Searching for Detroit’s middle-class

This story is part of the series Exploring Economic Equity, supported and directed by Detroit Future City.  This Model D and Metromode series aims to report everyday Detroiters and their experiences as they live their lives and make choices about their neighborhoods, health, education, jobs, transportation, and other factors related to economic equity. All content in this series is created in partnership with Detroit Future City.

On a warm October afternoon, Derek English sips a cup of Ethiopian spiced coffee in his northwest Detroit backyard. Under a blue sky and dappled sunlight, he answers emails, takes meetings, and shapes projects. Working from home definitely has its perks, he says.

The outdoor office and lounge he’s constructed off his garage is just one pandemic project the Ford design engineer and artist has recently embraced. During the 2020 lockdown, he also opened a home-based for-profit social enterprise with his teenage and adult daughters called Faust Haus Roasting Co. 

Life’s pretty good on Faust Avenue.

“This is my neighborhood,” he says of the surrounding Rosedale Park community. “This is my block. I’ve been all over the world, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Caribbean, France, Spain, but Detroit is my home. I enjoy that identity. I like having faith and investment in the city I come from.”

English, 44, grew up in Rosedale Park, around the corner on Greenview Road in a house his parents still live in today. When he was a young kid in the 1980s, before the next wave of white flight passed through the neighborhood, he remembers a fairly mixed community, one he calls a “wildly wonderful experiment in diversity.” 

Derek English in Rosedale Park. Photo by Nick Hagen.

But by the fourth or fifth grade, his white friends had moved away, he says, and until he left for college, both at school and home, his experience was solely a Black one.

Today, a diverse community is slowly growing again in English’s majority-Black middle-class neighborhood. Over the last five years, a handful of white and Black singles, couples, and families have moved in on Faust Avenue and similar blocks in Grandmont Rosedale. 

English says there are many reasons to want to be in Rosedale Park, especially with the walkability and access to nearby amenities like restaurants, coffee shops, a bookstore, and a local market. 

“I could stay in my neighborhood without a car and have all of my needs met, which is not true for a lot of places in the city,” he says. “Chalk it up to the administration, or that we’re outside of bankruptcy and can spend money on infrastructure, but I can walk or ride my bike to many local businesses.”

This may be a rare claim in the city of Detroit. And it’s probably a reason that of the 34 homes on his block, between Chalfonte and Eaton, all are occupied except one, which is currently being renovated by an out-of-state investor, according to block club captain Pam Weinstein. Her roster shows that five homes on the block are longtime rentals.

Her data shows that seven households are occupied by white residents (two longtime families and five newcomers in the last five years), and of the 26 households occupied by Black residents, seven are also newer.

“It’s kind of returning to how I remember it as a kid,” English says, “which is an interesting dynamic. I enjoy the different perspectives, ages, and racial and ethnic backgrounds of my neighbors.”

But whether or not new families moving in will plant long-term roots in the city and invest their businesses, dollars, and time in this neighborhood is of concern to him. It’s something he and his neighbors discuss at block club meetings. Are people planning to raise their families here? Or are they catching market values in the neighborhood comparatively low to the region with plans to make a gain, and move back to the suburbs?

It’s a wait-and-see type of thing, but he’s cautiously optimistic and won’t use the word gentrification.

“I think that word has more to do with the attitudes and perspectives of the people that move in, rather than the actual people,” he says. “When folks with distinct backgrounds move into a neighborhood like ours, with a rich history of community, gathering, and working together, and they bring those flavors to be a part of things rather than to shift the culture, that’s just people moving in.”

Changing neighborhoods

Over the last decade, Detroit has seen a 9% increase of white people moving in, according to 2020 census data, the first decade to show that particular growth since the 1950s. But, the same census shows Detroit’s total population fell by over 10%, and the number of Black residents, who still make up 77% of the city, declined by 16 percent.

The number of middle-class neighborhoods in the city is also declining, according to a recent report by the “think and do” tank, Detroit Future City (DFC) — from 22 census tracts in 2010 to only 11 in 2019. Only about 5% of the city’s residents live in middle-class neighborhoods.

Source: Detroit Future City

The nonprofit is focusing on land use and the city’s equitable community and economic development for the next 50 years. It defines the middle class as those living in households having an income between 80% and 200% of the national median household income ($52,600-$131,400) and a middle-class neighborhood as one where at least half of residents are middle or upper-middle class.

Since 2000, the share of Black middle-class households that live in the suburbs has increased, DFC reports. Residents have left for nearby places like Harper Woods, Eastpointe, Southfield, Warren, and Redford. More than half of the region’s African American middle-class households live outside of the City of Detroit.

Simultaneously, development and revitalization in places like downtown and Midtown have attracted upper and middle-class white residents, whose median income saw more than a 60% growth in the city since 2010, DFC reports, compared to 8% for Black residents and 5% for Hispanic residents.

“These disparities around race and class are concerning,” says CEO Anika Goss. “In a city where African Americans are the largest demographic, we should be growing the African American middle class, yet, it’s the largest demographic leaving. People are choosing to live outside the city because they’re not easily finding the resources they’re looking for in Detroit.” 

The “Detroit tax,” a burden residents associate with issues like inflated auto insurance, high property taxes, low-performing schools, and crumbling infrastructure, is too heavy for many to bear, Goss says, and there are many barriers in the city between its Black residents and economic advancement. 

“To really create a prosperous future for Detroit, you have to create opportunity at every level,” she says, “in the education system, the job sector, the income sector, in health, and you have to make sure people are included. When we look around, it seems like such a Herculean effort, but it’s not,” she says. “It just requires a level of intentionality.”

DFC’s report proposes growing the city’s middle class in numbers by increasing pathways to middle-class prosperity for Detroiters while attracting new middle-class residents to neighborhoods. The report also advocates for improving the standard of living for all Detroiters — a critical factor in creating equity, the report says. An early step is to find out where Black residents choose to live and why they’re set on staying despite the city’s challenges.

‘Lucky’ and ‘blessed’

Alonzo Marable, 54, had dreamed of living in a neighborhood like Rosedale Park since he was a kid growing up at Mack and McClellan, on the city’s east side. The beauty and stability of the area attracted him and his wife, Desiree, to Faust Avenue, and twenty-four years later, he still feels “lucky” and “blessed” to call it home.

“Some people love the suburbs, but I’m a city dweller,” he says. “I love the energy and spirit of Detroit. It’s like a fighter who won’t stay on the canvas. I don’t think I’ll ever leave. It’s a part of me.”

Alonzo Marable with daughter Kendall Marable and baby Teagan Photo by Nick Hagen..

The Marables bought their house on Faust Avenue in 1997 and raised three daughters there. Desiree’s a flight attendant with Delta Airlines, and Alonzo’s a party promoter in the city and owns a bounce house company called Ultimate Party.

When Faust holds its annual block party full of BBQ, old-fashioned games, drinks, and music, the Marables bring the bounce house for the neighborhood kids every summer. The block has an unbroken streak of summer parties dating back at least to 1976 (including a cake-only gathering in 2020, due to COVID-19). Alonzo Marable says there’s still that old sense of community. Residents volunteer to drive radio patrol (chartered through the Detroit Police Department), sign cards for sick neighbors, and walk over meals when someone passes away. 

He attributes much of that connectedness to his longtime block club captain, Weinstein, who’s been greeting and organizing neighbors since before the Marables moved in. “She keeps everybody informed of what’s going on,” he says. “If a tree falls down, she’ll give you the number to the city’s forestry department. She’ll let you know about bulk pick up, and she collects fees for our picnics. If every block had a Pam,” he says, “Detroit would be a better place.” 

Knowing your neighbors like this breeds safety, he says. Over the decades, and after the housing crash brought foreclosure and vacancy, the Marables experienced the occasional car vandalization, but “no break-ins, no burglaries, nothing like that.”

He talks about how Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) works to board up, purchase, and resell vacant homes in the neighborhood. For the last few years, property values have been on the rise again in Rosedale Park, but the Marables “aren’t going anywhere.”

“I’m actually loving having this diversity,” he says about the young white families he sees walking their kids to nearby parks. “White and Black together, that’s what the new Detroit’s gonna be.” Like English, Marable dislikes the word gentrification and doesn’t want to hear it from his friends who’ve left the city for the suburbs.

“A lot of my friends complain, ‘Oh, they’re coming into the city and taking over,’ but you don’t even live here anymore,” he says. “You’re complaining about somebody else who’s coming back? You left. So how can you be talking about the next person?”

Most of his friends still visit the city for their entertainment, he says, and as “an avid Detroiter,” he loves to recommend the latest restaurants, clubs, or “brag about the park system.”

Parks are one of the most significant areas of improvement Marable notes about the city. Grandmont Rosedale boasts several, and he and his wife often walk with their grandniece, Teagan, to the nearby Flintstone Park. The couple participated in a fundraiser to improve the green space and take pride that their children and grandchildren can see their names engraved there.

Marable also enjoys the bike lanes on Grand River near where he lives and would like to see them extend to downtown. He enjoys riding his electric bike that way on many a summer night. As empty-nesters, the couple often visit community restaurants like Vegan Soul, Island Spice Caribbean, and best of all, he says, Sweet Potato Sensations.

Middle-class neighborhoods key to economic equity

Weinstein describes her beloved block of Faust as “not the swankiest,” and “not the lowest” but in the somewhere “in the middle” of Rosedale Park, a neighborhood full of “lovely” three-bedroom brick homes, “a few rungs below North Rosedale Park on the economic ladder.”

Having lived there for over 35 years, she can tell you all about it. And like Marable, she’s encouraged to see the neighborhood growing and thriving in new ways while continuing a sense of community and tradition that’s over a century old.

For several years, she says, the city had abandoned her neighborhood, no longer mowing the grass on the street’s islands, sending street sweepers, or coming to fix, really anything.

Today, she uses the Improve Detroit app to report various issues that she sees on her daily walks, and often, she says, they get addressed. She reports missing man covers, broken traffic signals, downed limbs, illegal waste dumping, and more. Results vary, she says, but this line of communication between residents and the city makes a regular difference in her neighborhood.

“Some departments are more speedy than others, and I wish there were more categories. They typically come within 48 hours to fix potholes,” she says, “and forestry and abandoned vehicles are very responsive, but others are horrible, notably public lighting and the water department.”

The most significant improvement she sees is that the area has almost recovered from the 2008 real estate collapse. Weinstein has participated in this process through her role with the Vacant Property Task Force, a collaboration between volunteer residents of Grandmont Rosedale’s five neighborhoods who combat blight and deal with foreclosures, vacancies, foreign investor-owned properties, etc. 

Pam Weinstein and Jim Dwight on their front porch. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“To see houses that used to be empty and abandoned, now all fixed up and reoccupied by young families, is hugely encouraging,” she says. 

Weinstein and her husband Jim Dwight have lived on Faust Avenue since 1984. The couple both worked careers for The Detroit Free Press and were committed to living in the city, a place they found enormously interesting. When they bought their home in 1990, on the block where they’d previously been renting, Weinstein says they didn’t even negotiate the price. 

“We never considered living anywhere else but Detroit,” she says. “And we were so attached to the people on our block that we didn’t want to leave them. When the house came up for sale, we just bought it.”

The Weinstein’s raised two sons in their home who went to the former Detroit Open School, followed by a small parochial school, and then University of Detroit Jesuit High School.

“Education was a challenge when we were raising our kids, ” Weinstein says, “and it’s still a challenge today. “UofD was an amazing, formative experience for our boys, but paying that tuition is like sending two kids to college starting in the 7th grade. So that was a heavy lift,” she says, “and we did a lot of scrambling, no question.”

Residents of Grandmont Rosedale say their biggest challenges are high-quality educational opportunities, property taxes, and insurance rates, says Sherita Smith, former executive director for GRDC. The neighborhood nonprofit works to preserve and revitalize its five neighborhoods through home renovation, commercial revitalization, vacant property maintenance, economic development, and small business support.

The Rosedale Park News dates back to 1921, and today is published for neighbors every other month. Jim Dwight currently serves as editor, which is a role his wife, Pam Weinstein also performed for many years. Photo by Nick Hagen.

The city needs to address these issues better, she says, “along with offering more living wage, sustainable career opportunities that don’t require college degrees.”

“There need to be pathways out of poverty that people can clearly see, that help them move economically and socially,” she says. “As a city, it’s something we’ve got to wrap our minds around and make it as transparent for folks as possible.”

One of GRDC’s primary focuses with its residents is homeownership. The neighborhood has a 78% homeownership rate, compared to 47 percent in the city. But while high, this number was over 80% for many years, Smith says, and needs to be watched and preserved.

“Foreclosures created investment opportunities, and while there’s nothing wrong with investors and rental property, we know that homeownership is what brings stability to a community,” Smith says. “Black homeownership in Detroit has dropped off precipitously over time, and so there definitely needs to be an effort to preserve the communities that have that.”

Part of the mission and work of GRDC is to make sure homeownership remains affordable and accessible across income ranges, she says. Property values in Grandmont Rosedale have been stabilizing and appreciating over the last four years. The price range is vast, with houses selling from $60,000-$300,000 in today’s market.

“This sort of mixed-income community is really important right now,” Smith says. “This is one of the best places in Detroit for a low-income young person to access economic mobility. It’s still a neighborhood where young people can come across neighbors who are professionals of various classes and have natural networking opportunities.”

English has experienced this with Faust Haus Roasting Co. He and his daughters sell their small-batch coffee at the Northwest Detroit Farmers Market. Through GRDC, they have recently been invited to participate in Eastern Market’s Holiday Markets in November and December and have a regular spot at Eastern Market next year. 

“There’s a sense of community here that wants you to succeed, that wants to give you resources and put you in front of the right people,” he says. “Our little business is growing through these personal connections.”

That connection is what’s sustained these communities over time, says Smith. Neighborhood associations in Grandmont Rosedale date back 100 years.

“I think a level of community organization has helped to provide stability,” she says, “but the strategy of coming together across income, race, and communities to build a CDC has been an effective strategy in setting priorities for the entire area.”

Maintaining solid, quality middle-class neighborhoods is a critical piece of building economic equity, and to do that right, people need to work together, according to Weinstein, who served four years as president of the Rosedale Park Neighborhood Association and was employed by GRDC for 13 years in a variety of pivotal roles. Today, her primary responsibility is as coordinator of the block captain network.

Rosedale Park comprises 60 blocks, and Weinstein’s proud to say that all but two have at least one block captain. The role varies in participation from delivering the newsletter, to keeping rosters and updating the neighborhood database, as well as organizing block parties, street landscaping, and clean-ups.

“You have to live and work and play together.” she says, also telling of her neighborhood’s old-fashioned activities like Easter egg hunts, June Day parades, Christmas caroling, and holiday pancake breakfasts. There are community-led sports leagues, in-season weekly farmers’ markets, neighborhood-wide garage sales, jazz concerts in the park, and more.

“There are a million little things that make Rosedale Park a really lovely place to live,” she says. “Most of these are things that connect people.”

 

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