West Side story

Tucked into a side street in the Tireman neighborhood on Detroit’s old West Side, the brick duplex that sisters Gloria and Gale Peterson have lived in for more than 60 years is a modest but charming place. Bright white paint covers the wood trim, and window boxes filled with colorful geraniums decorate a clean-swept front porch.

Across the street is a much different house, one rotting its way into oblivion. The roof and porch both sag. The windows are all boarded over. A sign that warns “This house is being watched” has been posted.

Among those doing the watching are the Peterson sisters, who describe their block on Colfax Street as a tight-knit community that doesn’t tolerate much nonsense.

“We get riffraff in here, but we get them out,” Gloria Peterson, 68, says. The sisters and their neighbors are quick to call the cops if newcomers start causing problems.

“We’re territorial,” adds Gale, 64.

What’s noteworthy about this piece of territory is how far it has fallen. In a city that’s lost just more than half its population over the past half-century, Tireman’s decline has been even more precipitous. Since its peak in 1940, when 72,000 people called the area home, nearly 70 percent of the residents have disappeared. As of the 2000 census, only 22,000 people lived there. Homes have vanished at an equally startling rate. In 1960 there were nearly 19,000 housing units in this 3.3-square-mile area; as of the last census, fewer than half that number remained.

If the metro area’s housing market were equated to a food chain, Tireman is one of the Detroit neighborhoods that forms a vulnerable last link dangling at the edge of extinction.

George Galster, an urban affairs professor at Wayne State University, explains the chain this way: As residential developments push farther out from the center city, turning more farmland into the most recent rim of our ever-expanding metropolis, the new houses gobble up residents from the older suburbs, which, in turn, are increasingly being populated by the thousands of people leaving Detroit each year. Within the city, people make the move up to better housing when it becomes available. At the bottom end of this chain are the homes no one will buy: homes in neighborhoods like Tireman.

“The special problem with this region is that we strongly encourage abandonment of older houses by building more new houses than there are households to fill them,” Galster says. “It’s a zero-sum game. If you have the same number of households, and you build 2,000 new homes in the exurbs, you’re going to create 2,000 vacancies in the least competitive neighborhoods.”

The question that looms as Detroit struggles to stem its population loss — and retain the tax base desperately needed to keep the city from going bankrupt — is this: Can such neighborhoods be saved?

Officials in Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration say the answer is yes, and that their goal is to bring back every neighborhood in the city. Work on a master plan has been under way for more than a year and isn’t expected to be complete until next year. But whatever the plan is, critics say, in a city that’s losing at least 10,000 residents a year, the notion that every neighborhood can be rejuvenated ignores reality.

Urban planners and the foundations that fund much of Detroit’s community development say there’s simply not enough money to clear away all the abandoned property, build the new housing, generate commercial activity and provide the social services required to stabilize every threatened neighborhood.

As a result, the large foundations and other nonprofit organizations working on Detroit’s revitalization are adopting a strategy of targeting neighborhoods deemed to have the most potential to flourish. One consequence of that strategy, though, appears to be a sort of catch-22 where neighborhoods like Tireman that need the most help may be the least likely to get it.

But even here, in an area that’s been as decimated as any in a city that’s long been in decline, hope is hard to extinguish. A subsidized apartment complex has just been built. In the pipeline are a new community center and a 25-home development. No one would contend, though, that these efforts by themselves will be enough to save Tireman, let alone resurrect the vibrant community that once existed here.

Storied past

The Tireman community — named for the main thoroughfare passing through it — was one of Detroit’s first African-American enclaves. As with the better-known Black Bottom on Detroit’s near East Side, the restrictive covenants on deeds that barred blacks from buying homes in most of the city weren’t in place here.

“From the 1920s to the 1950s, it was pretty solid, pretty stable,” says Louis Jones, an archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library. Jones, along with a group of former residents called the West Siders, is compiling an oral history of the area. It is a past defined by segregation.

Just as racism prevented African-Americans from owning homes wherever they wanted, the residents of Tireman were blocked from patronizing the city’s white-owned stores and restaurants. As a result, the community became a universe unto itself.

“We didn’t venture outside of that neighborhood too much,” says Suesetta McCree, who lived here as a girl in the 1940s. “There were 300 black-owned businesses in the area. You could get your shoes repaired, go to the cleaners, the beauty shop, the dime shop, the ice cream parlor ...”

Her memories of those days are fond ones. “My sister and I had a cousin our age. She’d ride her bike over and we’d go to the movies,” McCree says. “Every Sunday, my father would make biscuits for us, my aunts and cousins.”

Those kinds of strong ties were pervasive. “We were all a big family,” Gloria Peterson recalls.

The area also was home to a vibrant social scene. During its heyday, the legendary Bluebird Inn provided a venue for such jazz greats as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. The Nacirema Club — touted as Michigan’s first social club for African-American men — gained fame in the ’40s and ’50s for an annual weeklong extravaganza whose highlights were a dance, a racetrack party, a church service and a moonlight boat ride. And community activities abounded throughout the neighborhood, from informal get-togethers to organized dances.

In some ways, Gloria Peterson says, growing up on the West Side could feel a little too familial. She remembers trying to get into the Bluebird Inn for a show one night: “I knew the man at the door. He said, ‘Go home, little Peterson,’ and sent me on my way.”

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court declared enforcement of restrictive covenants to be unconstitutional. With that decision, the once cohesive community began to change.

Social pressure, Jones says, still kept black people from buying homes in much of the city, but it became possible for the West Side’s captive population to move to other parts of the metro area.

“Segregation was a bad thing, no ifs, ands or buts about it, but it created a situation where the community was forced to be cohesive,” Jones says. By 1950, when the population of Detroit as a whole was still climbing, the erosion of Tireman had already begun, with about 5,000 people leaving in the preceding 10 years.

In a way, Jones explains, the community suffered from its own success. Many who grew up on the West Side went on to professional careers as doctors, lawyers or teachers, attaining a better standard of living than their parents. The higher incomes meant more opportunity to live elsewhere.

But that wasn’t the only factor in Tireman’s decline.

During the ’50s, two interstate highways, I-96 on the north and I-94 to the south, cut through the area. “What the freeways did at that time was to tear the neighborhood up for several years,” McCree says. Her father’s house was one of many demolished to make way for road construction.

The consequences were twofold. Like McCree’s, many of the families whose homes were sacrificed to make room for the new roads moved elsewhere. And those who stayed were left with a community fragmented by the two expressways slicing through it.

By 1960, Detroit’s population as a whole had begun to drop as suburban development took off during the preceding decade, forming the beginning of the housing food chain that would eventually have as its lowest link Tireman and neighborhoods like it.

Changing times

Debra Mainor, 55, moved to the Tireman neighborhood’s Prairie Street in 1974. “It was still quiet, still respectful,” she says. But in the next 10 years, her street got rougher. “That first block down there,” Mainor says, pointing south, “we used to call it Compton. One time there was a shootout down there.”

It’s a change Mainor attributes to older residents dying off, and new people, often young renters, moving in.

Just as it has lost proportionately more people than Detroit as a whole, Tireman tends to skew older than the rest of the city. As of the last census, 20 percent of the people living here were 60 or older, compared to 13 percent for all of Detroit.

That older demographic is another hurdle facing Tireman, because it’s leading to a shift away from owner-occupied homes to rentals.

About 1,000 homes made the switch to rental during the 1990s alone, says United Way research director Kurt Metzger, formerly a demographer at Wayne State University. In the past, he says, most of the families living in Tireman owned their homes. But with more than half of the neighborhood’s homes now rentals, the trend away from ownership is likely to continue.

That’s a problem for neighborhoods, says Marsha Bruhn, director of the City Planning Commission, an advisory body that reports to City Council. “With rental property, you don’t get the same level of upkeep on the housing or the same level of maintenance,” Bruhn says. “This is not an indictment of renters, but some rental property is owned by people who don’t maintain it that well. There’s always a feeling among the homeowners that they care more about the neighborhood, and that they’re more interested in what happens in the neighborhood than renters are.”

Some deal with the blight by putting on blinders.

Melvin Cotton, for example, lives with an abandoned factory as a neighbor. Cotton, 62, thinks the place was a chemical plant before it closed about five years ago. The factory’s windows are broken out, and piles of used tires, abandoned furniture and garbage litter the site.

But he says it doesn’t bother him. “I go the other way,” Cotton says. “I don’t ever look at it.”

Essequena Jones, 78, has lived in the Tireman neighborhood since 1965. From her front porch on Lindsdale Street, Jones can see any number of vacant lots and now-dilapidated houses she says were abandoned when their owners died. She deals with the emptiness by avoiding it as best she can. “I don’t ever go over that way,” Jones says.

Of the 9,000 housing units in Tireman considered habitable at the time of the last census, nearly 1,200 were vacant.

In neighborhoods like Tireman, Wayne State’s Galster says, owning a home may carry more financial penalty than gain. Property taxes, the expense of keeping a house up to code, and the other costs of homeownership can reach a point where abandoning a home is the easiest way to deal with it, he says.

“I think where there’s older housing, where there’s deferred maintenance, where you have an aging population and a lower income population, there is likely to be continued deterioration of the housing stock, and that’s going to impact the long-term viability of those areas,” Bruhn says. “That’s why community organizations are so important. The money they bring in might not be very significant, but the fact that the neighborhood is organized, and you’ve got people working to bring in a few dollars will sometimes generate other investments.”

Target practice

One thing experts agree on is that if Tireman and neighborhoods like it are to have any chance of resurrection, community development corporations must be a vital component.

They’re nonprofit entities that do work, generally on the neighborhood level, ranging from building houses to social support programs to economic redevelopment. In Detroit, CDCs are on the front lines of street-level revitalization.

The Prevailing CDC began taking shape back in 1999 when longtime members of New Community Church started meeting with neighborhood newcomers to discuss ways of saving their community.

It began by assessing the neighborhood, determining whether there was community support for new housing projects, how safe residents felt, and what their major concerns were.

Prevailing CDC also began working on a comprehensive community redevelopment strategy, one that relied on an integrated economic development plan that would court a broad array of housing, ranging from subsidized apartments to large single-family homes sold at market rate.

After that research was compiled and a strategy mapped out, Prevailing CDC was officially incorporated in 2002. Soon after, Chaunci Wyche came aboard as the nonprofit’s program director. Wyche, a native Detroiter who previously worked for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and the East Side nonprofit organization Mack Alive, oversaw an economically integrated redevelopment program in Cleveland.

There have been significant steps forward in the past three years. A $10 million 66-unit rent-to-own subsidized apartment development has been completed. A $4 million development featuring 25 single-family homes is expected to be completed by next summer. Unlike the subsidized apartments, these homes will be sold at the market rate of about $150,000 each.

It’s part of a deliberate effort to attract higher-income residents to the area. “If you’re going to rebuild a neighborhood, there’s going to have to be a blended approach,” Wyche says. “We’re looking to rebuild a community that has a diverse economic and cultural base.”

Construction is also under way on a $2 million community center that’s expected to be a linchpin in the Tireman redevelopment effort. For any recovery effort to succeed in an area like this, it’s necessary to do more than just build new homes, Wyche says: “Community development goes beyond brick and mortar.”

For example, residents need the education and skills necessary to get jobs that will provide the kind of disposable income that will bring businesses to the area. Neighborhood kids whose parents work need constructive after-school activities; parents are drawn to communities that provide such services.

“It’s really a very connected strategy when it comes to redeveloping neighborhoods,” Wyche says.

To that end, after-school activities, literacy and business programs are being offered at New Community Church for the time being. Money is coming from the congregation and the city’s Department of Health and Wellness. Once the new community center opens, these and other programs providing a full array of social support services will be provided there.

For revitalization to succeed, it’s also necessary to do more than improve the lot of people already living in the area. New residents must be attracted. That’s why Wyche has been inviting suburbanites who work in the area to meetings in an attempt to get them to participate in what she hopes will be Tireman’s rebirth.

“If I expect these houses to sell at market rate, I have to go beyond the borders of this community, beyond Eight Mile,” Wyche says.

If Tireman is going to be saved, it needs people like Janice Hood, who grew up in northeast Detroit but moved to the suburbs eight years ago when she was able to buy a house in Harper Woods. Now she’s returning to buy one of the houses Wyche’s group is building. Hood, 50, says she’s motivated in part by the fact that she can get more bang for her housing buck in Detroit.

“It has always been a dream of mine to get a brand-new house built from the ground up, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” Hood says. “When I heard about this new plan, I jumped on it.”

She’s not deterred by Tireman’s blight. “When you drive through there now, it looks like an eyesore,” Hood says. “I have people asking me, ‘Why do you want to move back there?’ But I see a bigger picture.” She’s a member of New Community Church, and has been interested in Prevailing CDC’s work since it started. “I look around the city of Detroit, and I see a lot of housing go up in neighborhoods where the house across the street looks bad. But I believe things can change.”

Even with just one model home up as part of the newest Prevailing development, Hood says it has inspired existing homeowners. “Some people in the neighborhood put siding on their houses. They’re willing to fix it up,” Hood says. “People were saying the community isn’t good, but to me, change is what it’s all about. If they’re building 25 new houses, well, then that’s a community right there.”

The next step of the Prevailing strategy is to bring business into the neighborhood. “In order to address commercial or retail, you’ve got to be able to produce rooftops,” Wyche says. “We have to be able to show that this is an economically integrated community that can support businesses.”

But it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize, in a neighborhood that continues to hemorrhage residents and lose aging housing stock to abandonment and neglect, that gains much greater than those made so far must be realized.

The problem facing Tireman: It’s the healthier neighborhoods that are getting the most attention because, development experts say, they’re the more likely to produce the sort of sustained recovery financiers are looking for.

Helping hands

In Detroit, revitalization efforts are often funded by large philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. And the way they do business is changing.

In what some are calling the next wave in philanthropy, neighborhoods are being targeted for redevelopment based not just on need but also potential.

“When I first started to do this work, it was willy-nilly,” says Brenda Price, the Knight Foundation’s community liaison officer for Detroit. “But foundations don’t have enough money to support all the things that need to happen. If you have $10 and you spread it across the city, it won’t go very far. But if you put it in one neighborhood, it might do some good.”

That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy behind targeted redevelopment. And most of the big players in Detroit’s nonprofit development arena are adopting it. They are also beginning to coordinate efforts.

“We’ve been having conversations with other foundations,” says Tonya Allen, program director at the Skillman Foundation, whose community redevelopment work focuses on children’s needs. “We’re asking them, if we’re making investments here, if other things are going on in this community, why not invest here with us?”

The Detroit Local Initiatives Support Coalition, a nonprofit whose primary function is to support community development, recently began a three-year, $40 million targeted neighborhood investment campaign. More than 80 percent of that money will be directed toward groups working in four targeted neighborhoods.

Program director Anika Goss-Foster says LISC had specific criteria for the neighborhoods chosen.

“We went through a process of analyzing data, looked at housing trends, affordability, the demographic in general, what living conditions were and what the market opportunities were,” Goss-Foster says. “What we focused on were areas where community development corporations, who are our primary investment partners, were already working.”

They’re all communities, she says, “where there’s already momentum.”

None of the large philanthropies interviewed for this article had targeted Tireman.

“Not all neighborhoods in the city have nonprofits that have the capacity to do large projects,” explains the Knight Foundation’s Price. Small organizations such as the one at work in Tireman are unlikely to get the funds necessary to launch major projects. “You need to know that the organization can manage the grant,” Price says.

It’s possible that Wyche’s group could get to that stage, but doing so will take time. “They’re going to keep growing,” Price says about the Prevailing CDC. “They’ll get the capacity.”

Until then, though, it will have to look elsewhere for help.

“Nobody can serve the entire city,” Price says. “That’s truly been demonstrated by the local, state and federal government.”

With limited funds available, Goss-Foster says, organizations like hers are seeking investments that “really create an impact.”

Detroit planning director Burney Johnson says the city supports all the work foundations and nonprofits do here, but that it isn’t currently considering a targeted program. The administration’s philosophy, she says, is that all the neighborhoods can be brought back.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” she says.

To achieve that goal, the Kilpatrick administration is devising a new master plan that is promised to provide a comprehensive guide to appropriate development in all of the city’s neighborhoods.

“I think when you have an area that has experienced a large amount of disinvestment, then you have to first of all figure out or develop a plan for how it can be restored or revitalized,” Johnson says. “As a part of that, you need to look at the kind of housing products that would be appropriate, look at price points. You have to look at how you can reweave the fabric that has been destroyed. The next step is, how can you implement that, how can you recruit developers that can make that plan a reality?”

But critics says the lack of a guiding plan, targeted or otherwise, that would provide a framework for distribution of aid has held Detroit back.

United Way nonprofit facilities director Diane Van Buren Jones says you need only look at the way the city deals with Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds it gets from the federal government.

“CDBG money is just sent all over,” Jones says. “Whoever applies for it can get it, so you get a lot of money spread all over different neighborhoods where it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s truly been the squeaky wheel in Detroit as to who’s going to be involved in reinvestment.”

The Planning Commission’s Bruhn, who works for the City Council and not the mayor, agrees. She says that instead of initiating where the funding goes by following a planned strategy, the city has instead been reactive. Money and other types of assistance tend to go to areas with active organizations that apply for grants. Consequently, areas most in need of help might not get it.

Johnson says some of that may change when the city adopts its new master plan, which will dictate how CDBG and other federal funding is distributed to the neighborhoods.

“The city is working toward, or is totally on board with, thinking through how different areas need to receive different levels of treatment,” Johnson says. “Ultimately, we’d like to see all the areas brought back.”

Bruhn questions the practicality of that goal.

“You have to look at the direction the city’s going,” Bruhn says. “We’re still losing about 10,000 to 12,000 people a year. And the city is still trying to maintain 139 square miles with dwindling resources, less tax base and less population. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that every neighborhood can be saved, or that every neighborhood can continue to be viable because we have fewer people living in our neighborhoods.

“I think it’s one of the big challenges facing the city — how do we stay a viable city? How do we plan to be a smaller city? In the 30 years I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve seen the city really tackle that question.”

Developing a comprehensive plan is crucial to Detroit’s revitalization, says Bruce Katz, vice president of metropolitan affairs at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

“You want to have a conscious city strategy you’re building on,” Katz says. “You don’t want to just be spreading the money around everywhere. Detroit is a pretty big place geographically. You could waste resources pretty quickly. You’ve got to amass the capital to make a difference or everyone loses.”

There are other factors that play a role in a neighborhood’s long-term viability, Katz says. It may be one thing for private foundations to dole out money on a targeted basis, but it’s not the same for an elected official to make the same sort of calls — the decision to target some neighborhoods and not others is difficult to make. “It’s probably going to be politically unpopular. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.”

He says the process of selecting neighborhoods has to be transparent, and based on quantifiable criteria like the number of organizations working in a neighborhood, the demographics of poverty and housing, and whether an area has neighborhood anchors such as churches, schools or a commercial district that could serve as a base for renewal.

Failure to adopt some kind of comprehensive plan, he says, will leave Detroit spinning its wheels.

“My attitude is, why not experiment and innovate,” Katz says. “I think there are some positive trends in Detroit. There’s a lot to work with. What you need is to make some of these moves.”

See Also:

Southwest success
How a plan, a meeting place and money made it happen.

Richmond’s riches
How targeted investment worked for Virginia’s capital.

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8068 or [email protected]
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