By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Why are some Detroit neighborhood heading in the right direction and others heading in the opposite? Some suggest what may represent the key element separating the successes from the disappointments — is that successful districts enjoy a professional community development organization with paid staffers and adequate financial resources to work on neighborhood problems.
Detroit Free Press
When people talk about the problem of “Two Detroits,” they generally mean the contrast between an affluent downtown teeming with projects by Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family and the city’s significantly poorer neighborhoods.
But a closer examination of the city’s complex landscape reveals another, and perhaps as significant, version of “Two Detroits”: Even far from downtown, some neighborhoods do relatively well, with rising incomes and lessening poverty, while many other neighborhoods continue to slide downhill.
Detroit’s challenge is that the vast majority of its neighborhoods remain headed in the wrong direction, as least as measured by Census statistics. Of the nearly 300 Census tracts in the city, each covering several square blocks, two-thirds showed an increase in the poverty rate between 2010 and 2015, and more than two-thirds showed a decline in median household income during that time span.
Consider two contrasting neighborhoods, both distant from downtown. One, straddling West Vernor Highway in southwest Detroit between Livernois on the west and Clark Park on the east, has enjoyed a rising economic tide in recent years.
In a Census tract covering the western part of the district along West Vernor, median household income shot up from $22,328 to $32,685 from 2010 to 2015 and the poverty rate dropped from 51% in 2010 to 32.5% in 2015. Somehow, a working-class district known for its Hispanic restaurants and tortilla factories has managed to improve its outlook even in a city still suffering widespread poverty.
But in the wedge-shaped northwest side district known as Crary St. Mary’s, bordered by Grand River on the south, Greenfield on the east, and Puritan on the north, the indicators are all headed in the opposite direction.
In the Census tract running north from Grand River west of Greenfield, the poverty rate rose from 15.1% in 2010 to 51.2% in 2015. Median household income there dropped like a stone from $40,859 to $16,688 during those same five years. In a relatively short time span following the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis, a once middle-class neighborhood fell off an economic cliff.
No single fact explains why a neighborhood like West Vernor overcomes Detroit’s loss of industry, population flight and environmental challenges while others like Crary St. Mary’s fall behind. Every neighborhood shows its own unique assets and liabilities. But longtime neighborhood activists and urban experts agree on some things.
The biggest difference — what may represent the key element separating the successes from the disappointments — is that successful districts enjoy a professional community development organization with paid staffers and adequate financial resources to work on neighborhood problems.
West Vernor has long benefited from one. The Crary St. Mary’s district lacks such an organization.
Along West Vernor, the Southwest Detroit Business Association was founded 60 years ago after the then-new Northland Center in Southfield began to draw shoppers away from city neighborhoods. Headed for the past 35 years by Kathy Wendler, the SWDBA now has nine paid staffers with skill sets that include finance, urban planning, grant writing, social media, networking and development assistance.
Of critical importance: Wendler’s group won approval from voters in 2007 for the city’s first BID or business improvement district. In such a zone, local business owners agree to tax themselves a little extra on their property tax — 2% of assessed value annually — with the money raised going to neighborhood improvements.
Over the past 10 years, the BID has poured some $15 million into graffiti removal, facade improvements, new street lighting, and other improvements. BID-financed crews have hauled away tons of trash and scrubbed clean thousands of examples of graffiti.
“We’ve noticed that when facades get done and the place looks clean and spiffy, which includes all the new historic lamp poles that we’ve put up along West Vernor, the houses immediately behind the commercial district also invest because they see the trend on West Vernor being an upward rather than a downward trend,” Wendler said. “People, property owners, are less inclined to let them deteriorate. Residents are proud to live next to stuff that’s being cared for. It’s placemaking.”
Lydia Gutierrez, owner of Hacienda Mexican Foods and a local civic leader, said the SWDBA has helped the neighborhood by focusing broadly on many issues.
“A business association isn’t just concerned with the businesses,” she said. “It’s concerned with the community. It’s concerned with the residents. Is it parking? Is it lighting? Is it graffiti? Is it garbage? What is it we have to do collectively to make this a better place for people to come and feel safe?”
But in Crary St. Mary’s, Carl Baxter, a retired phone company worker and union official who heads the local Crary St. Mary’s Community Council, can only look on the SWDBA’s paid staffers and BID financing with envy. His community council has no paid staffers and essentially no budget other than what can be raised at occasional picnics and the like.
“I’m 56 years old, and I’m the youngest person on my community council,” Baxter said. “And that’s more the norm unfortunately across the city than it is a rarity, where you have the older citizens who are not able to do as much anymore.”
Paid staffers dedicated to block-by-block community work make a big difference. “You don’t have to worry about if the volunteers show up or have other priorities,” Wendler said. “With the job there’s a bigger obligation to show up, get the work done and follow through on commitments. And that doesn’t in any way, shape or form diminish volunteers. It’s just a different commitment.”
Since then, a similar business district has won approval downtown, but in an already heavily taxed city, the idea hasn’t caught on elsewhere.
Baxter can only dream of what his volunteer organization in Crary St. Mary’s would be able to accomplish given the funds the BID has raised in the West Vernor area.
“Oh, man, I think quite a bit,” he said. “We would actually be able to look at purchasing some of the homes through the Land Bank and actually rehabbing them and investing that money back in the community and actually get new neighbors in the community. I would love to do that as well as try to promote the small businesses within the community. We have a few. We would like to see more. It comes down to financial resources.”
Across Detroit, districts with professionally staffed community organizations enjoy the grass-roots muscle and savvy needed to make progress. Most prominent, probably, is Midtown Detroit Inc., the nonprofit group headed by Sue Mosey that has played a huge role in Midtown’s emergence as a successful district. Elsewhere, nonprofit groups like the Eastside Community Network, Vanguard Community Development Organization and U-Snap-Bac have taken leading roles in community revitalization.
The presence of a professional community organization is just one factor. Successful neighborhoods tend to enjoy some assets to begin with — Southwest Detroit’s Hispanic immigration, which has mitigated, if not actually reversed, population decline in that part of the city; Midtown’s cluster of eds-and-meds universities and hospitals; the East Riverfront’s waterfront access, or Indian Village’s historic architecture. Such assets provide something to build upon.
Indeed, it can easily be argued that Midtown Detroit’s success as a community organization would have been impossible without the eds-and-meds assets. And distressed districts like Detroit’s lower east side, while showing widespread poverty and vacancy, might have suffered even more were it not for an activist neighborhood group like