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Features from Michigan Public's award-winning investigative unit.

How is Detroit Doing?

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

When traveling out of state, people from Michigan often are asked, “Hey, how’s Detroit doing?”

The largest municipal bankruptcy and the subsequent stories about Detroit’s revival have captured the curiosity of the rest of the nation and the world.

Detroit’s successes in its business districts, downtown and Midtown, get most of the attention. Every billionaire’s acquisition, every refurbished building, every taxpayer assisted development have contributed to the conclusion that Detroit is America’s “Comeback City.”

But, billionaire investments in skyscrapers, sports stadiums, and the opening of trendy stores and restaurants don’t tell you much about how the residents of the city are doing. If you want to know the real story of Detroit, you have to go to the neighborhoods.

All this year Michigan Radio and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative have been visiting one neighborhood in Detroit to find out how it’s doing and reporting what that says about Detroit as a whole. 

This documentary is the final report of that effort. 

Detroit’s MorningSide neigborhood

The MorningSide neighborhood is on the east side of Detroit, right on the border of the suburb Grosse Pointe Park.  It borders one of Detroit’s better neighborhoods, East English Village.

Eric Duewecke is a longtime resident of MorningSide. He’s also a lecturer in the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the Taubman College at the University of Michigan.

“MorningSide isn’t the worst neighborhood. It isn’t the best neighborhood. But, in a lot of respects I think it’s representative of Detroit neighborhoods. And, if we can’t save this one, we’re really in deep doo doo, because MorningSide has a lot going for it,” Duewecke said.

What are the strengths of this Detroit neighborhood?

There are supermarkets such as Kroger and Trader Joe’s in nearby Grosse Pointe. There’s an Aldi in a shopping plaza adjacent to MorningSide. In a city short on grocery stores, that is a gold mine. There are nearby pharmacies, services, and nice restaurants on Mack Avenue. And MorningSide’s housing stock is impressive. It’s home to a lot of very nice brick Tudors and bungalows.

The MorningSide demographics reflect the population of Detroit overall, about 80% African American, and a little more than 10% percent white. The rate of poverty is relatively high as is much of Detroit. But most of the residents feel there’s great potential in MorningSide.

Early this year, Lenora McElrath took me for a slow walk around her block in the neighborhood of MorningSide. February snows left the sidewalks snow packed and slick.

On this block, the City of Detroit said it would demolish three abandoned houses in 2016. They were still standing in February. They’re still standing today. The city’s demolition website indicates they’re now in the pipeline, which means they’re among the 1,500 demolitions in the city next on the list.

In the meantime, the windows are broken out. Doors are gone. They’ve been stripped of anything of value. Now open to the elements, the buildings are deteriorating.

McElrath shakes her head. She remembers when she moved here 23 years ago, she was struck by the beauty of her new neighborhood.

“The first thing I noticed was all the trees. It was just beautiful. And, it’s going down. But, we’re not going to give up. That’s the big thing: not giving up,” she said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
There housing stock in Detroit's MorningSide is a major asset of the neighborhood.

We walk in silence for a while, avoiding the slippery patches on the sidewalk. I tried to imagine what she had just described. It’s not that difficult. There are rows and rows of well-kept brick homes on the surrounding blocks and some of those majestic trees still line the streets. But there are gaps in some blocks, vacant lots where houses once stood, burned out or abandoned houses that have not been demolished. 

There are lot of reasons why MorningSide is hurting: white flight, mortgage foreclosures after predatory lending schemes, and more recently houses sit vacant because they’ve been lost to tax foreclosures.  

That same day, Ulysses Jones drove me around MorningSide. He’s a friend and neighbor of Lenora McElrath. He’s also on the board of a community organization also called MorningSide.

"Well, this section of MorningSide, the southeast section, was a primary area for Habitat for Humanity and also with U-Snap-Bac,” he pointed out.

Around here there are a few blocks of newer, pretty two-story houses. When we reached the end of the last block, the last house was missing its front door.

“One of the Habitat houses, I think, has been ransacked. The door is missing and it’s unsecured,” he said.

If there's the slightest clue that the house is empty, scrappers descend.

This is a big problem in MorningSide and just about every neighborhood in Detroit. If there’s the slightest clue that the house is empty, scrappers descend.  Once that happens, the chances of someone buying it and making it a home are slim. In this particular case, though, U Snap Bac moved in quickly. In a couple of days the door was replaced, and the house was boarded up until it could be sold again.

That’s rare in this city.

Lenora McElrath says often it’s left to the neighbors to make sure a house is not broken into by scrappers.

“You know, if they strip it to the point where somebody might not want it, you know, it’s just going to sit there. So, we made it our business to watch out for that house,” she said.

It might not be immediately apparent, but at times there are vacant houses on her block. McElrath says she and her neighbors watch constantly to make sure no one breaks into them or is thinking about breaking in.

“You know, because we question them. ‘Can I help you?’ If you know no one lives there, you know, you ask questions. ‘Can I help you?’ When dealing with these situations, I don’t necessarily like to be confrontational because, you know, I’m up in age. But, when you come into my neighborhood, and you think you’re going to get away with doing something, that’s not happening,” she said.

She and her neighbors make the vacant houses appear lived in. During the summer, they mow the lawns and trim the bushes. They pick up leaflets that are left door-to-door. In the winter, they shovel snow off the sidewalk.

When the neighbors don’t do that, things can go badly.

Just a couple of blocks away another longtime resident, Doris Bryant, says high taxes, foreclosures, and scrappers combine to cause destruction. She says no one in authority seems capable of stopping it.

“Here, they just let them become destroyed, stripped and whatever and they just become what you see,” she said, pointing to empty houses and empty lots.

I asked if she’s seen scrappers in her neighborhood.

“I have seen them. That house over there, it was a beautiful house. There was nothing wrong with it, you know. And I saw scrappers in the neighborhood, taking the windows and the doors out of the house. I called the police and they said that was the lowest thing on their priority. You know, they said they had other things and didn’t ever come. People took all the windows, the doors, and everything. It became a shell. They tore it down. And now, it’s a lot,” she said.

For years, these homes were assessed at a rate far beyond the actual value of the homes.

This destruction is not just unfortunate happenstance. It’s government sponsored. In any given year about one-out-of-five of the more than 4,000 homes in MorningSide are at risk of foreclosure. Some owners arrange payment plans. But each year hundreds of homes in this neighborhood actually ended up being seized and auctioned. For years, these homes were assessed at a rate far beyond the actual value of the homes. The homeowners are still struggling with those debts.

This is the second wave of foreclosures. A lot of homes were lost to mortgage foreclosures starting in 2006 after the subprime predatory lending schemes caused the housing bubble to burst.  

The result is decimated neighborhoods in most of Detroit. Between 1970 and 2010 Detroit lost more than 228,000 occupied housing units according to a recent report by the Urban Institute. 

Origins of the decline

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A vacant house in the MorningSide neighborhood.

There are two factors behind the decline of Detroit’s neighborhoods: racism and the changing economy.

“Between 1948 and 1963 Detroit loses somewhere in the ballpark of 130,000 manufacturing jobs.” Thomas Sugrue explained.

He is the author of the definitive book on why Detroit declined, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  

Those mostly auto manufacturing jobs started leaving the city to be built either in the suburbs of Detroit or places where the labor was cheaper.

White people started leaving the city, following the jobs. Many black residents could not. That’s because many of the suburbs were off limits to people of color. Federal housing programs discriminated, real estate agents steered them away, banks wouldn’t loan to African Americans if they attempted to buy in certain areas. The population of Detroit steadily declined from nearly two million people in 1950 to about 700,000 people today. The city is now about 80% African American.

Even when Detroit was majority white, racial lines were strictly drawn.

"You can't underestimate the intensity of that segregation in housing and the role that it played in dividing metropolitan Detroit by race."

“You can’t underestimate the intensity of that segregation in housing and the role that it played in dividing metropolitan Detroit by race,” Sugrue said

That was not only the case between the city and the suburbs, but within the city as well.

“Large sections of Detroit were home to almost all African Americans and vice versa large sections of the outlying neighborhoods in Detroit and the suburbs were nearly entirely white,” Sugrue explained. 

That was the case in MorningSide.

It had been home to many high-skilled blue collar workers. Most of the white workers left over time. By the 1990s, a lot of the only higher paid workers who remained in MorningSide were City of Detroit employees. They were required by ordinance to live in the city.

For years a few of the white firefighters and police in Detroit violated that ordinance. Some even bragged about having a house in the suburbs while keeping a house or apartment in the city where they got their mail. Efforts to investigate them failed.

The other white city employees who followed the rules often lived in neighborhoods closest to the city limits of Detroit, such as MorningSide.

Back in 1993, Marylin Nash Yasbeck opened a pharmacy there.

“Now, when I came over, we had a lot of firemen, there were a lot of police officers, and there were a lot of teachers who were in this area, you know, in terms of jobs and everything. The homes were owned. Maybe some were renting. And at some point it changed over. There was a lot of movement out of the neighborhood. So, the wealth did go,” she said.

That started right around the year 2000. At the time, Bill McGraw reported for the Detroit Free Press.

“A significant portion of the police and fire departments lobbied for years in Lansing and fought really hard to get the Legislature, which controlled this issue, to do away with residency,” he recalled.

Eighty cities across the state had residency requirements. White firefighters and police in Detroit and Flint lobbied hardest to end the practice.

In December 1999, the Legislature passed the “Residency Act” which ended cities’ abilities to require their employees live in the city they served.

Bill McGraw notes this was an important moment, but not the most significant exodus of people from Detroit.

"People were leaving Detroit those years for the usual reasons: they wanted what they thought would be a safer environment and better schools, for instance."

“People were leaving Detroit those years for the usual reasons: they wanted what they thought would be a safer environment and better schools, for instance.  It’s hard to say how much the ending of residency played a role, but it obviously contributed to the change of Detroit neighborhoods,” he said.

With many of the Detroit police officers and firefighters leaving the neighborhoods for the suburbs, a lot of them turned their Detroit homes into rentals. That didn’t last in some cases. A locksmith in the MorningSide neighborhood said that over the years, many of those owners got tired of the hassles of being landlords and simply abandoned their houses.

There’s another hit to neighborhoods involving city employees. Those employees who retired and stayed in their old neighborhood saw their pensions cut in 2014 under the Detroit bankruptcy.

Jackie Grant works with her neighbors in MorningSide, helping them avoid tax foreclosures. She says those pension cuts hurt.

“People that were already retired lost a good portion of pension which changed their whole financial future. That’s when I think a lot of homes began to be lost,” Grant said.

Today, Detroit is actively recruiting more neighborhood people into the police and firefighting ranks. If successful, and if those recruits stay in Detroit, it will still be years before the neighborhoods such as MorningSide start seeing a significant benefit.

So what does MorningSide say about how Detroit is doing? (Part 1)

During the course of reporting, we asked MorningSide residents what does the struggles of the neighborhood say about Detroit as a whole.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Lenora McElrath.

“You know, people started losing their jobs and this and that. It affected it, you know, to the point that we have what we have. How Detroit is doing from my perspective from looking at my area? I know they’re doing a lot of things downtown. That’s wonderful. But, I’m waiting to see when it’s going to come into the neighborhoods. Fine. Downtown is great, but let’s see some progress in the neighborhoods and then I’ll feel better about that.”  -Lenora McElrath

MorningSide’s East Warren Avenue business district

The main business strip along East Warren Avenue runs through the middle of the MorningSide neighborhood.

The business owners who remain recalled how it used to be:

Bill Kamman: “Eastern Warren used to be a major shopping spot.”

Marilyn Nash Yazbeck: “There were businesses in every building on Warren.”

Patrick Maher: "No matter what you needed you could find it on Warren Avenue: the grocery stores, the party stores, the library, the movie theater, the bike store."

Brian Pikielek: “The tailor, an arcade, a woodworking store, five and dime, whatever.”

The business owners say back in the day it was so busy that finding a place to park was difficult and the sidewalks bustled into the evening. 

Eric Dueweke invited me on a ride around his neighborhood. He’s the Lecturer at the University of Michigan we heard from earlier. He’s drove me down the East Warren Avenue strip.

“I’d guess 50% are boarded up and then you see all these vacant spaces here. This is where buildings have recently been torn down,” he said.

Dueweke points to buildings that used to house popular restaurants, professional offices, and busy banks.

They are all empty now.

“Really this is a problem all over Detroit of what do we do with our former retail strips that there really isn’t a demand for,” he explained.

Demand is down because many of MorningSide residents just don’t have a lot of money to spend.

When I interviewed him, Bill Kamman ran the Hammer Time True Value hardware store.

"It's about not having money to buy stuff around here. They're spending 60% to 70% of their money on rent."

“It’s about not having money to buy stuff around here. They’re spending 60% to 70% of their money on rent, and they don’t have the extra money to be working on houses and putting into stuff,” Kamman said.

Without much disposable income among the residents, it’s tough for the existing businesses and it’s risky to start new businesses.

Marilyn Nash Yazbeck owns Nottingham Pharmacy. She’s also one of the very few long-time African American business owners in Morningside.

“I’m not really sure what will really thrive here because of the economics of the area,” she noted.

Just down the street, Patrick Maher runs Eastside Locksmiths. It’s been operating in MorningSide since 1939. He says this area just needs a kickstart.

“I understand that everybody wants to put the money downtown, but –and I mean not knowing a whole lot about a lot of the other neighborhoods, but knowing a lot about this particular one-  we need some help,” he said.

What kind of help?

Brian Pickielek has some ideas.

He was the last president of the business association along East Warren Avenue before it folded several years ago. He now runs Bike Tech a little farther east on Warren, just down the street from MorningSide. He’d like the city to do a few things.

“…to quickly and efficiently take care of the abandoned buildings, boarded up, keep the neighborhood clean, safe, and lit,” he said.

But, Bill Kamman at Hammer Time hardware is not sure now is the right time to help MorningSide.

“I don’t think that this side of Detroit has hit bottom yet. So, maybe throwing good money after bad where other neighborhoods showing signs of a rebirth or something. That money might be better used in those areas than here,” he said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Hammer Time Hardware shortly before it went out of business.

A couple of weeks after I interviewed Bill Kamman, he closed Hammer Time Hardware. That building now sits empty.

Some money is getting funneled to a few Detroit neighborhoods, but not the ones that need it most.

Mayor Mike Duggan explained during his State of the City address he was working to help some of the better neighborhoods first.

“I get asked it seems like every day, ‘You’ve got all this investment in downtown and Midtown. It’s great. I like it. But, when’s the investment coming to the neighborhoods?’”

The Mayor described a pilot neighborhood development program amounting to $30 million in investments from public and private sources.

“We’re starting in three neighborhoods to prove it makes a difference: in the Livernois/McNichols area, in the West Village area on the east side, and in southwest Detroit near Clark park,” he announced.

These three neighborhoods are already doing better than many others in the city. Livernois-McNichols includes Marygrove College and abuts the campus of the University of Detroit Mercy. The West Village area is full of apartment buildings, nice duplexes, and a few trendy restaurants, with more retail stores planned. The area near Clark Park is better known as Mexicantown. It’s been a growing and vibrant area for a while.

This approach is like reverse battlefield triage. Instead of helping the most damaged areas of the city first, Mayor Duggan is helping those neighborhoods with greater potential. As a strategy, it might make sense. Invest where you’ll see the difference in a more notable way.

If you live in one of the other neighborhoods such as MorningSide, it’s frustrating.

“If we can’t –we the city- if we can’t save MorningSide, then what hope is there for Detroit’s comeback,” Eric Dueweke wondered.

He wants Duggan to make the MorningSide a higher priority.

He had a brief conversation with the mayor last year about the street where Dueweke lives, Three Mile Drive.

“And he said ‘We’ve got some work to do on Three Mile.’ And I said, ‘Yes, we do, Mr. Mayor.’ So, I think if the Mayor understands Three Mile and he understands we have these issues and we still aren’t getting changes to the system, what must other neighborhoods that don’t have that advantage have to go through,” he asked.

Of all the streets in all the neighborhoods in the city, why does Mike Duggan know Three Mile Drive in MorningSide? Duggan’s grandparents lived on Three Mile. As a child he spent a lot of time there during summer breaks.

Dueweke credits the Mayor for new street lights, more regular garbage pick-up, a new small park in MorningSide. At the same time Dueweke feels the Mayor and City Hall are not listening to residents.

“What I feel is the kind of modus operandi of the administration for the most part is: Well, we hire all these smart people and these experts and we understand what the issue is and what needs to be done and so, yeah, we don’t really need your help, people out there in the neighborhoods,” Dueweke said.

That’s a sentiment often heard among people in Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Mayor Duggan disagrees. He says they are listening. He noted in the Livernois/McNichols neighborhood 40 meetings were held to see what neighbors wanted.

People in MorningSide would be happy to get a chance to tell the Mayor what they want for their community. They also hope Duggan remembers his grandparents’ neighborhood when more investments are made in neighborhoods with potential.

Neighborhood residents are not part of downtown prosperity

It’s no wonder that the neighborhoods are asking the Mayor for help. While Detroit’s downtown business districts are booming, research shows people farther out in the neighborhoods are not sharing in that prosperity.  They neighborhoods’ economies are actually declining.

“You’ve got a huge jobs deficit in the neighborhoods,” said Gary Sands. He is professor emeritus at Wayne State University’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

“And when you bring jobs into midtown and downtown, whether it be Quicken Loans or Microsoft or whoever, it doesn’t do as much good for the people who are in the neighborhoods,” he said.

Sands research reveals that Detroit's recovery has largely benefited people who don't live in Detroit at all.

Sands research reveals that Detroit’s recovery has largely benefited people who don’t live in Detroit at all.

“If you look at data on payrolls and income from employment for Detroit, it’s going up in downtown/ Midtown, but in every other area of the city, the total payrolls are going down. The average wage rate in downtown midtown is perhaps 4 or 5 times what it is in the neighborhoods, and that’s not sustainable,” he said.

People who don’t live in Detroit hold two-out-of-every three jobs in the city.

What will it take to employ more city residents?

Sand’s analysis says Detroit needs these things:better public education, better access to transportation, and programs that foster entrepreneurship in the neighborhoods. None of those things is a quick fix.

“It’s taken six decades to decline to the point where we are today,” he said. “It’s not going to be fixed in the next three years,” he said.

Crime in the neighborhoods

When I talked to the long-time merchants still in business in MorningSide some of them mentioned that crime was still a major problem and they didn’t think the police were patrolling as much as they should be.

“The police response is terrible. The police presence is terrible. Next door has been robbed a number of times,” said Patrick Maher of Eastside Locksmith.

Next door to his shop is the Family Dollar store. In January a clerk was shot in a robbery attempt.

The night before that shooting, just down the street at Nottingham Pharmacy there was another attempted crime.

Marilyn Nash Yazbeck at Notthingham Pharmacy says her business has been broken into so many times that the Fifth Precinct police station knows her well. That time burglars used a sledge hammer to try to break through the concrete block wall.

“You know, so I’ve had my crime. You know it happens and you get upset, but crime is everywhere,” she said.

The police interrupted that break-in. The pharmacist says the irony is that she doesn’t stock the kind of drugs that have any illicit street value.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Neighborhood Police Officer DeAndre Gaines.

I spent part of a day riding around MorningSide with Officer DeAndre Gaines. He was the Neighborhood Patrol Officer at the time. That’s Detroit’s version of community policing. I asked him about the merchants’ concerns that police were not around enough.

“Well, we are out here in MorningSide. Personally, I’m out here as well as the other NPOs,” he said.

Detroit’s reputation as a high crime city has not gone away, but its crime rate is down substantially. It’s been falling since the 1980s. Still, there are areas of the city that are not as safe as others.

But Officer Gaines thinks the perceptions of crime in MorningSide are overblown.

“MorningSide is still a good area. You know, everywhere in the city you’re going to have your pockets of crime. You know, that’s everywhere. But, I wouldn’t say MorningSide is no different than any of the other areas in the city of Detroit,” he said.

MorningSide is in Detroit's 5th police precinct. The Detroit Police Department provided crime stats for all the precincts to us. Its crime stats look to be about average for the city. But, when you calculate the number of crimes per 10,000 residents, the 5th precinct has the second highest crime rate among the 12 precincts.

Riding along in the squad car, Officer Gaines spotted someone he knew out in his yard. We stopped to talk to retired Fire Department Captain David Brown.

I told him what people had been telling me:

LG: They get the idea that they don’t seen any police officers. Have you found that to be true or not?

DB: “That’s true.”

LG: (laughing) You’re talking to one right now.

DB: (laughing) “I’m talking to one. You see one on occasion, but there’s not enough of them.”

Brown thinks too often the police are tied up answering 9-1-1 calls to have time to patrol the residential streets as much as he’d like to see.

We also stopped by Zena Knight’s house. She’s the block captain here. She thinks crime is up in MorningSide.

“It’s getting worse. It’s about them not respecting the police. A lady just got killed at the corner house last Saturday. I can’t give you an answer to what is really causing the problem right now, but it’s not for the like of them,” she said, nodding at Officer Gaines.

She made it clear that she thinks the police are doing their job around here.

Police on the street

Detroit does seem to be the right level of officers on the street.

According to FBI statistics, Detroit actually has more than the average number of cops for its population. In 2015, in larger cities in the Midwest for every 10,000 people the average was 29 officers. Detroit had 33 officers.

Of course, Detroit is geographically a very big place. The city has struggled in recent years to cut its response time to 9-1-1 calls.

Neighborhood Patrol Officer DeAndre Gaines says MorningSide residents should notice police in MorningSide regularly.

“We are patrolling the area at least, at least five days a week, various hours depending on where the complaints take us. We also do what we call ‘Safe Passage’ which is assisting the children getting to school safe. I do that along with NPO (Eric) Scott. So, we’re out there morning and evening making sure this community is safe,” he said.

That’s just the the neighborhood officers. Other patrol officers are also working 24/7.

Detroit’s Project Green Light

Officer Gaines says if the neighborhood and the business owners really want to be sure of more police presence, more businesses should sign up for Detroit’s Green Light initiative.

“We’re trying to get businesses to get on the system where we can actually monitor their cameras live from a feed down at the City of Detroit headquarters. It’s a very high-def camera where if something happens, it’s recorded, we can get license plates, we can do facial recognition, very, very good evidence in case a crime happens,” Gaines explained.

According to the city’s website, nearly 200 businesses have signed up for Project Green Light since it started in January of last year. Only a few of them are in the MorningSide neighborhood.

It’s not cheap. A business has to spend between $4,000 to $6,000 or more for the cameras. The city has made arrangements with a cable company to offer a program of $1000 down and about $140 - $180 a month to lease digital storage and camera equipment.

DG: “You see the green light flashing right here?”

LG: “Oh, yeah.”

DG: “Also we have signs right here and you have signs on the door. So, let’s go in and take a look.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

We stopped at the Maryland Liquor store on Mack Avenue. You cannot miss all the signs indicating this is a Green Light business.

At random times throughout the day, police are mandated to visit the store, sign and date a sign-in sheet.

Mustafa Almuhi was working the morning we stopped in.

LG: “What do you think of it?”

MA: “Ah, man, it’s working.”

LG: “Is it?”

MA: “Yeah. Feels a lot safer, feels a lot better, you know what I mean, knowing that you know you’re being watched, being protected, you know, at all times.”

LG: “So, have you seen a reduction in problems here?”

MA: “Definitely. And if they don’t know, you let them know, ‘Hey, we got the Detroit Police watching over here, looking over us.’”

Officer Gaines says any business, a restaurant, gas station, pharmacy, any business can sign up for the Green Light.

“And businesses that reported having a Green Light have seen a reduction in crime, also an increase in profit because people want to come shop at those businesses,” Gaines said.

The city has been considering an ordinance that would require businesses open after 10:00 p.m. to enroll in the Green Light initiative. But not every business wants to be forced to pay the costs of those cameras.

MorningSide’s city council member, Andre’ Spivey campaigned on implementing the requirement.

Police are cracking down on minor offenses

Since Detroit’s bankruptcy, priorities for the police department have changed. Violent crime is still the top priority. But, it’s believed minor crimes can quickly lead to a neighborhood’s decline. It’s often called the “Broken Window Theory.” Officer Gaines suggests that ignoring minor crimes can lead to more serious crimes.

“If a window is broke, then someone will think no one cares about that property and they’ll start dumping on that property or, you know, squatting in the property, or maybe trying to do other illegal activities in that property,” Gaines said.

While we’re cruising the neighborhood streets, Gaines says he’s looking for blight violations. He’ll ticket property owners who don’t properly board up vacant houses. He’ll cite people for high grass, trash containers out when it’s not pick-up day, setting bulk items for trash pick-up too early.

“Different things like that. That’s why mainly our top things that we look for to make the community look better, make it look more livable, and make the property value increase instead of decrease,” he explained.

Many of the vacant houses in MorningSide are owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. It was set up to tackle the abandoned homes issue in Detroit. It owns tens of thousands of properties. Gaines says when he finds Land Bank properties have not been mown or need to be boarded up, the agency is quick to get someone out to take care of the issue.

The Land Bank reports it’s had to tear down 260 structures in the last three years. They were too far gone to sell. Seventeen more are either contracted or in the pipeline for demolition. The Land Bank sells the houses that can be repaired.

Some neighbors complain the Land Bank is not enforcing its own rules. When it sells a house, it’s supposed to be fixed up and someone living there within six months. Some houses bought from the Land Bank have been sitting empty for two years. A spokesman for the Land Bank says they want to give the new owners every chance of success. If that means waiting a little longer, it’s better than seizing the house and starting all over.

What does MorningSide say about how Detroit is doing? (Part 2)

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Patrick Maher operates Eastside Locksmiths. It's been doing business in the MorningSide neighborhood since 1939.

 “It’s day and night. You have a downtown that people really want to spend the money and yet why can’t somebody open up something in this neighborhood? I guess I understand that nobody wants to build a hotel at the corner here because it’s just not viable, you can’t make any money off it, whereas, you could spend your money downtown. I understand that. And if there’s going to be a ripple effect from Detroit, it’s a reminder that they’ve been to work on this downtown Detroit forever. And every time you get into a recession and everything comes to a halt and nothing ever seems to filter down to these neighborhoods. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for this, you know.”

–Patrick Maher

Blue tarps on neighborhood skylines

On a sunny day this fall, I stood outside the Public Foods grocery store on East Warren Avenue in the MorningSide neighborhood. I wanted to talk to anyone who’d stop to chat. I was asking what people really wanted to see in their neighborhood.

There were themes.

Like we’ve heard before, tearing down vacant houses was a top priority.

Another issue was finding ways to help people fix up their houses.

“They need to rebuild the houses. Make it look a little more better,” Ronisha Rayford said.

“How do you get loans to keep up your house like doing your roofing, you know, because once your roof is gone, your whole house is gone,” asked Gerell Morgan.

“Give them a helping hand to bring it up to code instead of using that money to tear things down. There are no programs like that,” Kenneth Cannady insisted.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Neighborhoods throughout most of Detroit are dotted with houses with blue tarps on the roof.

One of the things you notice in many Detroit neighborhoods are houses with big blue tarps protecting the roof. A lot of folks cannot afford to re-shingle them.

Andre Spivey is MorningSide’s City Council Member. He says there are some low interest programs.

“…but you have to qualify for them. We do have CDBG [Community Development Block Grants] grant dollars and those go to organizations in the community, but then they can’t serve the entire east side or all of MorningSide,” Spivey explained.

It appears the blue tarps will continue for the foreseeable future.  

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Illegal dumping hotspot to be agricultural greenway

Another problem facing the neighborhood is about to be turned into what’s expected to be a real asset for MorningSide.

“Probably the biggest issue in MorningSide is this illegal dumping,” Neighborhood Patrol Officer DeAndre’ Gaines said. 

There are favorite places where people illegally dump, such as Barham Street.

As we turned down Barham, Gaines let out and exasperated sigh.

DG: “It’s the perfect dumping ground. You know, you don’t have many houses.”

LG: “Yeah, there’s a couple of couches and a bunch of other trash as we’re driving by. I’ve driven this street many, many times now and there’s always something new that’s been dumped.”

DG: “It’s always something. And you’ve got City of Detroit DPW out here.” (sound of equipment)

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Barham Street in the MorningSide neighborhood is a favorite spot of illegal dumpers.

We stop. That day two different crews of Detroit’s Department of Public Works were cleaning construction debris, piles of tree limbs, furniture, and just household trash dumped along the street.

It’s hard to say who is dumping. One business put up cameras and signs warning illegal dumpers they were being recorded. Junk is still dumped there. Big trucks sometimes dump concrete construction debris in the middle of the night. Few are caught.

One of the non-profit organizations known for building affordable housing is U Snap Bak. It’s headquartered in the MorningSide neighborhood. Linda Smith is the Executive Director. She says they’ve been wondering what should be done about Barham Street. Not that long ago some University of Michigan students examined it.

“One of the professors came to me to talk about doing some green, some open lots, some space, some farm way, looking at the possibility of what can we do with Barham,” Smith said.

She applied for a grant from the Kresge Foundation. Kresge has been running a pilot program. This year it supported 17 new projects in the neighborhoods. They include greenways, community hubs, youth engagement, artists in parks, and more.

The MorningSide project got $150,000 of the $2 million distributed this year.

“Basically what the grant does is that it allows them to do some work to transform a half-mile stretch of Barham that’s highly vacant into a greenway and farm way. This is land that’s been the place of a lot of dumping and blight and they’re looking to change that and change that from a liability for the neighborhood into an asset,” explained Kresge Program Officer Bryan Hogle.

With all the problems many of the neighborhoods in Detroit face, you have to wonder why a greenway? Hogle says Kresge’s partners, the neighborhood organizations, meet with the residents. Lots of ideas are gathered and they build a concensus around a few of the good ones.

In MorningSide, Linda Smith says people wanted a place to walk dogs, a place for kids to ride their bicycles, and more fresh food. This agricultural green way will do all of that. And it should be self-sustaining. Farmers will lease the land. Smith says there’s demand by farmers who want space to grow food.

“They just want to be able to grow their crop like anyone else. But, they don’t want to deal with the Land Bank. They don’t want to deal with the City. They want to be able to lease land that’s already been prepped to do what they want to do. So, that’s what’s exciting,” she said.

I visited some of the neighbors who live along Barham Street.

Marvin stopped to talk, but didn’t want to give his last name.

“It’s a good idea as long as they keep it clean. And if they plant a garden in there for all the neighbors to participate, it would be a good thing for them.”

LG: "One of the things they’re talking about is actually leasing it to farmers who would grow crops and then sell them to the neighbors."

“That’d be good too. We need something in the neighborhood so people can get more interactive with the neighbors. Yep. That’s what we need,” Marvin said.

One of the few homes along Barham that faces the street is a neat brick house where Faith Williams lives. She recently bought a vacant lot next door. The Barham greenway will adjoin that lot.

“That sounds nice to me. That sounds like a very good idea. Yeah. I would even help them, you know, keep the greenery up,” she laughed.

Linda Smith at U Snap Bac got more help to make sure this project is successful. Chase bank loaned four executives to the project for a month. They designed a business plan for the agricultural greenway.

The Alger Theater causing some neighborhood excitement

Credit Courtesy: Friends of the Alger Theater

That’s not the only encouraging project happening. Another could prove to be an anchor for the East Warren Avenue business strip in MorningSide.

There used to be dozens of movie theaters scattered across Detroit’s neighborhoods. Nearly all of them have been closed and demolished. But, there are a handful left. One of them is the Alger Theater.

Paul Phillips is a board member of the MorningSide Community Organization. He says the Alger was once central to the area.

“The Alger was one of our cornerstone facilities here in the MorningSide area. There’s been a long history of the Alger theater and we’ve been hoping that it would be restored soon,” Phillips said.

The Alger opened in 1935. The movie theater was a major source of entertainment. Plus, the Alger theater had air conditioning long before it was common in homes. That made those summer matinees especially appealing.

But, by the 1980s, the Alger was falling on hard times.

A non-profit group formed in 1983. The Friends of the Alger Theater bought the building a couple of years later. For more than three decades, the group has been slowly renovating the theater.

“We are looking to activate a community center here on the corner of Warren and Outer Drive that serves these east side community members,” explained Friends the of Alger Theater board member Melissa Bunker.

“It will be available for their use. We will do programming as well as hopefully house different performing arts groups, could be educational groups. We are going to be doing all things including film,” she added.

As I look around, there were parts of the theater which revealed its potential. There were other aspects which were damaged. 

“We have a lot of work. What we’ve done thus far is work that you can’t see. We’ve done asbestos remediation. It’s expensive. It’s not sexy. And, no one can see it,” Bunker said.

Credit Courtesy: Friends of the Alger Theater
Storefronts and a roof top patio are under construction at the Alger Theater.

In the past few years the Friends of the Alger group has raised $250,000 to revive the theater. That’s just shy of the total needed for the latest improvements. That money came from neighbors, the Lear Corporation and Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Those new improvements are more obvious. They’re happening on the outside of the building.

MorningSide residents are talking.

“People are wondering what’s getting ready to happen there especially since they’ve been redoing the storefronts there. People are wondering what’s going in there. And then there’s also been a buzz since last summer that there’s going to something happening on the rooftop. They’ve seen sketches, but no one has really seen what’s going to be there. So, there’s excitement,” Paul Phillips said.

The rooftop will be the site of an outdoor patio.

One of the stores going into the street level retail spaces is an ice cream parlor. Christopher Reilly is renovating that storefront now.

“I have my own creamery, Reilly Craft Creamery, located here in Detroit. And, I want to open up a retail location here at the Alger Theater,” Reilly said.

He lives in the East English Village neighborhood adjacent to MorningSide. Reilly says opening in Midtown or in the Corktown neighborhood might be a better business decision, but that’s not what he’s doing.

“Those neighborhoods don’t need any help. I really kind of see the seeds of a real turnaround and renaissance. But, no one is going to move over here unless there are some cool services. And, I’m really excited about this Alger project because I think this project is going to serve to really be like the anchor of these neighborhoods in the area to finally see some resurgence,” he said.

Another retailer plans to open a coffee shop in a second storefront.

The benefit is that the Alger Theater will have tenants and a regular source of income to supplement the non-profit’s fundraising efforts.

Melissa Bunker with Friends of the Alger says the theater is not in perfect shape yet, but it can be used now. The had one-third of the theater seats repaired and cleaned. Some events have already been held there. Bunker predicts in the near future the Alger will once again be the place to hold events and performances for the surrounding neighborhoods and the next door Grosse Pointe suburbs.

“We’re in a very unique geographic position to be able to draw a very large market. And, we can seat –when we get these seats up and going- 600-700 people. Where can you do that? Nowhere,” she said.

Bunker says right now what the group needs are more volunteers and more money to bring the Alger back for Detroit’s east side.

Making a way out of no way

I was contacted this summer by one of MorningSide’s new residents.Ted Shumaker discovered the great housing stock in the neighborhood.

“MorningSide was not something that I saw in my plans at all until I started driving around and noticed this house. I was like, wow, this is a cool little pad here and I like it a lot,” he said.

He was also attracted to the advantages of MorningSide with it’s proximity to the suburbs and to Lake St. Clair which is just a bike ride away for him.

That cool little pad he mentioned? He found a brick house on a corner lot complete with leaded glass windows, hardwood floors, a fireplace, and it was spacious.

“It’s 2,100 square feet. It’s got a three car garage. Two floors. It had five bedrooms. I knocked down one to expand the kitchen. Paid $68,000 for it. I felt that was kind of expensive for MorningSide. But, yeah, the house still has great bones, most of the orginal features are still intact, and they kept it pretty well,” he said.

If this house were just a few blocks away in Grosse Pointe Park, the house would have cost four to five times as much.

Shumaker says he’s been settling in, getting to know his neighborhood.

“You know, try to reach out to my neighbors. I know pretty much everyone within a, you know, four to five house radius on my block,” he said.

That includes Ida Brown who lives right across the street.

Brown is in her eighties. She’s lived in MorningSide for three years, but until she met Shumaker, she really hadn’t gotten to know any of her neighbors.

“I might if I was more outgoing with people, but I just have never in my life been the person that goes talk to a lot to other people. If they don’t seem to interested too much in me, I leave them alone and don’t bother them,” she laughed as Shumaker and I talked to her in her home.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ida Brown and her new neighbor Ted Shumaker.

Schumaker checks in on her. So does Brown’s daughter. She takes her to the grocery store and to appointments. Not all senior citizens are that fortunate.

Many senior citizens end up living on their own without help. In Detroit, 41% of people over 60 live alone according to a report by Data Driven Detroit.

Mary Ann Frazier owns M & D Pharmacy. She says some of her older customers are unable leave home even to pick up a prescription.  She adds it appears too many of those seniors are alone and no one is checking on them.

“A lot of times, I don’t think so. So, my delivery girl goes checks on them and I talk to them on the phone,” she said.

Frazier started those deliveries specifically for the elderly shut-ins in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the same building next to the pharmacy, Bettye Wright has opened a senior day care center she’s named TobeMC. She’s a retired nurse and physicians assistant and wants to help seniors to be active.

So far, Wright is not being swamped with paying customers.

“Well, right now no one is paying and that’s okay,” she said.

Wright used her own savings to launch the TobeMC Senior Daycare Center. Wright is frustrated because so far the agencies that she believes could make funds available all say they are out of money.

The center is cozy, with nice furniture, provided by Wright. It’s sort of like a tiny hotel lobby with additional space for exercise and craft activities.

When I visited, a group of women were chatting in an area decorated with some of their own art. Mamie Walker is a friend of Bettye Wright’s and a big advocate of getting the senior center off the ground.

“We’re all getting older and we need a place where we can come to socialize, have bible study, have exercise, being able to communicate with one another. And it’s a relaxing place. It gives you peace of mind,” she said.

The other women nodded in agreement.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Bettye Wright at the TobeMC Senior Daycare Center.

Bettye Wright says for seniors who spend a lot of time alone, the little things mean a lot.

“Just sitting with someone and chatting with them, I mean, it’s so interesting to be in the midst of maybe three or four. Everyone wants to talk at the same time because they don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk,” she explained.

There’s an economic argument for funding a senior center like this. Active seniors usually stay in their homes longer. That means a stay in the nursing home is shorter. At an average cost of $7,500 a month, almost 32% of all Medicaid goes to long term care. Seniors who have Medicaid can get a waiver for senior daycare which is much cheaper.

There's an old saying: "Making a way out of no way." It's how many neighborhoods take care of their people.

But, in a city of 700,000, Detroit only has about 20 senior daycare centers. Some of those operate out of houses.

Detroit is a city where putting something together out of nothing to meet a need is normal. There’s an old saying: “Making a way out of no way.” It’s how many neighborhoods take care of their people.

The big picture

MorningSide is just part of a much larger story. It’s part of the legacy of white flight of cities and institutional racism by government.

“To a great extent in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and beyond American cities fell to the bottom of the national public policy agenda. They fell to the bottom of state agendas in Lansing. It became harder and harder for places like Detroit to get the kind of support for rebuilding its decaying infrastructure, for shoring up its schools. And increasingly the city relied on its own tax base which was shrinking dramatically as the population declined and as businesses continued to disappear,” said historian Thomas Sugrue

Much of the research during the last half-century point to the inequality between the races which is reinforced by the federal government and states such as Michigan. It’s just a little more stark in Detroit.

“Power and resources and jobs and economic opportunity are still really unequally distributed across metropolitan areas. They won’t get to the core problems of public education, which is that we have really separate and unequal systems of schooling in metropolitan Detroit which really limit people’s opportunities. It won’t get to the still really, really deeply entrenched patterns of residential segregation. Detroit still ranks among the top five most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States and we haven’t done very much to grapple with that,” Sugrue said.

Neighborhoods such as MorningSide are struggling with those larger issues. The local people care. They do what they can.

What does MorningSide say about how Detroit is doing? (Part 3)

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

“Downtown is doing very well, but the majority of the city is in the neighborhoods. And there are a few communities that are really blossoming. Our community is not seeing very much happen. So, we need our leaders to get busy and help us over here.” –Jackie Grant

The principle editor was Sarah Hulett with additional editing by Vincent Duffy.

The concept for How’s Detroit Doing was inspired by Sandra Svoboda of WDET and Bill McGraw.

Reporting assistance came from Nick Wallace and Mercedes Mejia.

The Detroit Journalism Cooperative is a collaboration by Detroit Public TV, Bridge Magazine, WDET, New Michigan Media, and Michigan Radio.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism, the Ford Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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