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A tale of two households, and the complicated reality of living in Detroit

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

It’s no secret that Detroit is much smaller than it used to be.

The city’s population peaked at a little under two million people in the 1950s. It’s declined steeply since then, to about 700,000.

People are still leaving the city. But the rate is slowing, as some people discover new reasons to move in.

Here’s a story about two Detroit households moving in opposite directions — and the different forces tugging on the city’s population.

“We really felt led to live here”

At Jen Janke’s house, conversations can get a little sidetracked.

That’s because Janke has four kids. They’re very well-behaved for their ages — three boys and a girl, all 10 years old and younger. But if you put four siblings together anywhere, they’re going to make some noise, whether it’s requests for cinnamon toast or taking a little tumble to the floor.

Those kids are a big reason Janke and her husband just moved their family to North Rosedale Park — a lovely Detroit neighborhood of tree-lined streets and historic homes.

The Jankes own one of those homes now. It’s a spacious, sunny five bedrooms, the sort of house that’s grand enough to have once housed servants, but still manageable for a young family. A year ago, it was in foreclosure.

“It was falling apart, the ceiling was caving in at places, and we were like: ‘We think we want this house,’” says Janke with a laugh. “It’s kind of crazy.”

A community development group acquired the house, and rehabbed it. In the meantime, the Jankes were looking to move out of their much smaller home in suburban Westland. They felt drawn to North Rosedale. They loved the idea of raising their kids in a big old house with tons of character—and quickly fell in love with the tight-knit neighborhood.

But Jen Janke says they had some serious doubts. They didn’t want to put their kids in Detroit public schools. And crime and blight can haunt even Detroit’s nicest neighborhoods.

“It was definitely a struggle,” says Janke. “Fred [her husband] and I had a lot of late night conversations in the process. Even after we saw this house and we really liked it, we were like … 'What would it really look like for our family to live in Detroit?’”

But Janke says the dots just kept connecting. As a former teacher, she could home school the kids. They could get a great house at an affordable price. The whole thing just felt right.

When they decided to make the move, Janke says there were no middle-of-the-road reactions. Some people were really excited for them. Others just kept asking: “Why?”

“It’s like you have to have some kind of compelling, ‘You’re going to be a mission to save the city’ type reason,” Janke says. But that wasn’t the case for them. “We just really felt led to live here. We really love the neighborhood, and we really loved the community, and we have a cool house.”

“It’s like I’m being penalized for living in Detroit”

A lot of things added up to nudge the Jankes into Detroit. And for Monica Jackson, just enough things are adding up to nudge her out. She just wishes she could take her cozy little house with her.

“I love my house,” says Jackson.  “Even though I’ve only been here less than three years, I love it. It’s got my personality all through it.”

Jackson lives in a more modest neighborhood on Detroit’s far west side. She grew up right next door, where her mom still lives.

Jackson owns her home outright. A neighbor left it to her in a will. And Jackson says that’s the only reason she can afford to live here, because she pays so much in taxes (Detroit homeowners pay the nation's highest property taxes) and insurance. Homeowner’s insurance, in particular, just seems to keep going up.

“I’ve never made a [insurance] claim on the house, and I have a great credit score,” says Jackson. “So I don’t understand why I’m being penalized. It’s like I’m being penalized for living in Detroit.”

Jackson says the neighborhood has deteriorated somewhat over the years, but that’s not what’s really pushing her out.  She says it just doesn’t make sense to pay a premium to live here, especially when she already does much of her shopping, eating, and other daily living in the suburbs.

“I don’t go to the gas stations in Detroit,” says Jackson. “I don’t go to the party stores in Detroit. Because you have people hanging around, asking ‘Can I pump your gas?,’ or begging for money, or whatever.  And as a woman, I’m leery of that, because I’ve been carjacked before.”

So that leaves Jackson in what she calls “a tight predicament.” She doesn’t want to leave her house, but she feels like she has to. Selling it could take a long time, and renting it out could be a huge hassle.

But Jackson would never consider just walking away from the house that came to her as an inheritance. “I don’t want to add blight to the city of Detroit,” she says emphatically. “The city is where I was born and raised. It’ll always be my home.”

For the moment, Detroit’s population is still more outbound than inbound — meaning there are still more Monica Jacksons than Jen Jankes.

Their stories paint a mixed picture of a city on the upswing in some respects, still steadily declining in others. Detroit can attract new residents while still driving others out. Like almost everything in the city right now, there are big forces pushing both ways — creating a complicated reality that defies an easy narrative.

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.