abuse services mapping data and doing prevention planning work. And that's when he realized the importance of social work on the neighborhood level.
"I could see agencies would claim to be comprehensive, when really they scattered a lot of separate services all across the city," he says. "That doesn't make it comprehensive for a kid growing up in a neighborhood. It's like the old 'five blind men and the elephant' — like, 'OK, I got the tail,'" he says.
Nordmoe says when he did dissertation research on drug-related mortality and homicide he found that the No. 1 driver was the education levels in a community. But the second-largest driver was city size. "The bigger the space you're in, the less rigid the norms are," he says. "If you're in a village, you're in a community where you feel accountable."
As the old adage goes, "It takes a village to raise a child."
"So how do you get back to the village?" Nordmoe says. "One way is to strengthen the neighborhood, to make the neighborhood so stable, so positive, that you get your identity there, and you feel your support group there."
After living in northwest Detroit for 30 years, Nordmoe moved to Huntington Woods 17 years ago when he first started working in Southwest Detroit, taking a job that seemed like it would offer an opportunity for him to work on a neighborhood level like he envisioned. One of his first projects was to rehab an abandoned church into the All Saints Neighborhood Center, a project that he says occupied most of his time between 1997 and 2005.
Things grew from there. A priest at All Saints suggested Nordmoe next try to acquire the empty lots across the street to use for parking for the community center. "I thought, 'Parking? A park would be better,'" he says. "Everybody in the neighborhood was saying there was nothing for kids to do."
By all accounts, the community center and park were a success. "That building was rocking from 7 in the morning to 9 at night, five days a week," Nordmoe says. "We've got a paved trail that goes all the way around. We see people of all ages using it. A young man working out, women walking it in groups, grandmas pushing strollers, kids on bikes, teenagers on rollerblades and skateboards."
Nordmoe says the park was embraced by all members of the community. "I was getting out of my car one day, and a [homeless] man comes down the street pushing his shopping cart with his stuff," he says. "And he stops by me and he says, 'This is wonderful. This is amazing. This is stupendous. Now if we can just keep the riffraff out!'"
In that way, Nordmoe says it's the ideal community — people with money love the neighborhood enough to stay and invest and raise their families, but the people who don't have money still feel bonded to it too.
"I thought, 'This is different. It is like a village here,'" he says, noting that it even has its own miniature downtown at the intersection of Vernors Highway and Springwells. "I started noticing that life here was different. People knew each other."
Nordmoe says that though you might walk into a liquor store or grocery store and be separated from the clerk by a plastic partition, you hear people addressing each other across it by name. "It's the first place that I've been known exclusively by my first name. None of this 'Dr. Nordmoe' or 'Mr. Nordmoe,' he says. "It just doesn't occur to them. It's not disrespectful — it's just 'Dennis.' Little kids, old people — 'Hi Dennis!' It feels great."
Nordmoe shows us another map. This is one that UNI made, a postcard with some of the information from the Springwells Village website printed on it.
"I noticed there was a natural community here," he says. "I was taught in geography to look for natural barriers. There's a natural land barrier here" — he points to the freeway and the industrial strip to the south — "and here" — he indicates Woodmere Cemetery on the west and Patton Memorial Park to the north.
"If you're driving around Detroit, you don't drive through these rail yards to anywhere," he says. "You go around it. Which has maybe been a blessing — it's allowed this neighborhood to nurture its own character."
As a result, though, the community isn't known as a destination for a lot of Detroiters — hence UNI's postcards. "This is a very entrepreneurial neighborhood. Everybody wants to start a restaurant. But how many restaurants can 17,000 people support?" he asks, referencing the approximate population of the area. "And yet, these are very worthy enterprises. How do you market that? You say 'Southwest Detroit,' and people think Mexicantown. No, it's not Mexicantown — Mexicantown is a piece of Southwest Detroit."
Names arise out of necessity. Internally, UNI came up with other names to address even smaller communities within the area: "Patton" after the nearby Patton Park, "Clemente" after the nearby Roberto Clemente Academy, "Woodmere" after the cemetery, "Springdale" after its bordering streets Springwells and Lawndale. "There's nothing particularly imaginative about it," Nordmoe says. "But it helps us to understand. It breaks it down so that if we visited 2,000 homes, but we didn't [visit] Clemente, we didn't really do the whole community."
Nordmoe says these names were only really used at the staff level. "But if you told anybody, 'Are you up in the Patton neighborhood?' They'd probably say, 'Oh yeah, we're by Patton Park.' But they wouldn't themselves say that," he says.
Eventually, Nordmoe says there came a need to name their efforts in the larger community, both internally and when applying for grants. That's when the idea to reclaim Springwells Township's identity came about. Again, the name was not particularly imaginative, as Springwells Street is a major thoroughfare, and there's also the Springwells Post Office still in use. "The consensus was, 'Let's go with Springwells,'" Nordmoe says.
Nordmoe cites a poster from 2000 promoting the Springwells Village project, noting at least a dozen other agencies' involvement. He also shows us a booklet outlining the Springwells Village Quality of Life Plan, which features more than 500 collaborators. His point: Nobody voiced any concerns about the Springwells Village name back then.
"All through that process, there was no objection to the name," Nordmoe says. "That name had been in use, by that time, for 10 years — for more than 10 years."
It was only when UNI had nearly finalized a contract with a marketing agency that the controversy brewed.
"There are some people who've made the issue a cause for whatever reason, and some reasons are given," he says. "One reason that I find implausible — and I'm willing to discuss it — is when you name a community, that leads to gentrification." Nordmoe pauses. "Didn't work for Brightmoor."
Nordmoe is reluctant himself to use the word "gentrification" — as are members of Enclave, it should be noted — pointing out that the neighborhood has lost thousands of people in the past decade. "If Detroit weren't missing a million people, and this was some kind of high-powered development process of seizing territory and chasing everybody out and redeveloping it for high income brackets — yeah, I'd get that," he says. "But that's not it. The whole purpose here is to help an ordinary Detroit neighborhood prosper and be a stable, mixed-income neighborhood that people are proud of. To get the resources there."
Nordmoe acknowledges a top complaint of the opponents to the Springwells Village name — that there wasn't enough community participation regarding the name. "There are single-issue people. God bless them, they get their issues advanced," he says. "There's only so much community participation that any of us are capable of. We had a lot of community participation. Did we have a maximum amount on every single issue? Well, no. But you still go forward with what you have."
Nordmoe is also aware of the suspicions that gentrification is the driving force behind the name. "I know that downtown, low-income, elderly people are being moved out in an insensitive way. But, why were they there in the first place? Because downtown was so degraded as a commercial location that they used it for purposes it wasn't built for. That's not really gentrification — it's recovery," he says.
"Now, it should be done with respect. But what we're about, post-recession, is getting [home] values up anywhere near where they were before the recession, and getting these restaurants that keep going out of business really successful, getting the storefronts that are empty filled again — and No. 1, helping the people in the neighborhood to prosper. And as they prosper, so improve the neighborhood that they will stay instead of move to Lincoln Park. This neighborhood becomes a success when those people stay.
"Prosperity is not the same as gentrification," he adds.
The day after Christmas, we walk around the neighborhood and ask the people we meet what they call it. Despite the viaduct sign, nobody we talk to appears to know anything about the name Springwells Village. Most of the people refer to the community simply as Southwest Detroit or even Mexicantown.
Knoxx points out that caring about such issues is somewhat of a luxury. "It depends on how they get their information. People who are on the up and up and know, they don't agree with it," he says. "People who are unaware, like my mother, she has no idea what's going on. But I let her know."
Knoxx says it's hard to get people civically engaged in the community. "It's not always easy for people around here, because they're dealing with historical trauma and pain, living inside this ghetto in the '90s." Knoxx says many people are more worried about basic survival and how to pay rent. "A lot of the time, to [get people] civically engaged or to worry about these issues, they're like, 'I don't have time for this.'"
Our informal survey takes us to D & L Hardware East on Vernor. One employee says he was a native of the area but has never heard of the Springwells Village name. "Sounds like more money to me," he says. "We're far away from being considered a village."
But like Nordmoe noted, the community is like a village. We return on another day to walk around with another member of Enclave, an activist and photographer named Erik Howard. As we walk down Vernor, the sidewalks bustle with pedestrians — a rarity almost everywhere else in the Motor City. Our walk is punctuated by lots of small talk with passers-by, with people calling out Howard by name or just to comment on the unseasonably warm weather.
Howard says he has called the area home for 32 of his 36 years. And he's quick to point out that for the most part, he admires the work UNI has done in his community. He's even variously volunteered for and worked with them since 1997.
"Their model is important," he says. "They believe strongly that an organization commits to a very small part of a larger neighborhood, and they work the hell out of that neighborhood to meet community-identified needs with outside resources.
"It's brilliant. It's also kind of obvious, but it's not generally how people do it. People usually take huge swaths of an area and develop — they focus their efforts on really small parts of the neighborhood, and since they've done that, it's yielded wonderful results." Howard says he took his daughter to the park every other day over the summer, and also applauds UNI's efforts in providing opportunities for GED education and also a preschool.
But Howard himself refers to his community by its major intersection, a convention typical among Detroiters (he also notes he refuses to refer to Mexicantown by its name). That means he refers to his community by Springwells-Vernor — which we point out is not radically different from the proposed "Springwells Village." But Howard thinks it is.
"When you think of the villages in Detroit, what do you think of?" he says, referring to historically well-to-do neighborhoods like Indian Village and West Village. "The neighborhoods are very different. This process has really pandered to the attraction of new people — which is fine, that needs to be part of the process. We have a lot of empty units, but [new people] should not be prioritized over retention of current residents."
Howard takes us to a red archway built over Vernor, one of two on the neighborhood's little downtown drag. On a partition facing the street, someone has wheat-pasted a poster: "Our neighborhood is not a brand," it reads. "We Are #SWDetroit."
"A 74-year-old put that up," he says. "She asked us to print them and give them to her, and she wheat-pasted it herself."
It's part of a campaign to engage the community and, in part, get feedback on the name change. Howard says Enclave has collected more than 300 signatures on a petition that will soon be presented to UNI, which states that UNI has not "fully and authentically included the voices and input of community residents" and that "marketing efforts are focused primarily on bringing new residents in, with little focus on retaining current residents." The petition requests that UNI "create a plan to revisit the naming process" and restructure its marketing efforts to primarily focus on retention of current residents.
"It doesn't mean that you can't name something," Howard says of the campaign. "What 'Our neighborhood is not a brand' is all about is that our neighborhood is a community."
Branding should be one of the last priorities. "A lot of times when you're branding something, you're branding it so you can market it, and when you're marketing, you're marketing it to somebody who it doesn't already resonate with," he says. "You're trying to attract somebody. A lot of the efforts around the naming and branding of Springwells Village is about making the community palatable for people — who, for one reason or another, don't come or don't like it. Our point is you're talking to the wrong audience."
And Howard points out that while the Springwells Township name is historically accurate, it originally encompassed an area that was much wider than what would be called Springwells Village. "Springfield Township went all the way to Greenfield Village," he says. "That's nowhere near here. How far back to you want to go? Before that, you know that this land was stolen by somebody, right? Do you want to go back that far?"
Howard's problem is that acknowledging Springwells Township is a selective history. "There are a lot of things that are true about this neighborhood that you can assert if you want to," he says. "Four blocks from where I grew up, there was a gang that was started. That gang was created by the Native American family in collaboration with some Mexicans and whites, and it was designed to insulate their block from the negative effects of the gangs from Chicago that were moving in."
His point is that's significant too and a part of the neighborhood's history. "There's lots of things that are true about the neighborhood. I would never argue that what happened on Green Street should become our identity," he says. "But if I'm going by the same standards that UNI are, then I could state that case."
A big part of his community's reality — one that Howard says is being whitewashed by the Springwells Village campaign — is what he euphemistically refers to as the "street economy," including drug trafficking and prostitution, that is a part of everyday life for some residents.
We walk past several young women standing on the sidewalk — prostitutes participating in the local street economy, Howard points out. "These are all things that I worry about Springwells Village getting glossed over," he says. "So what do you do? Just deny those things until you have a critical mass that can just push them out? I know that's not part of your marketing materials, but that's part of the reality. Are the people you're targeting really ready to move into a neighborhood like this?
"Growing up in Southwest is like growing up in a small town in the middle of a big city," Howard says. "I've been in rooms with people that my next door neighbor killed their cousin, and they know that I'm friends with that person, but I get a pass because I wasn't on the corner.
"Everybody's related," he continues. "We all lived on the same blocks as each other. If you grew up on Carson, everybody who grew up on Carson is your family. You don't always like your family."
If Detroit is, in fact, ruled over by nonprofit fiefdoms, the ruler of them all might be Midtown Detroit, Inc. Its neighborhood, Midtown, has become synonymous with Detroit's recent redevelopments, hosting major cultural institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University as well as an influx of trendy restaurants in recent years. And after changing its name five years ago from the University Cultural Center Association to Midtown Detroit, Inc., it's now nearly impossible to untangle Midtown the nonprofit from Midtown the neighborhood.
In other words, this neighborhood very much is a brand. And its president, Sue Mosey, is quick to refer to it as one.
She tells us by phone that she first saw the need for a unifying identity for the neighborhood 15 years ago. "We realized that it was very difficult to come up with anything that was meaningful to translate into signs or translate into area guides or any kind of applications if we didn't have sort of a brand name for the entire neighborhood," Mosey says, noting that the area was comprised of a myriad of smaller neighborhoods already — Art Center, Cass Corridor, and Brush Park, among others.
She denies that the powerful Midtown moniker had anything to do with scrubbing individual existing neighborhood brands clean of tarnished histories. (A joke in the Metro Times office goes that in the local media, people get mugged in the Cass Corridor; new restaurants open in Midtown. Mosey tells us she has not heard that joke.)
Mosey says she encourages individual neighborhoods to continue using their names in addition to the larger Midtown umbrella. "We needed to have one larger geography as we're building out in the neighborhood so that it's all becoming more connected, so that people know that when you're going to Midtown, you're going to have all these different options that you could go to," she says. It also helps that the Midtown brand was already familiar — plenty of other major North American cities have their own Midtown with similar cultural assets.
Mosey also attributes the success of Midtown to its 200 "members," or participating institutions and businesses that plug the brand as well.
"We don't spend a lot of money on marketing," Mosey says. "But what we do have is 200 members. And when they all start using 'Midtown' as their brand, then you really start to reach scalable audiences.
"And the first people that really picked up on the Midtown thing and really helped us were the media, quite frankly. So obviously you could see it was also solving sort of a problem with the media of how to describe things going on in this geography that really didn't have a name either."
Attaching the brand to tangible things helps to make the connection in people's minds, Mosey says — like creating new construction projects and throwing annual events like Dlectricity and Art X Detroit. Even the Dally in the Alley block party, long a Cass Corridor institution, gave in and latched onto the Midtown brand in a press release four years ago.
In all, Mosey says, it took "Midtown" the neighborhood more than a decade to fully catch on with people. "It's not an overnight thing," she notes. "You just have to keep working at it."
Names, of course, don't really mean anything unless people agree on their meaning. At the end of the day, neighborhoods aren't things. They're made up of people, and in everyday speech, the people are the ones who ultimately will give their neighborhood its name, despite what a hand-painted sign might suggest they say.
Whether "Springwells Village" catches on depends on its residents. But oftentimes, life can have a funny way of imitating art — or branding — especially if its plugged by media over and over again.
[Update 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 7] An earlier version of this story implied that Nordmoe is a Detroit native. Although he has lived in Detroit for 30 years, he is originally from Grant Park, Ill.