A neighborhood fights back

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Warrendale is fighting for its life. No, that’s not quite right. Maybe it would be fairer to say that Warrendale is fighting for its quality of life. It’s not like the area is about to slide off the map — but if it weren’t for the determined efforts of residents who refuse to move or to accept what’s happening to their neighborhood, its days as a viable community could definitely be numbered.

Warrendale is one of those rare Detroit neighborhoods; it is actually integrated. In one of the most segregated cities in one of the most segregated states in the country, Warrendale’s population of slightly more than 23,000 is close to 50 percent black, close to 50 percent white, with a smattering of Hispanics, Asians and Arabs. It is a working-class community on the city’s West Side bordering Dearborn, and many of the homes are relatively small wood-frame residences. Some folks will remember “Warrendale” from reports from more than a decade ago when white residents, then the majority, fought tooth and nail to prevent the Detroit Public Schools from establishing the Afro-centric Malcolm X Academy in their midst. The opponents saw themselves as the last white holdouts jamming their collective thumb into the dike to keep “those people” from moving in and wrecking their neighborhood like “they” had wrecked so many other once-fine Detroit neighborhoods.

“There was a lot of racial verbiage going back and forth then,” says Ella Norman, current president of the Warrendale Community Organization. Whites felt the only reason for the school “was to force integration down everyone’s throats. It got really ugly.”

Yeah, well. It appears the holdouts lost the battle, and they might even argue that what they most feared once too many of them moved in has actually come to pass. Residents complain bitterly about the rampant prostitution and drug dealing that goes on in front of their homes; they say they are victims of burglars who aren’t restricted to the nighttime hours and brazenly rob in broad daylight. And it isn’t just white residents who are complaining.

How successful these residents will be in reviving their corner of the world remains to be seen, but the fight’s lessons are already apparent, and they’re lessons that must be learned throughout Detroit: If you’re sick and tired of what you see happening on the street where you live, then get together with your neighbors and do something. Don’t wait on the mayor, the City Council or the police to come save your neighborhood because by then it may be too late. Your neighborhood just may need to save itself — and rallying the neighbors can be a bear of a task.

Carrie Engle, a five-year resident of Warrendale and WCO’s recording secretary, comes across as a cheery, open kind of person when you meet her. Her smile is warm and genuine, and her love for her community is obvious. But sometimes love means telling the truth, and in July’s issue of the WCO newsletter, Engle spouted off like a teapot perched on a volcano. She said she had no problem with me reprinting what she said:


As if the heat isn’t enough to deal with, have you driven through the streets of Warrendale recently? I have and I am just appalled at what I see. Bulk trash everywhere, tall grass, weeds, litter on the streets, empty houses being stripped and their yards being used as dump sites, numerous prostitutes strutting on Warren Avenue, fully operational drug houses, car-to-car drug deals in broad daylight, abandoned vehicles on the streets, illegal signage posted on light poles, etc., etc. Do you get the picture? Warrendale looks like hell! ... If everyone does his or her part and becomes an active member of this community, there’s nothing we can’t achieve. I am tired of hearing people complain about this and that and everything, and yet they do nothing to better their community. As the saying goes, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.


Norman has worked herself down to her absolute last nerve, along with other committed residents and WCO members, to expand the organization’s membership and transform it into a more effective body. One of the largest hurdles was convincing Warrendale’s black residents that the WCO was no longer going to be a back-slapping social club of old white men. Norman, who is white, went to churches and anywhere else she needed to go to let people know she was dead serious about her intention to work with blacks, whites and whoever else to make Warrendale a viable community once again. Rather than pack her bags with her husband, Art, and head for the suburbs, she had made up her mind that this was home.

“Why should I have to leave my home?” she asked, adding that her neighbors feel the same way. “Why should these people be run off from their property just because they can’t get the city to give them a hand?”

Judging by some of her rather lengthy entries in recent community newsletters, it appears there has also been difficulty in getting more WCO members to consistently step up and do their fair share of the tremendous amount of work required to repair the neighborhood. Norman says there has also been difficulty in getting much — if any — assistance from the police, and she has all but given up on the much-touted concept of “community policing” that she says Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings promised her was forthcoming.

“Police response out of the 6th [Precinct] has been poor at best,” she says in the July newsletter. “Seems that every time we call the precinct we are being told to call 911, regardless of what the problem is. Sometimes they respond, sometimes they don’t. I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.”

So it looks like it’s up to the neighborhood to save the neighborhood, and WCO is leading the charge as best it can. Anybody who has ever belonged to an organization can testify that it is the bedrock few who always wind up shouldering the burden. But despite all the obstacles, at last week’s monthly WCO meeting — a packed house — there was evidence that the hard work of community organizing has been paying off. The audience reflected the makeup of the community, with lots of both blacks and whites in attendance. City and county officials and even state House members from the area have become semi-regular fixtures at meetings and have worked hand-in-hand with the WCO. Community patrols are joining the fight against crime and blight. The treasury has more than quadrupled to around $3,000, and the WCO is now preparing a budget for the first time. These are small steps, but at least they are steps.

Sometimes you just have to save yourself.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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