North End Serves as a Benchmark for Detroit’s Recovery

JOHN ELIGON / New York Times News Service

DETROIT - Inell Byrd’s house has a leaky roof.

Walls are cracked, sections of ceiling are missing and the concrete porch is buckling. Most of the furniture is gone and random belongings like Christmas lights and a bicycle are scattered about, the result of preparations for a redecoration that Byrd has not been able to manage.

The front room is bare, its only contents a low-slung futon and a large flat-screen television. With her family finances in shambles, she briefly tried to sell the house.

And beyond her walls, she worries that her street - which still has handsome colonials, Tudors and other sprawling homes - abuts one that looks bombed out.

“You got these two beautiful blocks,” said Byrd, 41, a home health aide, referring to Arden Park Boulevard in the city’s historic North End, “and everything behind you is, I ain’t going to say Beirut, but basically it just fell off.”

But there is also immense potential in this shattered urban landscape despite more than a half-century of government mismanagement and residential and industrial flight.

Mayor Mike Duggan, who took office in January, promised immediate improvements after the city hit a low point last year, becoming America’s largest to file for bankruptcy. The North End captures both the hope and challenge of the mayor’s pledge. So tracking what happens in this neighborhood this year and next will tell a lot about whether this metropolis, with nearly 690,000 residents, can rebuild.

“The North End is an area that has real potential to come back,” the mayor said in an interview. “It’s got a proud history in this city.”

Annexed by the city in the late 19th century, the North End once was the northernmost point in Detroit, bordering on the cities of Highland Park and Hamtramck. It quickly became a haven for the upper class.

These days it still has some of the city’s most glorious homes bordering some of its harshest blight. While it counts judges, doctors and other professionals in its ranks of homeowners, its remaining residents are mostly low-income blacks who bear the brunt of Detroit’s economic decline because of a legacy of confinement to the lowest-paid, least-skilled and least-mobile jobs.

Older residents remember when Oakland Avenue, the North End’s main north-south drag, was a crowded strip of businesses and bars, such as Phelps Lounge, where some of black music’s hottest acts, like the Temptations, performed in the 1960s. Or when the likes of Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross lived in the well-to-do neighborhood alongside Detroit’s black elite, who migrated there after World War II, exceptional for a time when racist policies generally kept black residents crowded into the city’s most tattered sections.

Now there are more open fields than buildings along Oakland. And the most notable concerns operating on the street are a liquor store, a few churches and an old Jewish bathhouse.

“I drive over occasionally just to look at the old neighborhood,” said Franklin, who lived in the North End in the 1950s when it was thriving with affluent blacks. “You wouldn’t even recognize it now.”

Still, the city has targeted the North End as among the first neighborhoods for renewal. Situated just above the city’s vibrant midtown and downtown corridor, the North End is a ripe location for commercial and residential development.

Signs of Progress

In a plan for the first phase of a streetcar project, the neighborhood is the end of the line. The city is offering financial incentives for employees of Wayne State University and two nearby hospitals to rent or purchase homes in parts of the North End.

Although historically the North End sits to the east of Woodward Avenue, city officials have grouped neighboring communities west of Woodward into the North End. The enlarged area is sometimes referred to as the Grand Woodward Corridor.

It already has some stable housing stock and deeply rooted families in which mothers and brothers, cousins and uncles all live around the block from one another, occupying homes that have been in their families for three or four generations. These are people like Byrd and her ailing husband, Cornelius, 71, a Detroit Police retiree, who are trying to maintain their imposing brick home. Or Banika and Olando Jones, a sister and brother living on one of the community’s emptier blocks.

New people and also organizations are moving in, like the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, started by two University of Michigan graduates in their 20s. The city has already started tearing down blighted homes all over, including in the North End, where nearly 70 houses have been demolished so far this year and about 240 more are under contract to be razed.

The Duggan administration has started forcing owners to fix up their abandoned or run-down properties or lose them, an initiative that already has targeted dozens of homes in two of the North End’s finer areas and is expected to reach Arden Park by year’s end. The city has paid developers to rehabilitate almost 40 abandoned houses in a 24-block area just west of Woodward and to get them occupied by the end of the year.

Artists’ studios have begun to pop up, grass-roots efforts are underway to open a cooperative grocery store and one longtime resident is trying to build a nine-hole miniature golf course in the neighborhood. A community development organization is working to expand Delores Bennett Park, named after the North End’s matriarch, who is 81 and still commands the respect of the troubled youths she helps with finding jobs.

While working streetlights are scattered about the North End, many lights are broken, leaving long dark stretches. Installation of new LED lighting in the neighborhood is expected to start next year.

North End residents are not necessarily looking for a return to their neighborhood’s heyday. Their desires are more pressing and basic - being able to sit on their porches at night and actually see their surroundings; walking the streets without worrying about who is in the high brush or in abandoned buildings along the way; keeping away scrappers, who descend on houses, especially vacant ones, and steal all the metal to sell at a scrap yard; and being able to shop for basic goods within walking distance.

But the city confronts longstanding social and cultural hurdles. Its populace, which is 83 percent black, has become inured to disappointment, and cynical about years of political corruption, mismanagement and broken promises. Longtime residents will want to see whether prosperity can start to reach a broad base - including the poor and less educated - or merely widen the divide. Residents openly wonder whether city leaders want to drive them out to make way for a more affluent class.

The North End, like other neighborhoods, also struggles with an array of sometimes competing interests: public and private agencies, real estate speculators and longtime residents. Some newcomers have drawn heightened scrutiny from residents and other community organizations. Vanguard Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group founded in 1994 that works to attract commercial and residential investment to the North End, and the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative have been at odds since the farmers arrived two years ago.

For Byrd, and her husband, who bought the house on Arden Park more than 20 years ago, the struggles are no less complicated.

“I feel like the house is falling apart,” said Byrd, despairing this spring as she tried to scrounge up $4,500 in overdue taxes to keep the city from taking her family’s home and having it become another abandoned property.

Like so many others, the Byrds are barely hanging on. Byrd works two jobs in elder care, sometimes in 12-hour shifts, and her husband lives on a police pension that remains subject to the city’s bankruptcy negotiations.

Having hit some bad breaks and mismanaged their household budget over the years, the Byrds saw their debts become insurmountable. At one point last year, they fell about $17,000 behind on property taxes and about $60,000 behind in utility, medical and car bills. That forced Inell Byrd into bankruptcy.

So far, despite the hardship, Byrd, who lives with her husband, two of her three children, and her sister and nephew, has committed to sticking it out in Detroit. But as she drives to her jobs outside the city each day, that suburban life beckons. There, people pay lower taxes for better services, and Byrd said she felt comfortable stopping at the gas station or ATM at night and leaving her car doors unlocked.

Back home, she worries about her neighborhood. It is a checkerboard of worn houses - some with buckling brick facades, sagging porch roofs, and missing doors and windows - next to razed, overgrown lots littered with trash. One empty patch visible from her backyard is about the size of a football field and bushy like a jungle.

For Byrd, the big unanswered question remains: Fight for Detroit, or abandon her?

Old Forces at Odds With New

For those who cannot imagine abandoning Detroit, a big question is how to grapple with new forces flooding in. As a large metropolitan hub, more populous than Boston, Detroit is attractive to businesses and charities looking to make their mark in a major urban market.

With inexpensive real estate, private investors and foundations are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the city, hoping that their relatively low-cost investments can yield high returns. There are always questions of whether those outside groups are given incentives that longtime residents are not.

That was what Banika Jones thought three springs ago when she saw a large group of mostly young white people clearing thick brush in empty lots near the home she inherited from her grandmother. She and her brother Olando, who share a red brick two-family home, can be suspicious of change. They have about 50 relatives in the North End. Their family laid roots there about half a century ago when their grandmothers moved in. Jones cannot imagine living anywhere else.

When she was away in the Army for nearly four years, she said, she would sometimes have to sleep out in the field and she tossed and turned and longed for what she felt was the more soothing nighttime soundtrack back home: sirens, crickets, gunshots.

“It’s comfort,” she said.

But the white farmers showed up when Jones, now 34, was at her most vulnerable. Months earlier, her 2-year-old daughter, Bianca, had vanished from a car driven by the girl’s father, who was later convicted of killing her. Jones believes he had nothing to do with her disappearance, and the emotional wounds of the case were fresh.

Suddenly these outsiders were preparing to plant in an area where she had been trying to sow a garden for her missing daughter. “I’ve been looking at this damn lot literally my whole life and I can’t get no damn help with it,” she said. “A few white kids show up from the suburbs and it’s like, ‘Let’s let them adopt these lots and let’s get some’ - all of a sudden it’s corporate sponsors. So, yeah, I wasn’t even feeling it.”

Her brother, 23, expressed even greater irritation.

“When you black and you broke and you poor and you ain’t got nothing, you, like, really picky over everything,” he said. “It was all white people over there. It was like, ‘What the hell are y’all doing?’ Seemed like it was going to be some type of takeover.”

The group was the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, whose mission was to use “agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community - while simultaneously reducing socioeconomic disparity” in order “to empower urban communities.”

Jones, who goes by the nickname Pinky, did not have a soft spot for the farmers. Early on, she argued with one of the group’s board members when he said they were planning to plant where she wanted to grow the garden for her daughter. She yelled at people working on the farm after a group of volunteers cut down a peach tree in front of her house, even though it turned out that those volunteers were part of a neighborhood cleanup group unaffiliated with the farming project. But that hardly mattered. Jones simply lumped all the volunteers visiting her neighborhood into one category.

“They come in, they do they little feel-goodness and then they get to go home and say, ‘I helped the ghetto today, Mom,’” Jones said.

But over time, she started realizing something unusual about farm volunteers. They kept coming back. They grew some delicious-smelling basil. And one afternoon, the beds of basil looked especially plentiful, and she had a great chicken pesto recipe but not that much money and nothing to make it with.

So, along with her brother, Jones sat next to the player piano in their home, and they peeked out the front window, watching as the cars of volunteers parked on the street pulled off. When it seemed that all had left, they grabbed a plastic grocery bag, strolled over to the basil beds and started snapping leaves.

Then, out of nowhere, a young, peppy blond man came bounding toward them.

“Heeey!” he said.

It was Tyson Gersh, 25, who founded the farm group with Darin McLeskey, 23, who is no longer with the organization. Jones said she thought she was caught, that she was going to have to ask him if he accepted a Bridge Card for food stamps.

But Gersh did not reprimand them. He told them they could take what they wanted. He invited them to come look at the cabbage. He said they could return any time they wanted to get vegetables and asked them if they would volunteer some time. They returned regularly to pick vegetables, but passed on the volunteering, until one day when Jones felt guilty.

“He was just always so happy and excited to see us, and like, ‘Have it! Take it!’” Jones said of Gersh.

So they started volunteering, planting, harvesting, cleaning. Olando Jones was still skeptical about the organization. He was helping only to be supportive of his sister.

But then he saw a change in her. Her ex-boyfriend had been convicted of a murder she believed he did not commit. In fact, Banika Jones believed her daughter, who had never been found, was still alive, and that left her in pain. But she was finally smiling again, Olando Jones said.

“It made me happy that she could wake up and have something to look forward to doing, instead of just sitting there and festering on the terrible things that happened to us,” he said.

The two eventually took on more responsibility. Banika Jones’ name and phone number were put on a sign by the farm, and she was given responsibility for distributing food to community members. They both had to harvest some of the 11,000 pounds of produce that the organization grew last summer to prepare it for the farmers’ market. They were named to the board of the organization, which relies primarily on volunteers. The farmers did not pay them for their help, but the group gave back in other ways. Members helped the Joneses navigate the tax auction and purchase a home for $3,000 that they moved into this year.

Olando Jones said he still had reservations at times. He found it difficult, he said, to help white people understand when they were overstepping boundaries in his community. He recalled a time when a member of the organization tried to make decisions about a home that he and his sister owned without including them in the discussion.

“Even though they mean well and it’s all good, they’re still white kids who are from much better circumstances, and there are certain things that human nature will dictate,” he said. Yet it is better to have a seat at the table, he added, “because I don’t like the idea of someone not from Detroit, not like me, with so much ability to dictate my future.”

Part of the Joneses’ mission now is to help the farm group connect with the community and earn its trust.

One sunny but frigid Sunday morning toward the end of March, Banika Jones held her hiking boots over a kerosene heater in the middle of her dark, jumbled bedroom, warming up for a trek to neighborhood churches. She was going to talk to pastors to offer the farmers’ help and to solicit some from them and their congregations.

In many ways, Jones seemed an unlikely person to be volunteering. Her new home has no electricity or running water because she cannot afford to pay for utilities. She owes hundreds of dollars in property taxes and only recently got a paid apprenticeship as an electrician after quitting her last steady job a couple of years ago over the stress of losing her daughter.

The psychological scars still burn. Jones leaned on a narrow dresser with several empty plastic bottles of Pepsi on it and, taped to the corner of the mirror, a picture of her other daughter, Bella, 10, who lives with a family member.

“I ain’t had my Pepsi,” she said, lighting a Newport. “It’s got to be either-or.”

Staring into the distance, Jones, physically acting out the story she was telling, railed against the system that convicted her former boyfriend. She laid out plans for a better life for Bella, insisting that the girl would attend the University of Michigan.

Jones is well read and quick with metaphors, and she could well have followed the academic life. But after a year of college, she left because it cost too much. She spent a few years in the Army before an injury ended that, and then about 10 years ago she got into community work and loved it. To her, it was instant gratification, doing things that made people in her neighborhood smile.

She plans to become a certified electrician and has big dreams of doing renewable energy projects in the North End, so residents do not have to rely on buying their power from the city. “That would be awesome,” she said.

But on this day her concern was the rows upon rows of greens the farm would be planting over the summer, and making sure they got into the mouths of North Enders.

At the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Jones told the woman who runs the food pantry how much they produced last year, and the woman wrapped her arm around Jones.

“Hey, hey! We could use your help,” the woman said.

Jones was excited and she discussed a plan to provide food for the pantry or encourage community members to come by the farm to get some. “It’s going to be great,” Jones said. “In the neighborhood, it’s all about love.”

But when Jones returned to Mount Carmel later that day to speak with the pastor, the Rev. Marvin R. Youmans, he was cautious.

Youmans, who lives in the suburbs but has been doing community work in the North End since 1977, remembers plenty of promises from foundations and the government that yielded no lasting good. He remembers the uneasiness that floated about the community when the farm volunteers first came there two years ago, without consulting residents, who asked who they were and how they got their land. The farming initiative still had work to do, Youmans concluded, to convince residents that it would be a force of good for the community.

“People have been doing things on the North End for years and years and years, and nobody knows about it,” Youmans said. The residents, he added, are “skeptical of people because they have not reaped the benefits.”

There was a time when Inell Byrd felt as if people were trying to take advantage of her. That was last year, when, overwhelmed by her family’s precarious finances, she put her home up for sale for $100,000. But after getting only lowball offers mostly from white buyers, she said, she decided not to sell.

But this is a city whose mammoth struggles are an inherent part of one’s daily life, and for Byrd this means ambivalence. One morning in late March, with dawn about to break, she slipped into her warm Chevy Malibu, ready to transport herself to a different world. She closed her eyes, whispered a prayer and cranked up the Yolanda Adams morning gospel show on the radio. Then she was off to her job helping an elderly couple in West Bloomfield, a suburb of strip malls and office parks. The trip provided a seductive glimpse of what else was out there.

Dodging potholes near her home, she drove 15 minutes before reaching the suburbs, a landscape with signs of a more peaceful life. Businesses on every corner. Manicured lawns. Wide, smooth thoroughfares. Windows and doors intact, and buildings with new facades. When she turned into the village with cookie-cutter apartment buildings where the couple lives, the fuel light in her car flickered on. She chuckled. It was a reminder that, even though it might be dark when she left the village, she could still stop for gas around the corner, a luxury not afforded in Detroit because of the danger of stickups.

She parked and surveyed the woods around her through her cracked windshield.

“These are the finer areas, the more upscale,” she said. “Sometimes, I can leave my car unlocked. You call the police, their response is like less than 10 seconds.”

She is someone who believes that hard work should allow a person to live comfortably, and this suburb is a place where that can happen. Despite Detroit’s inexpensive housing, property tax and car insurance rates tend to be much higher in the city than in the neighboring suburbs, even though service delivery is much worse. So part of Byrd occasionally ponders whether her family could lead a more pleasant life outside of the city.

But she is not quite ready to give up on Detroit. She senses that something is brewing right now. Duggan and the police chief, James Craig, who took over the department last year, are putting words into action, she said.

“I’m believing this city has a chance in coming back,” she said. “It’s just something about Detroit that I love.”

Practically speaking, Byrd has little choice but to cheer Detroit along. She lives in a five-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot house that is paid off; giving it up would cause hardship to her sister, who lives with her; and starting over would mean new bills (rent or a mortgage) at a time when she cannot keep up with the ones she already has.

As the deadline approached this spring for Byrd to pay about $4,500 in overdue property taxes to save her home from foreclosure, she seemed uncertain about what to do. And signs of stress were evident. Dark circles around her eyes marred her smooth, round facial features. Pulling the money together was only part of the challenge. The larger struggle was coping with the demands of new responsibilities and a new way of life after her husband had two strokes and their well-being fell to her to manage.

From the time she met Cornelius Byrd when she was about 17 (and he was 30 years older and married), Inell Byrd said he took care of her. They would have three children together, get married and in 2001, she moved into the house that he had bought eight years earlier on Arden Park Boulevard. It was as if she had waltzed into luxury after a modest life on Detroit’s West Side.

Their eclectically styled brick home with two sturdy, square columns on either side of a wide porch was built in 1917 by German immigrants and once counted as its owner a wealthy brick manufacturer, John S. Haggerty, who served as Michigan’s secretary of state and worked in finance before the Great Depression claimed part of his fortune and forced him to move.

In the mid-20th century, Daniel J. Healy Jr., a probate and juvenile court judge, moved into the house with his high-society wife, Olive, decorating the front room as a library with French provincial furniture and leather-bound books on the shelves. Half a century later, when Byrd moved in, her husband gave her free rein to decorate as she wanted. She bought a marble table for the dining room, microsuede furniture for the living room and filled a curio cabinet with angel statuettes.

Her husband made sure she could have anything she wanted, Byrd said, so she shopped regularly and got her hair and nails done a couple of times a month. Cornelius Byrd was active, cutting the grass, shoveling snow and taking their children to their sports activities. Even though he sustained occasional pay cuts as a police officer because of a shrinking city budget, Ms. Inell Byrd said their standard of living remained the same.

“My husband was the one who took care of everything, and I didn’t have to worry,” she explained. “I could spend my money how I wanted to spend my money.”

But Cornelius Byrd retired around 2006, and a landslide of unexpected costs from hospitalizations and a family funeral followed, resulting in mental anguish that caused Inell Byrd to leave her job. After the strokes left her husband severely debilitated, Byrd became the primary caretaker of the household and finances, a role she was not prepared for.

‘It’s Hard to Try to Change’

“Sometimes when you get accustomed to things and change comes, it’s hard to try to change what you’re used to being accustomed to,” she said.

The last thing Detroit officials want is to see the Byrd family just walk away. Most of the homes are occupied on the three blocks that make up Arden Park Boulevard, a wide maple-lined street with an island under a canopy of trees. The few vacant homes might be plagued with tall weeds and cracking facades, but their charm is undiminished. A smooth, smoke-colored colonial with spiral hedges houses a doctor; an anesthesiologist lives in a stucco and brick home down the street; and a district court judge occupies a brick house with a large bay window in the front.

The first step in the city’s renewal effort is to get all the houses occupied on pristine streets like this, brighten up the downtrodden ones and get rid of the surrounding blight so it does not infest the healthy blocks or scare away the residents who live there. To do this, city officials are suing owners who allow their homes to become eyesores and fail to maintain them, threatening to take the properties if they are not fixed. Byrd knew she could avoid falling into that category, if only she could meet the March 31 property tax deadline. To do so, she would have to find time amid her busy work schedule to arrange to get money from her husband’s 401(k) and make it downtown to pay the county before it took her home.

The due date came, and so did unfortunate news - there were complications with the 401(k) check and it would take several more days for the money to clear. So she waited.

A week later, the money was in, but the phone rang that morning and Byrd was summoned to work, to fill in for a colleague. The taxes would have to wait another day, if officials would even accept her tardiness.

On April 10, the sun was out, the breeze blew and the day had finally arrived. “Everything may look up after I get these taxes together,” Byrd said before hopping into her car, pointing approvingly at the $50 blinds in the back seat that she bought for $7.49 (she’s learning how to clearance shop) and pulling up to the Wayne County treasurer’s office downtown. Although the deadline was 10 days past, the county had been lenient, overburdened by the tens of thousands of delinquent taxpayers and cognizant of the havoc it would cause if they all lost their homes.

Byrd was in and out within half an hour. She paid off old taxes and set up a payment plan for the rest. Her wallet was $4,457.93 lighter; her spirits were lighter too.

The coming weeks would bring good news - an agreement was reached to largely spare police pensions from cuts - but more hardship: Her husband broke his leg and has been hospitalized for months. That, coupled with Byrd’s rigid work schedule, has prevented her from making headway on home repairs.

But she is starting to be encouraged: a few streetlights have flickered on near her home and volunteers are cleaning up streets and alleys around her.

“I guess little by little it is showing signs of improvement,” she said.

Perhaps more significant, she said, she has been hearing about broader renewal efforts around the city and is eager to see them come to the North End.

She left the treasurer’s office that day with a new resolve. She talks of wise spending, taking care of her needs (fixing the roof) before her desires (replacing the mailbox) and doing all she can to keep expenses down, like leaving the microwave unplugged to save electricity. She is starting to speak in absolutes.

“I know the city is coming back,” she said.