East Side Story

The Urban Consulate is a movement that describes itself as, “a network of parlors for city dwellers & travelers seeking urban exchange.” Operating in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Detroit they host conversations in a parlor environment with knowledgeable experts about important urban topics. In Detroit the Consulate’s proprietor is the genial but serious urban activist Chase Cantrell.

Chase is a friend who has been gently prodding me to attend one of these “conversations” and I did so last Wednesday. The topic was Who is it Built For? and featured a discussion regarding community engagement by urban planners Kimberly Dowdell and Steven Lewis.

The Urban Planning community is justifiably cautious in contemporary planning of grand redevelopments  in older neighborhoods. Author Richard Rothstein has been on the talk shows promoting his new book which is described on the Fresh Air web site.

Rothstein’s new book, The Color of Law, examines the local, state and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.

Detroit is a poster child for Rothsetin’s thesis. The Black Bottom/Hastings street neighborhood was wiped out by the construction of I-75, I-375 and the Urban Renewal along Lafayette and Larnerd just east of Downtown Detroit.  Urban Renewal came to be know as Negro Removal,

Dowdell and Lewis spoke passionately about the lessons learned and still being learned regarding the scope and depth of engaging the community from the very beginning of the planning process.  My ears perked up during one part of the exchange when Professor Dowdell reflected on her Detroit childhood and the family’s move from a home on east side to the more desirable area of the west side. I grew up on the east side just a few blocks from the City Airport (Coleman A. Young International Airport) at Gratiot and Connor. The east side of my childhood was strictly segregated.  As you walked south on Gratiot the color line was Harper Avenue. I spent many hours at the YMCA on Gratiot and Harper where whites and blacks mingled but no black family lived within a mile of my house.

Photo Credit Chase Cantrel

That got me thinking. All of the projects that are part of the Next Detroit or the New Detroit or what have you are happening on the west side. When the floor was open to questions my hand was the first one up. Why, I wanted to know, is all the attention west of Woodward and no buzz about anything east of Woodward. I was reminded of all of the projects along the river front many occurring within spiting distance from where I currently live. But here’s the thing. There are no formal redevelopment efforts north of E. Jefferson and east of Van Dyke. Professor Dowdell conceded some validity to my point. “I have to admit, we’ve always considered the east side a heavier lift”.

Why? I would contend it’s economics as much as race. All of Detroit’s traditionally affluent neighborhood except Indian Village are on the west side. Think Palmer Woods, University District, Sherwood Forrest, Green Acres, LaSalle Gardens, Virginia Park and Rosedale Park. The five Grosse Pointe communities are another thing all together. Another participant said he thought that the west side Jewish neighborhoods were more racially tolerant and consequently less resistant to integration. Also the more affluent are better able to move north to the emerging suburbs. As an undergraduate I studied social science under Otto Feinstien at Montieth College on the campus of Wayne State University. Otto’s parents brought him to this country from Germany a step ahead of the Holocaust. Otto’s scholarship traced the geographic movement of various ethnic groups through Detroit. He had lot’s of maps. The only good one I could find on the web was this which looks at Detroit area ethnic group in 1971

The brown area represents Black neighborhoods and the Purple are Poles, Italians and Germans. Follow Gratiot up from I-94 and you will see the east side of my youth.  On the east side the Black community remained south of I-94 while on the west side it went up to and over Eight Mile. My east side, while white, was solidly working class. Our parents were auto workers, cops and, like my father, firefighters. Every family had one car, usually a station wagon and a minority of the adults had a college education. You didn’t need one. The UAW made it possible to earn a very good living on the assembly line. These Poles, Italians and Germans eventually moved past Eight Mile to the Macomb County suburbs and became the Reagan Democrats in the 1980’s and the Trump Democrats in 2016

Detroit is now 84.3% Black. Do the east side – west side economic disparities matter today? I don’t know. But why does the east side continue to be a more heavy lift?

The Urban Consulate meets every Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. at the Mackenzie House at 4735 Cass Avenue on the campus of Wayne State University.  All are welcome.

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