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Michigan Radio reporters will present a series of stories this month about social class and how it impacts our daily lives; from the way we plan our cities and neighborhoods; to the type of education our children receive.We'll look at class interactions on the dance floor and in the court room, and we’ll ask whether upward mobility is a myth or reality. That and more in our series The Culture of Class.How does socioeconomic class affect you? How do you think it affects life in Michigan? Share your thoughts with us

Living next to heavy industry, pt. 1

A steel plant
Rebecca Williams
Michigan Radio
The playground at the Salina Elementary school in Dearborn with the Severstal steel plant in the background.

A little more than 50 years ago, Delores Leonard and her husband moved into their red brick ranch in Detroit.

“I selected it because the sun comes up over there in the morning and I was thinking about my flowers.”

They’ve raised their two kids here and now they have four grandchildren and five great-grandkids and they all live nearby.

But she says on any given day... she doesn’t know what she’ll smell when she steps outside.

“Sometimes it’s a kerosene odor. Sometimes it’s a horrible stench, like at a slaughterhouse. Sometimes, you’re out in public and people will say, ‘where do you live?’ And they’ll say,’ oh yes, I know that area, that stench, I don’t see how those people live there.’”

“There” is zip code 48217. It’s a corner of Southwest Detroit packed with heavy industry.

There’s the state’s only oil refinery, owned by Marathon Petroleum. The salt mine. The city’s wastewater treatment plant. DTE’s coal-burning power plant. Severstal Steel. And many more.

Delores Leonard grew up just a few streets over, in River Rouge. She remembers asking her dad why people were covering their cars with tarps.

“And he said it was because of the fallout, the pollution. Well, if they’re covering their cars so the paint pigmentation won’t peel, then what happens to the person who lives and who’s breathing all this stuff?”

Like Delores Leonard, a lot of people have lived here their whole lives.

“In my block, there are 17 people who have died of cancer. I can’t say it’s cancer from where because we’re sandwiched between a lot of industry.”

So... why do these neighborhoods look like this?

Ren Farley says it all dates back to the late 1800s. He’s a research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

A lot of raw materials and products were shipped on the Great Lakes, so it made sense for industries to locate in Southwest Detroit.

“And workers tended to congregate very close to where they worked, and so a lot of what you’d call workingmen’s homes were built there.”

They were built very close to factories, so people could walk to work.

Farley says most of the industries in Southwest Detroit were there by the time World War I began. Some factories have shut down. Others have expanded. Farley says over the decades, federal housing policies and discriminatory lending practices called redlining were used to help white families move to the suburbs... and keep minorities out of the suburbs.

“For a period of time, racial practices were responsible for keeping blacks in densely settled neighborhoods in the city of Detroit, many close to factories.”

He says redlining was made illegal in the 1970s, and many black families who could afford to move away from the factories did.

These neighborhoods of Southwest Detroit close to heavy industry are now racially diverse, with black, white, Latino and Arab American families living near each other. Farley says it’s a mix of people who have chosen not to leave the area... and those who can’t afford to leave.

“For the most part, it is low-income individuals, and elderly individuals who have owned their home for 30, 40, 50 years who are just not going to move out.”

But this is not a community that’s been sitting still. They’re vocal. People here call the state Department of Environmental Quality whenever they see something or smell something that seems out of place. Residents fought the expansion of the Marathon oil refinery... and lost. The refinery expansion is underway.

Delores Leonard says she’s not sure things will change. But she’s also not sure she wants to leave.

“I have relatives in the Rouge still. The cemetery isn’t very far away. There are relatives who are buried there. And it’s home.”

Marathon Petroleum recently announced a major buy-out program for residents living near its oil refinery. On Thursday's Environment Report we’ll hear what people in the neighborhood think about those offers.

Inform our coverage: How has class affected your life in Michigan?

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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