Raising Kids in the City of Detroit
Detroit's is a gripping story of a once-great urban mecca that's now looking worn or, as some put it, like a 'war zone.' But for all the hyperbole and headlines, it's home to thousands of local families. Will they stay? Will they go? Will more families call Detroit 'home sweet home'? The answers could dictate whether Detroit rises from the ashes.
This story appeared in the October 2010 print edition of Metro Parent.
Photos by Daniel Ribar
When Tamara Robinson says she lives in Detroit, it's never been an easy sell. Especially when people realize she and her husband have four kids.
But lately, the flak has fired up. "It feels like it hasn't always been so negative," says Robinson, 39. "Maybe people didn't feel it was OK to say it out in the open before."
Early on, they asked why her family wanted to live in a crime-infested "ghetto." "As if we were inundated with drug addicts, and Detroit's such a horrible, horrible place," she says. The dumping worsened a few years ago, when disgraced former mayor Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned amid 10 felony counts. Then, in early '09, the state put the city's struggling public schools under emergency financial management, where they remain.
"Yes, there are issues," Robinson says. "But we have some beautiful things going on. I don't ignore the negative. I try to spin it."
Tamara Robinson with her husband and kids in their Detroit family urban garden.
In fact, Robinson, who lives in North Rosedale Park – a historic Detroit neighborhood packed with kids – has made it a personal mission to educate naysayers. She invites them to tour the stately homes, meet her friendly neighbors and visit a bustling community house. And she roots out and shares positive news reports.
For other parents in the D, it's a similar story – and big battle. Detroit's woes have attracted plenty of recent national limelight, from Dateline NBC to TIME magazine. The auto industry and housing market crashes haven't helped regional perceptions of the once-prosperous Motor City, now better known for its staggering abandoned-building stock and soaring unemployment. Its population crested at 1.8 million in the '50s; by next Census, some predict it could dip to 800,000.
To those who remain, though, Detroit is still more than its headlines. It's home. Whether by choice or circumstance, about 42 percent of them are raising kids, according to previous Census numbers. And, says current Detroit Mayor David Bing, the city needs more families like Robinson's to survive.
"I don't think there's any way for our city to come back and be healthy again without a strong middle class," Bing says. "One of the problems with Detroit has been the exodus of families – and mostly middle class."
Adapting to that reality is at the heart of an 18-month land-use exploration process the city started in May. This so-called "right-sizing" recasts the city's albatross, 40 square miles of vacant land, as an asset. Visions include green spaces, urban farms and new neighborhoods built near jobs and other community assets. Families are "absolutely" target residents, Bing notes.
"We've got to recreate an environment so people, No. 1, want to stay here," he says. "Then the possibility of trying to get people to come back is a reality."
It's a tall order at a time when the middle-class is struggling all around Michigan. And parenting in Detroit is demanding. But even now, families are working to make the city a better place for their kids.
Built for families
Fifty years ago, "family-friendly" was the perfect adjective for the Motor City, says Kurt Metzger, a long-time southeast Michigan demography expert.
"Detroit was more-or-less built for families," says Metzger, who heads Data Driven Detroit, or D3. "It had the highest home ownership rate in any city in the country. We are known as the city that birthed the middle class."
Thank manufacturing jobs – specifically those created by Henry Ford's $5 workday. Immigrants flocked from the South and abroad. Two World Wars fueled the "Great Arsenal of Democracy," and population tripled in 1910-30.
At its '50s-era apex, the city boasted a thriving downtown business district. Local retail legends like Kresge's and Hudson's had 1 million people crossing Woodward Avenue daily, by foot and electric streetcar. Homes sprawled like wildfire. Neighborhoods were vibrant, says Metzger, and stuffed coffers ensured excellent schools and top-notch safety. "Extras" like public art were de rigueur. Detroit became the country's fourth-largest city.
"It really was the heyday," Metzger says. "It really had everything – it just was the symbol of prosperity."
What happened? "We really blame it on the federal government," Metzger says. The GI Bill, for one, gave young World War II vets home loans to settle down and raise families – mostly in suburbs. That's because Detroit, along with other industrial Midwest cities, were considered riskier investments.
By the '60s, highways arrived, slicing once-viable neighborhoods and spurring "white flight." The city's notorious 1967 riot only fueled the flood, with many African Americans, still more than 80 percent of Detroit's population today, following suit if they had the means.
"It's become a poor, poor city," Metzger says. Now, "to be a parent in the city of Detroit, you've gotta work hard. It's not an easy proposition. You have to really care about the city – or have no other option."
Today, you'll find the highest concentration of kids in the city – 14,000 in four square miles – on its northeast side, in the Osborn Community.
It's home to many parents like Fredrena Howard, a 26-year-old mom of four kids ages 10 months to 8 years. In Detroit at large, Metzger notes, teen pregnancies are high, as are single-parent homes, which account for about 74 percent of families. Around half of all kids in Detroit live below the poverty line, and three generations frequently live under one roof.
In Osborn, the foreclosure crisis has hit hard. One street can be filled with well-manicured homes and lawns; the next can look like a war zone. On Howard's block, near Gratiot and McNichols, seven homes are occupied; about five empty lots sit right next door. Yet it's tight-knit, she says.
"It's bad in the neighborhood," Howard acknowledges, "but it's improving." One chief way Osborn's been taking action is through The M.A.N. Network. Short for "Maintaining a Neighborhood," this grassroots security detail patrols the streets daily. Howard heads out three mornings a week with a partner, after dropping off her older two daughters at elementary school.
"I'm on my duties 24-7. When we see things that are suspicious, we call the police," says Howard. "We gotta look out for all these kids."
She is not alone. The Skillman Foundation, a major charitable organization in the region, marked Osborn as one of its "Good Neighborhoods" in Detroit. Launched in 2006, this 10-year effort is providing significant support to six total areas, which, all together, are home to 30 percent of the city's kids. From youth-development programs to family health and wealth-building services, the program will invest a total $100 million.
All these efforts have been yielding results, says long-time advocate Bishop Tony Russell. He founded M.A.N. four years ago after realizing an "alarming number of kids" were afraid to walk to school, due to crime and drug issues.
Fredrena Howard with her kids near their Osborn home. Howard patrols the area as part of The M.A.N. Network.
"Bad has a big mouth," Russell contends. "There's much more good than bad in Osborn."
Howard is bucking trends personally, too: She just got married in March. And while unemployment rates for black men in the city are staggering, her husband is a McDonald's manager working toward his GED. More dads in the community are walking their kids to school, Russell adds, due to a growing number of efforts to support parents.
Granted, there are still challenges. Business is patchy – a dollar store, a couple independent grocery shops, lots of fast food. Public transportation tends to get crowded, Howard adds; fortunately her husband can walk to work, so they get by with one car.
Cars tend to speed down their street, so the kids play in the backyard of their rental home, which has bars on the windows and doors. The family occasionally walks to a renovated park nearby – or to visit Grandma four blocks away, whose street has more kids. But while neighbors are sparse, they're watchful, helping mow lawns by empty homes and lots.
"We're trying to get a block club together," says Howard. In some ways, she adds, it's not much different than her childhood home, also in Detroit. "We had to be in the house at 8 o'clock. We looked out for each other."
Yet, she says, "I wouldn't move if I had the chance to. For me, honestly, it feels good to volunteer and know that you can help out your community."
Over the past decade, a different breed of parent has flocked to Detroit – on their own accord.
For Lisa McNish, 37, settling her family in Corktown three years ago was a no-brainer. While raised in Dearborn, her dad owned a business in the Renaissance Center. He took his kids to downtown restaurants and riverfront events. Plus, her brothers and many friends had already made the move.
"Actually, I didn't really meet any of the families that had kids until after I moved down," laughs McNish. She and boyfriend Chris McElhos arrived when their son was 6 months old. "I've just never really had a negative outlook on Detroit."
That attitude is fresh to Detroit – and other central cities – in the last seven or so years, says Realtor Austin Black II. He specializes in urban placements and runs Raising City Kids, which includes a thriving Facebook hub for Detroit parents.
"Urban living in Detroit is very new," says Black. "It's something that's evolving as that first generation embraces urbanism. They want to at least give it a shot as they have kids." In their mid 20s to early 40s, this group, like McNish, grew up in the 'burbs and got hooked on the city lifestyle.
Spots like Corktown, founded by Irish settlers and now Detroit's oldest neighborhood, are magnets for young adults. Once in the shadow of the now-demolished Tiger Stadium, it's been rebuilt as a vibrant, diverse and creative community with historic homes and hip, newer eateries like Slows Bar BQ and Mudgie's Deli.
Transplants aren't just locals. For instance, Benjy Kennedy's family landed in Midtown a half year ago, shortly after he took a job in the city. An urban native, living in cities from Boston to Cape Town, Africa, Kennedy, 31, says pinpointing a Detroit home for his family was "a little bit more of a dig." They rented in Royal Oak before finding an apartment at The Park Shelton – by the Detroit Institute of Arts, in the city's cultural district.
"We couldn't do this in Midtown, Manhattan," Kennedy says. "It's a really unique opportunity to live amidst that sort of abundance." And, he adds, "I find Detroit to be incredibly family-friendly – more so than most cities." There's a well-maintained park behind the nearby College for Creative Studies, for instance.
And then there are the restaurants. "(They're) so welcoming to our little band of noise and mess," says Kennedy, whose kids are 3 and 7 months. "We love it."
A growing pedestrian movement is another perk. Kennedy and his wife often push their twin-stroller across Wayne State University's campus. And McNish, who also works at Wheelhouse Detroit, the city's first bike shop to open in about 30 years, just got a trailer hitch to tote little son Kiernan around town.
Lisa McNish and son Kiernan bike to the Detroit RiverWalk, close to their Corktown home.
Still, there's often conflict between desire to live in Detroit – and "outside influences," as Black puts it, that see the city as "what it was."
"It's a major battle," he says. "We really have to show them – show some of their family members. The most important thing is being connected and knowing the options."
Native Jeanette Pierce agrees. That's the entire goal of her business, Inside Detroit, which offers walking, bus and even Segway tours of the city. She loves unveiling the city's family-friendly gems, like the PuppetART Theatre, Belle Isle's giant playscape and special kids' shows at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts.
"We're actually trying to focus more on families who live here – places to go," she says.
One major issue is shopping. Where she lives downtown, she counts five spots to grab groceries within two miles, including Honey Bee Market in Mexicantown, University Foods and Eastern Market. Belying Detroit's "food desert" stereotype, many mom-and-pop stores are still family owned.
"This is what you don't get in the suburbs," she says. "It's not some big chain. A lot of us actually really like that."
Yet Inside Detroit also shows tour-takers options outside of the city – like Target and other big-box stores in Allen Park and Livonia. "We (need to) start thinking of us as a region, versus, 'I don't want to cross that boundary and shop in Dearborn,'" Pierce adds. "Locally, we're all about the dividing line. People not from here really do see it all as one region."
One of the biggest unknowns is whether these families with small kids will stick it out – especially as education looms on the horizon.
"As a parent, I just kind of cross my fingers and hope that some really good things can be done in the next few years," Kennedy says.
School can commonly make or break the decision to stay in the city. That was the case for Daniela Hernandez's family.
Until last year, two of her three kids attended a public elementary school in Southwest Detroit. This community, home to Detroit's Mexicantown district and another Skillman "Good Neighborhood," is nearly 58 percent Latino. Teen pregnancies are high, Metzger notes, but so are marriages. Families tend to be close, often living on the same block.
It's also one of the highest-density spots in the city – and growing. Over 1,700 businesses are here. Young entrepreneurship is strong.
One reason Hernandez, 26, says she and her husband are in the process of moving to suburban Romulus is the schools' dearth of extracurricular programs.
"There's no sports, there's really no art. Kids need to be creative," she says. It was also an upcoming concern for her youngest, Daniel, 6, whom she describes as hyperactive: "I want him to lose some of his energy."
This is just one of DPS's well-recognized challenges. Its abysmal 58 percent graduation rate trails the national 89-percent average, and its debt ballooned to around $150 million at its peak. As state and local forces try to fix the system, notably through its "I'm In" campaign, some parents opt for charter schools or schools of choice in nearby cities. Others hunt for the "better" schools in Detroit – or make do.
"Teachers are really good. It's just they're lacking materials," says Hernandez, who also works as a DPS school-service assistant. In this position – where she translates English and Spanish for teachers, students and parents – she hears parents' frustrations over security.
"Schools were getting tagged, fences were being stolen," says Hernandez, who was briefly laid off last summer. "It was sort of scary; you didn't want the kids to go out on the playground."
A life-long Detroiter, Hernandez says it hasn't always been this way. As a kid growing up a few blocks away, she recalls walking around the neighborhood and hanging out at Clark Park. Things got a bit rougher when she hit her teens – gangs, burnt-out houses. Even so, when she was a newlywed, she committed to buying a home near her family.
Things soured when the economy tanked a few years back. The apartments right across the street were boarded up, soon attracting graffiti, prostitutes and drug dealers, Hernandez says. Being right off the I-75 service drive also made them a target for thieves, she adds, who have broken in three times. They hung dark curtains on the windows. The kids weren't allowed to play outside without dad and the dog nearby.
But the final straw was when her husband was mowing the front lawn, enclosed by a black iron gate, and found an empty needle.
"We were like, 'No, this is it,'" says Hernandez. "We're done."
Yet for many parents, this isn't affordable – or ideal. Peggie Cook, 44, is among them. She's mom to six kids on Detroit's southeast side. It's a rough area: Her house was firebombed last spring, she says, and while money is tight, she invested in a $2,000 security system.
Even so, she says she'd never move. "I love my home," says Cook, who's lived there 38 years. She's also found a strong ally in the Rosa Parks Children and Youth Programs, held at the nearby Capuchin Soup Kitchen.
Here, her kids have participated in music, art, gardening and conflict resolution programs. An instructor even noticed that one of her young sons was dyslexic.
Daniela Hernandez and her children at the E & L Supermercado in Southwest Detroit.
"Most people want to stay," says Evans, who directs leadership and membership. "Their kids have built friendships. A lot of people are very proud; they're really committed."
Her group also targets lower-income families, taking parenting "right to them." Volunteers go door-to-door with printouts and details on leadership programs. They also field concerns – which are usually issues like free childcare and things to do with the kids.
"People talk about being able to go bowling, go to the movies; just normal social stuff," says Evans. "If we want to keep families, we have to service them."
Those amenities are what made Hernandez want to move to Romulus, where her sister also lives: Plenty of family activities and events – plus good schools and a strong police presence. It's even more important, Hernandez says, now that she's expecting a fourth child.
Of Detroit, she asserts, "The city has to clean up." Still, it's hard to leave it behind. They're renting out their old home. And her husband's job as a butcher brings him back to the city, as does family – and her favorite grocery store, the E & L Supermercado.
"We're definitely coming back for church on Sundays, to come see my parents, go buy tortillas," she says. "I'll miss just being around my Mexican people."
People are precisely what drew Tamara Robinson to North Rosedale Park. When she first drove through in 1997, neighbors were out walking dogs, pushing strollers and chatting. And there were kids everywhere.
"I fell in love with it. I said, 'That's it,'" Robinson recalls. "It was just the closeness. It was such a family-oriented community."
And the elegant homes, circa the 1930s and '40s, nestled in tree-lined streets. "We wanted plaster," as she puts it, "not drywall."
Her home is among Detroit's historic districts, which include famous names like Indian Village, Boston-Edison and Sherwood Forest. They're crucial to Detroit's future, Mayor Bing notes. "We can't turn our backs on the historic stable neighborhoods," he says. "They need help also."
Particularly since families are still staples. North Rosedale is no exception. And here, medium income is about $76,000, notes real-estate database Zillow.com (in Detroit at large, it's around $40,000). Empty lots and abandoned homes are harder to come by.
Like similar communities, neighbors here also fund their own security. "The patrol is good in terms of peace of mind. Sort of like when you buy insurance – but you really don't want anything to happen," Robinson says.
But the crucial bond, she says, is with local police, who meet monthly with the area's civic association. Robinson, a past board member and IT expert, also started an online crime-watch listserv for residents. "It's in real-time, like Twitter," she says; police also tend to check in. In fact, during a bad streak of home break-ins, stolen cars and muggings a few summers ago, 60 off-duty cops volunteered to patrol the area on foot – and in uniform. Neighbors were abuzz on the listserv, giving the officers food and water.
Tamara Robinson and her family in their urban farm in Brightmoor, near their home in North Rosedale Park.
Engagement runs high in other ways, too. While the city nearly shut down 77 public parks last summer, this neighborhood's sprawling four-acre park is owned and maintained by its civic association. Ditto for its community house. Both host a bevy of annual family activities – plus Little League Baseball, soccer and four Scout troops.
"It's fortunate they have so many different kids they can play with," says Robinson.
A few miles away in Palmer Woods, another historic enclave, Shauna Vercher-Morrow, 44, has had to hunt more for such opportunities.
One tool has been her Detroit chapter of Jack & Jill of America, an African American organization of moms who organize programs and service work for youth. It's how her kids, ages 7 and 15, have met their best friends.
Moms also swap stories on school and kids' activities. For instance, it's how she discovered a soccer program, within the city limits, for her young daughter – whose DPS school doesn't offer any sports.
"It's simple things that people often take for granted," says Vercher-Morrow, who's also the chapter president. "We have to do so many things a la carte for our children. And those things cost money."
High school is often a turning point. With public options, she says, "it's slim pickings," with most vying for Cass Tech High School or Renaissance High School. "They move so they can educate their children in a better education system for free," she says. Vercher-Morrow's son attends the private University of Detroit Jesuit.
Robinson, who has a newborn plus kids ages 9, 14 and 20, faced that issue when her eldest started high school. Due to various problems, culminating when Matthew was robbed in class, she moved all her children to a different district.
Such factors can take a toll. Despite being a life-long Detroiter and loving her neighborhood, Vercher-Morrow admits that's where she's at. "I'm a little bit fed up. I would move tomorrow if I could sell my house," she says. Two homes next to her 3,500 square-foot estate recently went into foreclosure, selling at bargain rates. "You kind of feel stuck."
It's lifestyle, too. For instance, her husband once gave an ice cream truck $5 to drive down their street. Her daughter had never seen one.
"I would have a smaller home for some of the other luxuries of life."
It's not easy, agrees Robinson. Taxes and insurance are high. Her job in Ann Arbor is a trek. "We used to stay because we could leave. We could sell our houses and get top dollar for them," she says. "Now? Not so much.
"But we still stay." And, she adds, they boost Detroit with more than just nice words.
Last year, Robinson's family joined four others to start an urban garden. It sits on five empty lots in nearby Brightmoor – a lower-income neighborhood also on the rise. They have 19 fruit trees, a cornfield and vegetables. They even hope to buy an abandoned house to store their tools and raise chickens.
"There's that camaraderie," Robinson says. "We're still in it. We're not giving up."
Detroit of tomorrow
By November of 2011, Detroit should have a blueprint that will doubtless include a place for middle-class parents. But will they come?
Considering the challenges, give it at least five to 10 years, Metzger says.
"For the next few years, there's no way you're going to get families," he says. At the same time, "There's a real future in Detroit. I think it's going to be vastly different than it was in its heyday."
For one thing, many agree it'll appeal to a wider swath, with areas attractive to singles, couples, families and retirees. Mayor Bing agrees, adding that growing business will be key – particularly in health care, which has surpassed manufacturing as Detroit's biggest employer. He hopes current efforts will pave the way, like his plan to demolish 10,000 vacant homes in four years, scale-down city infrastructure and overhaul education.
"It's got to be a city that's friendly and open to families … (and) business," Bing says. "We're not going to recreate history. It's going to be a new day." And, he adds, that will take a definite attitude shift, too.
In Midtown, young dad Benjy Kennedy agrees. Lifting positive experiences might encourage other families – and provide stronger support for those already here.
"It's the responsibility and the challenge of being a Detroit parent," he says, "and Detroit resident."