One Detroit neighbourhood gets the ultimate reno

Boston-Edison, once home to greats like Henry Ford, is reclaimed amid the rot

The ultimate motor city reno

Brent Foster

For much of the last century, the home Henry Ford built in Detroit’s genteel Boston-Edison district was occupied by the Rev. Florence B. Crews, long-time pastor of the Temple of Light, a church whose teachings fused Christianity and astrology. Rev. Crews began living in the house in 1941, when she and her husband, O. James Crews, known on local radio broadcasts as the “Voice of the Planets,” walled in the fireplace, hung heavy curtains in the windows and filled Ford’s parlour with enough folding chairs to accommodate the dozens of worshippers who gathered there on Thursday and Sunday nights.

Apart from these religious services, the couple used the house as a place to practise what the Rev. Crews referred to in court testimony—residents had brought an action against her for running a church out of the home—as “the business or vocation of reading horoscopes for pay.” These sessions could cost as much as US$150—equivalent to US$2,000 today—and made use of “charts, tables of the solar system and the zodiacal heavens, time of birth, blackboards, a book of ephemeral places and the sidereal time as calculated at Greenwich at noon.”

It was a long way from the business Ford conducted while living there. Back in 1908, the same year he built the house, Ford put the Model T into production, and he lived there when he implemented his revolutionary assembly-line manufacturing process and doubled the wages he paid his factory hands to $5 a day—high enough that they could buy automobiles of their own, a significant step in the development of a powerful American working class.

Listen to author Nick Kohler narrate a slide show of images detailing both the grandeur and decay of Boston-Edison’s remarkable homes.

These were Detroit’s salad days, and Boston-Edison reflected that glory. Here the Ford home is modest beside many of its neighbours. A district of leafy boulevards, stately mansions and handsome cottages stretched out over 36 city blocks just north of midtown, it was the domain of auto executives, hard-charging industrialists and retail tycoons. Sebastian S. Kresge, founder of what later became K-Mart, Jacob Siegel, head of the American Lady Corset Company, and Walter Briggs, who was, among other things, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Briggs Stadium—they all lived here, and all made sure their homes were stamped with appropriate grandeur.

By 1916, in a move that foreshadowed the hollowing out of America’s earliest and most successful industrial city, Ford had left Boston-Edison behind for a country estate. Yet his old home and neighbourhood continued to mirror the city’s shifting fortunes. Detroit sputtered and shrank, peaking in 1950 at 1.8 million before a loss of factory jobs, strident unions and white flight emptied the place (the population today is just over 700,000). Just a mile away from the old Ford home the 1967 riots broke out: 43 Detroiters died, most of them African American men.

In spite of the precarious, post-riot race relations in Detroit, Boston-Edison integrated: never burdened by the “deed covenants” that elsewhere prohibited sale to minority groups, it welcomed well-to-do African-Americans. Right around the corner from the old Ford home, on W. Boston Boulevard, Motown Records chief Berry Gordy, Jr., threw legendary parties that featured the Jackson 5 performing on his well-manicured lawn.

Yet the rot that the 1967 riots had accelerated continued to spread, pressing in from every direction, scuttling investment and laying neighbourhoods to waste. No one was spared. The Rev. Crews witnessed Boston-Edison’s transformation from affluent enclave to a fragile oasis adrift in a wasteland. “This house has spirits but do not be alarmed—they are beneficent spirits,” Crews told Jerald and Marilyn Mitchell, the Ford home’s present occupants, when they asked about buying the place in the mid-’80s. (In his imitation of Crews, Jerald, 71, channels the voice of an aging lady spiritualist.) “We couldn’t come to an agreement,” Jerald recalls of his negotiations with Crews at the time. “The stars weren’t aligning.”

Today Boston-Edison is just as haunted by the past and Detroit’s derelict present as the Ford house was for the Rev. Florence B. Crews 25 years ago. Wild pheasants live in the neighbourhood’s weedy back alleys and, while it is still a world away from the devastation of contemporary Detroit, that world is steps away—a transition from old-fashioned comfort to slum as abrupt as crossing the street. A block north of W. Boston Boulevard, outside a burnt-out, once-elegant apartment building with plywood in the windows, a crudely painted sign reads: “FOR SALE, $250 DOWN, $195 MONTH.” It is not a joke. Writes Scott Martelle in his recent book, Detroit: A Biography: “It’s unclear when we look at Detroit today whether we’re seeing the last spasm of America’s industrial past, or a harbinger of the nation’s urban future. But what is clear is that this is what the abject collapse of an industrial society looks like.”

Nevertheless, inside that uncertainty the residents of Boston-Edison are scraping out an answer. The community has hung on, even shown signs of improvement, and is attracting dozens of newcomers, thanks largely to the ingenious interventions of the neighbourhood’s homeowners—pioneers of the industrial apocalypse. “The city’s in the worst shape it’s ever been,” says Jerald Mitchell, a retired Wayne State University anatomy prof. “The question is, can we survive if the rest of the city is collapsing all around us? I guess it’s an opportunity to reinvent what a city is for the 21st century.” This is the story of how the residents of Boston-Edison have started doing just that.

The foreclosure crisis arrived in Boston-Edison well in advance of the 2008 crash. “As early as 2006 we started noticing vacant homes,” says Jim Hamilton, a retired Wayne State economics prof and the former president of the Historic Boston-Edison Association. “There were more and more vacant houses that were obviously foreclosures. People disappeared.” At one point more than a hundred of the district’s 930 or so homes stood empty. The grasses grew, weeds flowered, and the financial institutions that owned the homes hammered plywood in the windows. Some houses now sag beneath the weight of emptiness—paths leading to great front doors vibrant with dandelions, smashed windows like bruised eyes. At a home on Longfellow Street recently, up a set of canted steps, a lion sat on cracked plaster, a wet newspaper clasped in its jaws.

The vacant homes weregreat goldmines of copper and other scrap commodities that attracted thieves who stripped them of what remained—heavy wooden doors and chandeliers—to sell piecemeal. Many of the basements here still contain the remnants of what a century ago was cutting-edge technology but now looks like steampunk fantasy: massive barrel-like washing machines on gyroscope pedestals, proto-refrigerators buried in the walls, walk-in vaults concealed behind pocket doors, pipe organs, elevator gears like the guts of a clock. (The Mitchells keep Ford’s cherrywood toilet in working order.)

Something had to be done to keep these treasures safe. The people of Boston-Edison, many of them preservationists who withstood the magnetic pull of the suburbs, banded together. “There are a lot of professionals here,” says Brian Ceccon, a retired social worker and a former director of the neighbourhood association. “They don’t have to live here—they’re choosing to.” The homeowners began a policy of adopting empty houses, mowing the lawns and keeping watch. “We secured funding to purchase locks and secured the homes if there was a break-in, hung curtains, trimmed shrubs—just to make the homes appear occupied,” says Pamela Miller Malone, a former neighbourhood association president.

Many also came together to contract a security company that still patrols the streets. “For a while we formed what we called flash mobs,” Ceccon says. “If someone noticed a house was being burgled they had a phone tree of volunteers they’d call. Everyone would show up and stand around the house and watch. Then they’d stay until the police came.” Trevor Footitt, a 57-year-old computer programmer who lives with his family in a home sandwiched between two foreclosures, arrived one day to find men throwing radiators from the second floor of one of those vacant houses into a truck below. Footitt held up his smartphone and began taking snapshots of the thieves: “Smile,” he told them. They gave him the finger. Days later the photos helped police arrest the men, who were serial strippers. Footitt is now president of the Boston-Edison Radio Patrol—B.E.R.P., his little joke—and helps coordinate volunteers who scout the neighbourhood.

Still, Footitt sees the real villains elsewhere: “It’s the banks, they’re run by morons—they must be,” he says. “They turn a $300,000 house into a $100,000 [house] by not looking after it. What kind of business is that?” Now one of the vacant homes neighbouring his is being revamped by contractors hired by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which uses neighbourhood stabilization money—so called “Obama dollars”—for community development works. Another organization, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation, typically concentrates on poor communities like the Near West Side, just south of Boston-Edison, where the 1967 riots started. But it has recently purchased 12 Boston-Edison foreclosures for under $10,000 each. Says Lisa Johanon, executive director of the organization: “Boston-Edison just really didn’t fit with our vision and mission, because it is a middle-class community. And it took three or four times of the city saying, ‘If you don’t stabilize this middle-class community, the poor community you’re trying to save will not have a snowball’s chance of survival.’ ”

The non-profit has already refurbished eight of its Boston-Edison homes, and has cleaned up 64 in the rougher area south of here. Apart from the low- to moderate-income families whom they serve as part of their mandate, these non-profits are also part of a city-run incentive program designed to attract police officers to Boston-Edison. “It not only gives the perception of safety for the community, but we have noticed that when an alarm goes off there’s a quicker response time by the police to get there for one of their own,” says Johanon. “And I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing!”

The financial losses suffered by these non-profits can be staggering. “We put $158,000 into the house we sold in December—it finally appraised at $66,000,” says Johanon. “But now the baseline in the community is $66,000, and so the next house we do we’re hoping will appraise for $80,000. And we think it will. What we’re doing is driving housing values up by our renovations.”

That philosophy—investment at the risk of loss as part of a quest to drive values up—couldn’t be more at odds with the way Detroit operated in the 1970s, say, when cynical banking and real estate practices sought to drive urban land values as low as they could go. One gambit, “redlining,” saw banks and insurance companies refusing loans or coverage to great swaths of Detroit—an institutionalized form of racism and a boon to developers eager to cut new neighbourhoods into the suburbs. Blockbusting involved real estate agents manipulating housing markets by selling homes to black families who could not afford them, or by creating the illusion of integration in order to persuade whites to sell at a loss; both schemes lined the pockets of these unethical operators, who either cycled a number of black families through one address in order to keep their down payments once they defaulted, or by scavenging the surrounding homes from fleeing whites.

Such insidious business methods cored the city. Now the place looks like Fallujah. The warehouses and homes are burnt-out shells of their former selves. Parks and vacant lots make up 96 sq. km of the city. In some neighbourhoods, where bulldozers have plowed down the decaying homes, the Michigan grasslands are reclaiming the geography, melting the city back into wilderness. Inexplicably, at the corner of Lakeview and Kercheval streets, not far from the unfaded opulence of Grosse Pointe, a boat tilts on the sidewalk, as if on loan from post-Katrina New Orleans. The blight has spawned a genre of photography that Detroiters ridicule as “ruin porn.” A common joke has it that in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, no one here would notice.

Not surprisingly, the city has flirted with bankruptcy. In April, Mayor Dave Bing secured a reprieve by cobbling together a deal with the state that put Detroit’s finances under stricter state control in exchange for support. But last week Detroit again came close to running out of cash, after city council lashed out at Bing, a businessman and retired NBA player, by supporting a lawsuit designed to scuttle that financial agreement with Michigan. A judge later threw the council-supported lawsuit out, allowing the state to swoop in with emergency funds.

It was just the latest showdown between Bing, whose proposals to stabilize Detroit can appear radical, and the status quo. He’s explored cutting-edge solutions to dealing with the city’s most eroded neighbourhoods, such as persuading stragglers to leave by dramatically reducing garbage pickup and other services. These schemes have proven too unpalatable and were shelved. But last month Bing unveiled new plans to shave the number of streetlights here down by nearly half, to 46,000, focusing on atrophied areas. The irony of its circumstances are eloquently captured by the fact that Detroit must borrow money—$160 million—even to go dark.

The Briggs mansion, built in 1914 and once home to Detroit Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs, is almost 10,000 sq. feet, boasts a carriage house, an elevator, nine fireplaces, a tapestry frieze depicting pheasants and the faces of the great baseball players of yesteryear carved into the mantle. Asking price: US$465,000, later dropping to $445,000. It has just sold, to a corporate executive and his family, for an undisclosed amount, but was on the market for months.

The previous owners purchased the place in the 1970s for US$65,000, and in 2000 it was appraised at $1.8 million. Gloria Maxine Bradley, the lady of the house, died in December; her family’s things—a portrait of Gloria in oils, a sitar, rococo furniture—went on the block in April at the DuMouchelles auction house, which offers a constant stream of discount Detroit antiquities. “Our time to take care of this place has passed,” says Gloria’s son, Michael Bradley, 56, a systems analyst, whose own suburban home is now worth less than he owes on the mortgage. Still, he resisted suggestions he dismantle the place and sell it in pieces. “If you change the house you’ll change history,” he says. “Why would you want to do that?”

In large part because of these prices a wave of newcomers has recently come to Boston-Edison. In 2008, at the height of the mortgage crisis, 36-year-old Raymond Landsberg, who runs a local waste-processing plant, bought the 7,800-sq.-foot home of Joseph Siegel, a highly successful clothier a century ago, for $190,000. The house had never been sold and sat empty but well maintained for 45 years. “Good quality homes for inexpensive dollars is how I got into living in old homes,” says Landsberg. He keeps eight chickens in a garage he’s converted into a coop in his yard, and sells the eggs to neighbours.

And still they come. “People are moving in all the time,” says Ceccon, whose work with the neighbourhood association includes maintaining a database tracking sales and vacant homes. “I bet in the last six months, 30-plus people have arrived.” A mansion that once belonged to Jacob Siegel, of the American Lady Corset Company (and a cousin to Joseph), boasting sprawling grounds and a coach house, sold late last summer for US$450,000. And Boston-Edison remains as diverse as it’s ever been: it’s now home to a disproportionate number of gay couples. “We even have interracial gay couples,” says Ceccon.

Pamela Doles, who is in her late 40s and works in urban development, moved into Boston-Edison from New York a few weeks ago. “Until you come here you just can’t know the depth and breadth of the devastation,” says Doles. She was horrified but inspired, and within months of a visit to the city had sold her New York home, pledging to fill 10 Detroit houses with 10 needy families in the next 10 years. She found her new home, a Boston-Edison foreclosure, on Craigslist, becoming transfixed by the snapshot: “It showed this grand old lady—with some deferred maintenance, to put it delicately—but her grandeur was evident.” She bought the place, with its 7,400 sq. feet and six bathrooms, for a song and will spend $130,000 to refurbish it. “I needed to be in Detroit,” she says. “I didn’t need to be in the suburbs and drive in to Ground Zero every day—and then go safely home. I’m pioneering.”

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