In May 2016, when Mark Crain and Hazel Gómez moved with their two young sons to a house on Waverly Street in Detroit, more than a few people wondered how long they would last there. The street was ugly and desolate, not a place where people like Crain and Gómez—young, college-educated, new parents—typically moved. No one really moved there. It was the sort of street held up to illustrate Detroit’s decline, and its emptiness was both a sign of citywide failure and, potentially, of individual success. If you had the means to do so, you left the neighborhood.
The roofs on some of Waverly Street’s houses had collapsed, allowing the Michigan winter to pulverize their insides. Others had been torched by arsonists or demolished by the city, their plots overgrown with weeds. At the end of the block, on Rosa Parks Boulevard, Longfellow Middle School had sat empty since 2008, its graffitied walls concealing the shadowy dealings of squatters. Two houses on the street, people said, were being used as drug dens.
For at least a decade, Detroit has been the site of massive new investment—an attempt to revive the storied American city from the twin assaults of the 2008 financial crash and the 2013 municipal bankruptcy. But its rebirth has been lopsided, with dozens of neighborhoods sacrificed like jetsam, or simply forgotten, in the scramble to resuscitate more-profitable areas. Young newcomers have usually been lured downtown, where ambitious developers transformed the riverside buildings into condos and a small monorail, called a “people mover,” carries the residents in circles around the same few blocks. Or they have gone to midtown, in the shadow of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the city’s first Whole Foods.
In some respects, there’s little new in this dynamic. Even during the city’s prime, developers and lawmakers prioritized certain neighborhoods over others, and the lines were clearly drawn according to race. Since the early 20th century, when southern African Americans were drawn north by the promise of jobs and tolerance, black neighborhoods consistently suffered in comparison with white ones. A new highway sliced through Black Bottom and Paradise Valley; the suburbs excluded black Detroiters; and racist housing laws entrenched the city’s segregation, helping to spark the riots that broke out 50 years ago this July. By 2010, decades after its white population had abandoned the city (followed, eventually, by members of the black middle class), Detroit was 83 percent black, while the suburbs were overwhelmingly white. Movement to the gentrified downtown area, meanwhile, has been noticeably white as well.
Crain and Gómez’s house on Waverly was six and a half miles north of downtown—a haul in city terms—but they had good reasons for the move. Crain grew up in Detroit in the 1990s; his father owned a locksmith shop near the neighborhood, and though he admired the herculean efforts of downtown developers, he worried that they were sucking the life out of the dozens of neighborhoods—each one distinct, and each one cherished—that make up his city. Gómez had never lived in Detroit, but she’d met Crain working for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago, and she could see that Detroit needed help. Plus, before they were married, Crain told Gómez in no uncertain terms that he intended to move back. “We didn’t have a prenup,” Crain said, “but if there was one, that would be the one thing.”