Skip navigation
Return to Issue

Cover Story: Detroit From The Inside Out



  • Author:
    Larry Gabriel
  • Published:
    Fall 2015


When I graduated from MSU in 1975, I consciously chose to return home to Detroit rather than head off to a faraway place. I did the same thing five years later after I earned my master’s degree from Penn State University—despite a chorus of friends telling me, “You’re out; why go back?”

I came back because I’m a Detroiter. I was born here—the first person in my family not born in New Orleans. All of my friends and family were in Detroit. It was the place I knew, and despite the multitude of problems that Detroit seemed to be facing, I believed the Motor City would come back. I just didn’t realize it would take some 40 years before I’d see real evidence that the city is changing direction.
To me, that evidence is the growing enthusiasm for place-making that’s now sweeping across the city. Whether it’s the revival of the Avenue of Fashion, the economic promise of M1 light rail, the friendly atmosphere of the Riverwalk, the new liveliness of Palmer Park, or the growing sense that Detroit is a multicultural village with people from all over the globe settling here, there is an optimism that I haven’t felt in a long time.

Add to that the vitality of downtown and Midtown that is spilling over to other areas of the city, and it looks like Detroit is indeed rising up.

Decline Began Quietly

Nobody really noticed Detroit’s decline when the population began to drop in 1951. The number had peaked in 1950 at 1,860,000 residents—but the flow to the suburbs was long and steady, landing us somewhere under 700,000 today.

My family came here in 1951 after my father was hired at the Ford River Rouge Plant. He’d been a traveling jazz musician since 1937. Mom was tired of that. So after Dad snagged the job, Mom got on a bus with the kids and came up from New.Orleans.

I was born in 1953, and so I’ve pretty much witnessed the city’s steady decline over my lifetime. I saw the last of the electric trolleys spraying sparks over the cobbled streets. We had visited the now-closed Michigan Central Train Depot—an attractive and busy building—when it still dropped off Southerners coming north to seek work. I saw the Detroit Tigers and Lions play at Briggs Stadium, later renamed Tiger Stadium. There was a place nearby called Western Market, at Michigan and 18th, where farmers sold produce and a carnival came once a year. During winter, we would ice skate on a pond there.

In the mid-1960s, we moved to a couple of blocks from the University of Detroit. Back then, there was no fence around the campus and it was a playground of sorts to neighborhood kids. I missed the 1967 riot, or rebellion depending on your perspective, because I was away working at Boy Scout camp. In 1972, the city’s image lost much of its remaining luster when Motown Records, which had become the city’s calling card, up and moved to Los Angeles.

After my sojourn to Michigan State, I returned to a city that still seemed to have opportunities. There were still jobs in the factories, and truthfully, those big autoworker contracts that folks marvel at didn’t start until the late 1970s. But Detroit seemed to be deflating. Shopping centers had sucked away most of the reasons to go downtown. The iconic Hudson’s department store closed its doors in 1983, emphatically slamming the door on the city’s prosperity.

I was a poet and musician. Despite being a college graduate, I got a job as a live-in caretaker at the First Unitarian Universalist Church. That was in the Cass Corridor, where the artists and musicians shared space with the prostitutes and the drug dealers, while poor families scraped to get by.

Seeds of Rebirth Spread

Yet amid this urban decay were the seeds of what is now Detroit’s calling card: Midtown. The hospital that would become the Detroit Medical Center—now the city’s largest employer—was a few blocks to the east, Wayne State University, another key employer, was just to the north, next to the Cultural Center with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Historical Museum. To the west, Woodbridge was the first residential neighborhood in the area to perk up. Every one of those entities made a difference to the city over the next few decades as they grew and expanded to create stability in the city center.

While those big institutions made big differences, it was the small businesses in the area that began to grow and raise the quality of living. Block by block and building by building, small entrepreneurs made their stand. Lofts rose up in place of abandoned warehouses. Stores popped up to serve these new residents. On Willis off Cass, a neighborhood village evolved. Cobb’s Corner bar—where the Lyman Woodard Organization, Marcus Belgrave, Ron English, Griot Galaxy and others plied their trade back in the day—gave way to the Cass Corridor Food Coop and then the Del Pryor art gallery. A few doors down from where the Willis Gallery once held its genre-bending art shows, today Avalon International Breads is proving that a business can succeed while staying true to community, environment and financial profit.

Restaurants and home-goods stores now dot the nearby streets while gardens and pet parks green them.

With the central city gaining strength, the long-suffering neighborhoods are finally getting the same level of attention that the downtown projects have received for decades. Foundations such as Kresge, Skillman, and Ford have backed projects from business incubators and cleanups to urban farming and arts developments. The city has been selling abandoned houses or tearing down those that are beyond reclamation.

The new streetlight at the curb next to my driveway is on every night, and it’s a testament to Mayor Mike Duggan having made good on his promise to turn the lights back on in the city. If he can be successful with his D-Insurance plan, which would lower auto rates, it will be another step toward making Detroit a more attractive place to live.

Still, fundamental issues remain in how to manage a city with 30 percent fewer residents than it was built to serve. Space-wise, Detroit is one of the nation’s largest cities at 142 square miles, but some 40 square miles are now vacant.

One solution residents have found is in the urban agriculture movement. Some people looked at the city’s vacant lots and said: “Let’s grow food.” Over the past 25 years, a sophisticated urban farming system has developed with support from institutions that teach gardening, test soil, make resources accessible and create produce markets. Some see real potential for a significant homegrown food industry. The capacity to produce a lot of food is here. The next steps involve building food processing and delivery systems.

Gardening Groups such as D-Town Farm, with five acres of land in the Rouge Park area, see agriculture as a social cause, delivering fresh, nutritious food to city dwellers. Others, such as the Brother Nature farm, see it as a business opportunity. The husband and wife team of Greg Willerer and Olivia Hubert make their living selling the exotic greens they grow on several lots near their home to restaurants and at their booth in Eastern Market. Earthworks Urban Farm supplies produce to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which feeds the hungry and homeless.

Whether it’s farming or just greening, vacant lots across Detroit are being turned into assets rather than eyesores.

Enthusiasm Takes Root

Detroit’s turnaround has been going on for a while now. Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch have taken advantage of low real estate prices to buy properties to develop and reshape the greater downtown area. The appointment of an emergency manager to oversee Detroit’s finances as well as the city’s bankruptcy filing were both part of putting the past behind us and setting the city up for prosperity in the future.
The pace of change has picked up in the past few years as downtown developers and neighborhood visionaries catch the fire of enthusiasm spreading across the city. Where once a single building—the Renaissance Center—was wrongly touted as the flagship of a new era, multiple signs of renewal are now sprouting up across much of the city.

But it still comes down to where you live. There are all kinds of stories about what’s going on in Detroit, depending on whom you ask. Here’s one from my block. I live in a stable neighborhood on the north end of town called Greenacres. Homes where I live aren’t quite as large as the neighboring Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods and University District, and they don’t cost quite as much. Over the past few years when a house on my block has gone up for sale, it has sold quickly.

The house next door sold about two years ago to a young family from Southfield. The dad worked for one of Dan Gilbert’s companies. A few months ago that family transferred to a Las Vegas office. The house sold in just a few weeks, this time to an Italian engineer who works for General Motors. He’d been living in Royal Oak for the past year, but chose Detroit when he was ready to settle in.

Shortly after that sale, a representative of a real estate office called to tell me about it. She said that a lot of people want to move into my neighborhood but there isn’t a lot of available stock—was I interested in selling?

No, I’m not. Change is always happening. The ultimate direction of Detroit’s next change remains to be seen. It depends on a lot of factors that Detroiters of all stations will impact as we go forward.

Detroit burned down in 1805 and was rebuilt. After the 1890s, Detroit kicked off the worldwide automotive industry. Now, in the post-industrial era, Detroit is again being reinvented. Whatever that brings, I expect to be here to see it through.

I’m a Detroiter.?