Detroit city is the place to be, increasingly, for families with children. While overall the number of families dropped 25.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a 2012 report prepared for the Skillman Foundation by Data Driven Detroit, anecdotal evidence in a wide range of city neighborhoods indicates a boom in sidewalk traffic of strollers and wagons and helmeted kids on tiny bikes.
Let’s get one thing straight: Families with options, families who are actively choosing Detroit, are not a new thing, and not a “New Detroit” (code for young white people) thing. People have been raising families here in the best and the worst of times for this city, and for most of us it turned out pretty well.
It did for me. I was born here, and after my family did a lot of hopscotching between the metro area and Ohio because of my father’s job (working for the Stroh Brewery Company) we came back for good in 1982, when I was 12. We looked at houses in Plymouth and Grosse Pointe Park, but finally settled in a big brick colonial in the North Rosedale Park neighborhood on the city’s Northwest side, which began my lifelong love affair with Detroit.
When it came time to plant my own roots, my husband and I bought a lovely little English Tudor in Green Acres, where we’re raising our son and daughter. There are lots of pros and cons to raising a family here. Yes, schools are a thing and probably always will be, and normal things like grocery shopping can be challenging – although the “food desert” stereotype is completely overblown, and there are far more choices than even a few years ago. Pro and con, here’s what it’s like to raise a family in Detroit right now.
Pros of raising a family in Detroit
Seeing beyond stereotypes
If your only exposure to people of other races, classes or cultures comes through TV or movies, it’s incredibly easy to believe every negative image you see. If, however, your neighbors and schoolmates and friends are a diverse group of people, it challenges the racially motivated mindset that renders everyone who is different as suspect. As a white parent raising white kids, that’s important to me as a way to fight racism both institutionally and personally – for African-American parents, it’s even more so.
“It gives you a better sense of who you are,” says Kerlyne Alexis-Pinkins, a mother of four who lives in the city’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood, an enclave of large houses and winding, tree-lined streets that has historically been home to successful African-American professionals. Alexis-Pinkins moved from Massachusetts with her husband and family in 2009, where they were very much a minority. Being in Detroit allows her kids to see successful African-Americans in positions of authority just about everywhere they go. “Where we were in the minority, we didn’t see a lot of African-Americans, where they could say, ‘I can do that,'” she says.
Growing up in North Rosedale Park was like growing up in a very small town. People knew you, knew who your parents were and had no hesitation in telling them if you were up to no good. More to the point, there was a strong sense of keeping an eye out for each other and lending a hand where we could, of contributing to a community fabric bigger than our own concerns.
Decades later, that community spirit remains. It’s a major draw for the fellow parents I talked to. Caitlin Marcon, who grew up in Dearborn and moved back last year with her husband and toddler son after eight years in Chicago, said she was blown away by the friendliness of her neighbors even before they moved in. “People were amazing,” she says. “Right away people were waving, smiling and saying hello. When you meet real people, it changes the game.”
Alexis-Pinkins says that sense of community is something she hasn’t experienced to this degree anywhere else she has lived. “I know all my neighbors by name,” she says. “The community is so cohesive, and there is a sense that in Detroit, you have to look out for one another, because looking out for one another is looking out for yourself.”
Shannon Wong, who moved here from New York in April to a house near Palmer Park with her 4-year-old and 2-year old twins, says she’s found the slower pace of life here tends to lead to better connections. “I feel like it’s easier to make deep friendships in a quicker way, because people have a lot more time,” she says. “It’s not just a shallow conversation for an hour and then on to the next activity.”
Culture and coolness
While the old idea persists that Detroit is devoid of retail, independent shops along Livernois Avenue, in West Village and especially in Midtown mean you can find unique gifts and wonderful treats while supporting local entrepreneurs. Yes, big box trips take some planning and chain restaurants are hard to come by – but we’re OK with that. It’s a pretty easy tradeoff when you can get everything from Bangladeshi food to chicken and waffles just a short hop away and keep your dollars supporting the local community. “I am a small business owner, and I can support a lot of small black-owned businesses in the city,” says Chaundra Haynes, a mom of two who also lives in Sherwood Forest. “I try to do everything I can locally before I have to go out.”
Beyond that, she says, they are close enough to all the activities in the Cultural Center and Downtown that it’s easy to get there without battling traffic. Concerts, sporting events, world-class museums, a showplace library and a state-of-the-art science center are not more than a 20-minute drive away, and there’s something exciting going on almost every weekend.
The economic challenges facing many families in Detroit means nonprofit groups have stepped up to offer fantastic enrichment opportunities rivaling anything that can be found in the wealthier suburbs – at a price accessible to families of much smaller means. The Michigan State University Community Music School, DAPCEP engineering program, Detroit PAL, the Detroit Public Library and plenty of other places bring music lessons, STEM classes, sports and more within the reach of Detroit kids.
Lauren Rivers’ son is a sixth grader at Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies academy, part of the Detroit Public Schools system. Not only does he get two-and-a-half hours of Chinese instruction in his school day, he’s even been invited to a national youth leadership conference, and both her children are active at all kinds of cultural institutions in the city. “Regularly, several times a month, there’s something going on at The Children’s Museum, the Michigan Science Center and so on – there is a lot of opportunity,” she says.
And while this is quickly changing, real estate in some of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods is still a bargain compared to other places. While the $500 house remains an urban legend, you can find gorgeous homes and wonderful neighbors for well under the $250,000 mark in just about any neighborhood in the city.
Cons of raising a family in Detroit
Of course, there are some downsides. The biggest one, the one every group of two or more Detroit parents talks about within half an hour of meeting, is schools.
In Detroit, it’s not as simple as just sending your child to the neighborhood school – if indeed you still have one after all the closures Detroit Public Schools has suffered in the last several years. Instead, choosing a school involves research and networking and budget crunching and transportation planning and worry. There’s an idea that Detroit Public Schools are an automatic no-go, charters are not much better and the private options are outrageously expensive if they stay around at all – Friends School in Detroit just closed this fall, displacing a community of families that loved the place.
However, the picture is not nearly that bleak. Rivers says that her children were in a very high quality district in Illinois, where she lived until 2013. But to her surprise, when they came to FLICS, they were actually behind what their peers in Detroit were doing. Although she attended Detroit Public Schools herself growing up, Rivers says one of the most pleasant surprises has been the culture of success that teachers and staff work hard to instill at her child’s school. “Teachers are driving the point home that it’s not just academics that make for success, but it’s who you are as an individual,” she says. “Teachers make it personal for the kids that people are very vested in their success.”
Rivers, a Realtor, points out that parents should be aware of individual schools’ track record and not just go by districts. While Detroit as a whole does not post impressive numbers on statewide tests, individual city schools score as well or better than some schools in suburban districts.
Haynes says she sees schools as an equity issue, one that takes more than just personal effort to overcome. “Until people realize all children deserve a quality education – especially black children, brown children and poor white children – that will hamper more people from coming here,” she says.
Superman isn’t coming
You know that saying about being the change you want to see in the world? That goes double in Detroit. If you want something – a better neighborhood park, good afterschool programming or even a crosswalk at your intersection – you’re going to be the one putting in the work. Luckily, you generally don’t have to look far to find like-minded people with the same goals. And when you do, magic can happen.
Palmer Park is one such magical place. All but abandoned and riddled with crime some years ago, the city planned to close it. Instead of giving it up as a lost cause, neighborhood residents formed People for Palmer Park, and now the park hums with activity year round. The closed pool was replaced with a splash park and the broken-down, graffiti-riddled play scape with a shiny new one.
Even for people without kids, the perception of safety in the city generates fears about raising children there. Of course, the reality is not much worse than any other major city, and some neighborhoods such as Midtown are actually safer than some suburbs. “Detroit is not as bad as you think,” says Haynes. “It can be rough anywhere and everywhere you go.” Alexis-Pinkins was worried when they first moved in; now, she runs through the neighborhood and up to Royal Oak while training for the Chicago marathon.
Car break-ins are pretty common, but neighbors look out for each other and that helps to lessen the impact of crime.
A city worth loving
Raising kids in the city has some definite challenges our suburban friends never even think about facing. But the payoff for accepting them is huge. My kids are having, in many ways, a typical middle class American childhood with school, Girl Scouts, soccer games and music lessons forming the backbone of our days. We volunteer with the PTO, shop at a strip mall five minutes from our house and have backyard barbecues, just like my friends in the suburbs.
In other ways, their upbringing is very different. They know all kinds of families. They play in historic neighborhoods, nationally renowned cultural institutions and along a river that marks an international border crossing. Dinner could be takeout from any number of international cuisines, tacos with chorizo and queso fresco I whipped up from supplies bought at Honeybee Market just a few blocks from my son’s school, or a salad of fresh vegetables and greens grown a stone’s throw away and bought at any number of nearby farmers markets. We don’t catch a school bus, but we do sometimes take the Detroit People Mover.
My kids are city kids, and they’re blooming where they’re planted in this sometimes tough, sometimes glorious, always interesting city.