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In a changing Detroit, North End neighborhood vies to shape its future

Detroit is changing.

Record-setting demolitions, new development and new transit projects are transforming the landscape in some parts of the city.

There’s excitement and unease as many Detroiters see change coming their way.

Michigan Radio visited one Detroit neighborhood right on the edge, and found a community on the way up – and hoping to control its own destiny.

If real estate is about location, location, location, North End has a lot going for it.

It sits along Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city, just north of the New Center area. That’s where the new M-1, or “QLine,” streetcar service will end up next year, linking New Center with downtown Detroit.

This stretch is the heart of Detroit’s development boom. North End is perched just outside it at the moment — and people living here know it.

Right now, it’s a friendly, funky neighborhood. There’s still some blight, and other signs of the troubled place this was not so long ago.

But if you just drop by on a beautiful spring day, you’ll find lots of welcoming people who are happy to talk, like Anthony Beauford.

Once a month, Beauford and a group from Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation gather in a parking lot and hand out plates of food to folks in the neighborhood.

Beauford grew up here, so he's seen all the ups and downs.

“Five years ago, it was abandoned houses, and it looked like World War III around here," Beauford said. "Now when you come around here, it looks like the '70s, like the early '80s used to be ... houses, beautiful houses, parks, fruit stores. We just opened a laundromat."

Central Detroit Christian and neighborhood groups like it are a big part of the community fabric.

Lisa Johanon is the group's executive director. She says they’re trying to change North End from “a place of last resort” to “a place where people want to live and stay.”

But asked if she has any concerns about the big-time development knocking on their door, she’s frank about it.

“Our demographic is still 92% African American in this neighborhood," Johanon said. "But yeah, we see some of that creep … and that’s why CDC is working so feverishly to try to acquire as many houses we can, so that they’re not gobbled up by people who one day are going to wake up and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t afford to live here.’

"Our goal is really to provide decent, affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families. And there are forces at work against that, just because of our location, so close to Woodward, so close to the future M-1 Rail."

Norma Heath is a longtime North End resident. She’s very happy here, and says she's seen a lot of change in her 17 years in the neighborhood.

“Oh yeah. But in a good way," Heath said. "See, I used to stay on the other side of the bridge, then I moved over here. And it has really changed. But for the good. And I like it.”

When asked if she has any concerns, though, Heath hesitates for only a second.

"Yes I do," she said. "To put it out that like that ... for the little people that have been living here al their lives, what's going to happen to those people when things to skyrocket? Are they going to push them out of the way, you know? So that's a big concern."

Ziam Pen is a newer North End resident. He’s a friendly younger guy, with an equally friendly dog.

Pen says his neighbors here are like his family. They keep an eye on each other’s stuff, even share food.

"I lived in New York for many years, and even in New York I never got this sense of community," Pen said. "But to come back home to Detroit, and to move into this neighborhood ... I absolutely adore what’s happening in this neighborhood.

“I feel that if it’s this awesome right now, you give it 10 years from now, and it’s just going to be thriving with culture, community. You got a lot of community gardens, people walking their dogs … I love it. I love it. I want to buy this house.”

But big investors have already started snapping up real estate around Woodward Avenue.

Crain’s Detroit Business recently found there’s been more than $1 billion in real estate deals in the areasince 2011. Many see that as a good thing — and just a start.

But there are some big questions, like: Who stands to benefit the most? Is there room for the people whose dedication to their communities laid the foundation for revitalization — or will developers just swoop in and capitalize on their years of hard work?

We don’t know yet. But lessons from other cities, and Detroit’s own troubled past, tell us that people with some concerns about where this is headed aren’t just being paranoid.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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