On the east side of Detroit, the streets of MorningSide are lined with stately, brick Tudor-style houses. But today, one in four of those houses is abandoned, boarded up, gutted, or burned out. The foreclosure crisis of 2008 hit MorningSide like a tidal wave, and the neighborhood is struggling to sprout again from the rubble. There’s a lot of buzz about a new Renaissance in downtown Detroit, but the locals in this corner of town are wondering when – and if – the revival is going to make its way to them. In the meantime, they’re holding their own and looking out for each other. In this special episode, Out of the Blocks teams up with Michigan Radio’s MorningSide 48224 podcast to share voices from MorningSide.
In the new Detroit conversation, there’s this impulse to erase some of the tradition, or replace it with lofts and warehouses, but to know that the roots are actually planted, and they’ve been here for a long time, that’s what this neighborhood reminds me of.
Imani Mixon, producer of the MorningSide 48224 podcast
This episode was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts
Funding for podcast production provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Cohen Opportunity Fund, the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund (creator of the Baker Artist Portfolios), Sig and Barbara Shapiro, Patricia and Mark Joseph, Jonathan Melnick, The Andy and Sana Brooks Family Foundation, The Hoffberger Foundation, Associated Jewish Charities, The John J. Leidy Foundation, The Kenneth S. Battye Charitable Trust, and The Muse Web Foundation.
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, it’s a special edition of Out of the Blocks from MorningSide in Detroit’s east side. It’s one neighborhood, everybody’s story.
This was—at one time—a very thriving area. There were stores, there were businesses, and a lot of those businesses were black-owned. Unfortunately, we don’t have that anymore.
In the new Detroit conversation, there’s this impulse to erase some of the tradition, or replace it with, you know, lofts and warehouses and… But to know that the roots are actually already planted and they’ve been here a long time is what this neighborhood reminds me of.
From the minds of Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with the MorningSide 48224 podcast from Michigan Public Radio, it’s Out of the Blocks: MorningSide, Detroit, Michigan right after this.
Aaron Henkin: Welcome to Out of the Blocks. I’m Aaron Henkin.
Wendel Patrick: And I’m Wendel Patrick.
AH: And we are about to bring you along with us for a special episode out of Motor City, Detroit, Michigan.
WP: Detroit’s east side, specifically. We’re going to bring you into a residential neighborhood called MorningSide, with lots of big, brick, Tudor-style houses lining the streets.
AH: The thing about these houses, though, is today, one in four of them is abandoned or boarded up or gutted or burned out. The foreclosure crisis hit MorningSide hard.
WP: There’s a lot of buzz about a new renaissance in downtown Detroit, but the locals in this corner of town are wondering when and if the revival is going to make its way down to them. In the meantime, as you’re about to hear, they’re holding their own and looking out for each other.
AH: A special thanks this episode to the National Endowment for the Arts, and big thanks also to our field producer, neighborhood ambassador and friend, Imani Mixon.
WP: Imani does an awesome podcast for Michigan radio called MorningSide 48224. We’re going to turn it over to her now to kick things off for us.
Imani Mixon: I’m Imani Mixon. I’m a Detroit-based and embraced writer and for the next year I’ve been charged with the task of being the podcast producer and trainer for MorningSide 48224, which is our community podcast sponsored by Michigan Public Radio and it’s actually me returning home to a place I grew up in.
AH: Say the date today and give us a weather report. This is insane.
IM: Oh, yup. So, it is April 17th, which means it’s spring, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t snow in Michigan when it feels like it, so there is a nice, light snow-sometimes-ice-sometimes rain situation right now.
AH: We’re in a nice, warm car though and we’ll take a little tour around the neighborhood. Where do we want to go first?
IM: First, I wanna go to my old house, which is on East Outer Drive. You’re gonna make a right out of here. So, it’s the second house right here. This is it, yeah. So, now we’re in front of my home and I think it was one of the first houses that my dad—who is, like, a real estate dude—was able to have and show off everything that he's able to do. Like, I’ve got a family, I’ve got a fireplace, and I’ve got a two-car garage. You know, it was definitely his shining moment which then made it our shining moment.
AH: It’s a beautiful house. It’s like a brick, Tudor-style house. It’s got stained glass windows.
AH: How many years has it been since you’ve lived in that house?
IM: Wow, it’s been like seventeen years. It’s been a very long time. It was a very short amount of time—we left for, like, financial reasons and ended up downsizing, going to an apartment, kind of rebuilding, and then getting another house somewhere else. But every house after seemed like it was supposed to compete with the house we’re in front of, but it never could because it was just too good to us.
AH: It’s pretty wild when, like, in Baltimore you see boarded up row houses, which you get used to seeing. Here, in this neighborhood in Detroit, it’s like boarded up mansions. I mean, just beautiful, big houses that are just gutted, some of the windows have plywood and some of them are just blown out.
IM: Yeah, it always makes me think about the circumstances that people had to leave, or you know, who the family was that was there. They just couldn't maintain it anymore. So, I think that there are a lot of different levels of, like, how you can get to that place where you can own or keep a house.
Twiana Odom: My name is Twiana Odom, and I am sitting with my daughter.
Rakisha Odom: And my name is Rakisha Odom. That’s my mom.
TO: When I found the house I was so excited, you know, and I initially paid 500 dollars first month, and the security deposit. It was a thousand dollars of money I had saved, and when I got in there, you know, you do like typical people in our culture do, “I’ve got a big house!” You know, it had four bedrooms. I immediately got the place up and running, you know, and it was our home. And that’s what makes it so hard. It turned out that the person that I was paying the rent to was not the landlord.
AH: You thought he owned the property, but he was just some guy that happened to have a key?
RO: This happens all the time in the city, and it’s a lot of families who probably pass evictions or are in emergency situations and they don’t do the background check. They don’t do the legwork, the research, because they are just so happy to get into a nice home.
TO: It took over a year and a half for me to realize that something was wrong. Any home repairs, I did most of it myself so I didn’t want to just bug my landlord or whatever, so I just took it upon myself to do the repairs, and when the major repair came I couldn't find him anymore when I called and said that the basement is flooding, things are everywhere, let’s call somebody out there. And at that point, I never heard from that person again until somebody literally came knocking on the door saying, “Your property is under foreclosure.” My house was bought by a slumlord. He buys property in bulk, and his claim to fame is to buy occupied homes. So, he’s going through MorningSide and buying the occupied homes. He did not want me to get a land contract, he did not want to speak with me, you know, about any kind of thing about the house.
RO: It was just so heartbreaking because we put so much money into that house, so much time, so many memories. It was like her art studio, that was her life and that day when we were taking down her pictures there, it was a hard time for everybody.
TO: I took things piece by piece, taking down each painting, knowing the history of it, saying, “Oh, remember when you painted this?” or “This was my inspiration for this.” And we packed them up and put the things in storage.
AH: Talk about this home that we’re in right now. Maybe, how far away it is from the home from your mom’s story, and just what this new chapter is about.
RO: This is directly behind the house where she used to live. So, you can look out my front window and see her back window, one block over. I bought my home from Habitat for Humanity about three years ago after I fussed at my mother and forced her to come with me. Things really started to get better for all of us once we got here and she got comfortable here, I’ve seen a whole different her.
AH: Whatever happened to that guy who took your money for that period of time? Did he ever get prosecuted?
TO: He was nowhere to be found. I often look and say, you know, when a person gets a new car, you see all of that brand. So, every time I see that brand of Taurus, or that color, I often look like, “Oh, no, that ain’t him.” You know, but I’m still in my mind’s eye… You know, sometimes I hate to think, like, “Do they know where I am? Do they see me? Do they know how they affected me and my family?” Yeah, I want my money back. Yeah, I want to choke them but… once again, I’m putting it on myself due diligence.
RO: I admire the fact that my mom always keeps a smile on her face and always says to take it with a grin and bear it, and I just wish that she could have a happy ending.
TO: My happy ending would be having a piece of land, having a peace of mind, having a piece of stability, you know, I just want my peace. But now my job is to go literally knocking door to door giving other people information, or telling them that there’s help out there for people facing foreclosure. We go to over sixty thousand properties. I, myself, have knocked on the door of over three thousand people.
Jackie Grant: I’ve no idea what Twiana has said to you, but she’s, like, an incredible person. So, my name is Jackie Grant. I live on Courville Street in Detroit, Michigan and I work on property tax foreclosure and saving people’s homes. Along with my colleagues, we’ve trained over four hundred Detroiters to go out in their neighborhood, knock the door, reach out to people very directly and have that conversation. We’ve lost so many residents in the city of Detroit due to property tax foreclosure, particularly since 2009. We’ve lost about 150,000 residents form this city, and you say to yourself, “What good did all those foreclosures do?” because we’ve got empty houses, and you know, it brings a sense of sadness in the neighborhood. I live in MorningSide, so this is where I sleep at night and I want to make sure things are going well in this community. So, I went and visited a little over three hundred homes that were going to foreclosures, and then circled back after the auction to see what happened to these folks and families in these homes, and the stories are just incredible of how people have been hurt. And it is very teary for me, but I just tell people bad things happen to good people. So, maybe I could turn to the upside that we’re working on correcting these things for people that care about it, you know, about the foreclosure situation and families losing their homes and I worked it every day. Every day.
Beverly Brown: Yeah, make a right.
AH: When you’re out on patrol and you’ve got your radio with you, tell me what you’re looking for, what you’re keeping an eye out for.
BB: Suspicious activity, anything unusual. It’s little things that might lead to something else. Like, people that leave their garbage cans all the time… It’s a dope dealer down the street from me. When he would have his dope, any other time, a lot of times he would take his can in. But I didn’t know what sign it was for, if he didn’t have dope or if he did have dope, but he would leave the garbage can out. My name is Beverly Brown, I live on Buckingham, been there since 1977.
AH: So, as a citizen, a resident of the neighborhood, you’ve been patrolling the neighborhood for, like, the past thirty years.
BB: Longer than that. (laughs) This street here, they used to use it as a dump site. We’d patrol, we used to check that as often as we could because they dumped tires. By it being right off the freeway, people from the suburbs would come and dump. Okay, right here is good. They changed it into this lane turns. Basically, what we try and do is stop the deterioration, stop the… If we see trucks and stuff that just because they’ve got a name on the side of it in this net, you know, we try and ask them, “Okay, what’s your business?” I stopped this guy… The president of my block club told me I shouldn't have said nothing, I should’ve called the police. He was going up there, breaking up, tearing up stuff and I said, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” He said, “This is my job. I’ve gotta feed my babies.” Well, what you take off won’t feed your baby for five minutes. My house, I had aluminum siding on the back of my house. I went to this barbershop on East Warren, and me and my mother had paid to get that to insulate it to try and save all on the heating bill. When I got home, it had—somebody had tried to take the aluminum siding off my house while I’m at the barbershop.
AH: It seems that part of the story of this neighborhood is, you know, banks are taking houses, scrappers are taking stuff out of houses…
BB: Well, bankers are taking houses and just leaving them sitting and not doing anything to them. We’re stuck with something else we’ve got to board up. We’re stuck with something else we’ve gotta clean. We’ve got to cut the grass and all that. It has improved a little bit, but it’s camouflage. We get the crumbs off the table. We’re the last to get something, you understand? Like I said, I’ve been here since ’77 and I’ve been waiting on the trickle down to hit since ’77. I mean, it was a gorgeous neighborhood then and everything, but after, when they started investing and they said, “Oh, it’s gonna trickle down to you.” It was supposed to trickle down to you from Alter Road, it was supposed to trickle down from Outer Drive, and they still haven't gotten to me, and people don’t understand we deserve better. If you don't ask for better, you won’t get better. When you get a chance to get over to your right, because you’re gonna make a right at that light up there.
AH: I guess when you’re on patrol and you’re constantly looking for things that are wrong, it might be hard not to have a pessimistic attitude.
BB: Well, you know, if you don’t have hope, you might as well not take your next breath. It feels good to be able to do something positive with all the negativity in the world, you know, and I just want everybody to be safe.
Multiple Voices: It’s Out of the Blocks: MorningSide, Detroit, Michigan. One neighborhood, everybody’s story.
Scotty Boman: Okay, well, we’re in front of my house over here on Balfour Road. My name is Scotty Boman. I’ve been a resident at this place since 2003 and have owned the place for most of that time.
AH: You’ve got a nice two-story brick house with a front porch. You also have a yard that goes one lot out to the side. Talk about this lot on the side of your house.
SB: Yeah, well, this lot used to be where I had some wonderful neighbors living, and at the time they were living in a house that was there and since then, the house was demolished and it’s part of a side lot program where people can buy a neighboring lot for a hundred dollars from the city. I acquired this property. The land on the other side, also, I got. So, I eventually plan on putting a fence around and making it into a big yard, and having part of the yard kept wild, so that some of the smaller species of wildlife have sort of a sheltering environment.
AH: This empty lot used to be a neighbor, then it was an abandoned house, then it was a demolished house, and now it’s your yard.
SB: Yep. And next over, you can see there’s another house that I hope maybe they’re able to restore that one. Unfortunately, I’ve seen people do some severe damage to that. I’ve seen other people come by who appear to be trying to maintain it at times, and I think that’s why some of the windows are now boarded up. But then other people, I’ve actually caught some young folk throwing bowling balls through the windows and just being destructive, not even scrapping for money or anything, and so they’re just doing it for their idea of fun. In the eighties, there was this major crime wave associated with the rise of crack as a preferred version of cocaine and a lot of people associate the crack years really with what brought down the east side of Detroit, and actually most of Detroit. Well, as bad as the whole crack epidemic thing was, it didn't compare to the change I saw from, like, 2008 to 2012 in Detroit.
DaRell Reed: There’s a saying that faith that hadn’t been tested is faith that can’t be trusted. My name is Pastor DaRell Reed, pastor at Spirit of Love Church in MorningSide. I’m also the president of MorningSide Neighborhood Association. I asked God to give me an area for me to pastor, and so while driving in my car, I was praying and driving—one good thing was that I didn’t close my eyes while praying and driving—but I was praying, and I would say stop right here. So I stopped, and I had some signs that I had bought to say the name of the church—I think that there were only ten or fifteen thousand, and I would put one right at the corner. So I would turn, drive, stop right here. And so, I put maybe five or six signs throughout the area. Later on, I found out that that area was the markers for MorningSide. Shortly after I became pastor, I seen a whole bunch of people fixing up the area, cleaning up. I said, “What are y’all doing? Who are you with?” and from that day I was hooked, and I became part of the association. Since then, we are renovating parks, rehabbing houses, so it’s just great to be active in the community and to see that the presence is worth it. In the 90s, when I had property over here in this area, renting them out, I saw a boom. When I first purchased those properties, I was getting them at twenty or thirty thousand. At the end of the 90s, they were in the hundreds> Shortly going into the 2000s, the foreclosure crisis hit. It was almost overnight. I remember driving home and seeing a lot of dumpsters in front of houses, and I said, “What’s going on with all these dumpsters?” And that was the first wave of foreclosure and people getting evicted out of their homes. The foreclosure crisis hit this area bad that houses that sold at 200,000 dropped down to you could buy it for a thousand. Soon after the foreclosure happened, then the thefts came in. People were vandalizing the houses, stripping them down, and it was happening quickly. It was a wave, and you could see certain blocks. It was like a raid—just lost this block, just lost the next block. About 25% of Morningside has either been torn down or is empty right now. The community is still strong and never lost its strength and the love that the people have for the community, and this year we’re seeing the turnaround. Houses are being filled, many people are coming, property values are starting to rise fast, there’s a house in MorningSide that just sold for I think 179,000. One’s on the market right now for 219,000. Who knows what God has in the future? But you know, right now, this is how it’s going and, you know, I believe in at least trying to get base hits instead of trying to hit a home run all the time, because if anybody knows about baseball, the person that’s trying to hit a home run, they strike out more times than they hit a home run. So, I’m more focused on getting base hits. Let’s get a base hit.
Amanda: We were looking for a home of our own and we didn't really even come inside before I had decided that this was the home for us. I’m Amanda.
Kevin: I’m Kevin, I’m Amanda’s husband. We’re in our living room.
A: Slash bedroom, dining room.
K: Well, we moved into one room, then we removed all the walls and floors in the back, which all contained asbestos in the plaster. So, everything behind here, all the asbestos has been removed. That’s why all these containment tents are here with the zippers.
AH: It’s remarkable to me that you guys, just like as two random civilians, undertook to remove the asbestos from your home. Do people—does their jaw drop when you tell them you’ve done that yourself?
A: Yeah, people… We tend to be pretty adventurous, so I don’t think that many of our friends are very surprised that we did that, but the average person might think that that’s a little bit nuts that we’ve lived here without heat for the last, you know, five years.
K: Yeah, now we’re getting pretty good. We have drywall, new insolation, electric, gas, all the way to the meters.
A: When we first started on the house, Kevin is very diligent that things need to be accomplished and we were just going at it every day, and I just asked whether we could slow down a little bit and live life in between. I didn't move here to punish us, you know? I’m not a builder. I wanted to do other things besides just build a home, so I’m happy to take a little bit more time, and then be able to fun in the in between, in the interim of trying to get our house together.
AH: And you have another new edition to the house.
A: Yeah! We had a baby the day after Christmas this year. Her name is Amalia.
AH: She’s got a good head of hair. You’ve got a lot of construction debris back here. You’ve also got some trellises. What are you growing back here?
K: These are beans here, here’s an apple tree. We grow about a hundred tomato plants, about a hundred and fifty a year, and fifty, sixty squash plants, beans, okra.
A: We grow the majority of our food during the summer, so then we can and eat it through the winter. So, this is really a self-sustainable urban environment that we’ve created, and I like that. The name of our street is Balfour. Not all the homes are filled with families currently, but the families that are here, we interact with each other… You know, on different holidays, we’ll bring food over to each other and things like that. My dad was a Detroit police officer, he’s a retired Detroit police officer so…he was almost angry with me for moving to Detroit to begin with. Both of my parents are originally from Detroit and it’s really changed over the years. I think that our parents—my parents—when they come into the neighborhood, it’s almost difficult for them to see because they look at the homes and they’re like, “Oh, look at this street, it’s so abandoned, it’s so destitute,” and to us it’s more hopeful because we never saw what it was prior to that, and so it makes me sad that my parents feel like that. I just love Detroit.
Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to a special edition of Out of the Blocks, produced by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with Michigan Public Radio. Special thanks to Imani Mixon of the MorningSide 48224 podcast and WYPR’s Katie Marquette. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is MorningSide signing off.
AH: Hey guys, Aaron here for a minute as we get ready to wrap up. Lots more great stories to come from MorningSide. We’re going to be back in this neighborhood next episode, when we’ll drop in at a multipurpose art space called The Detroit Artist Test Lab, we’ll meet the founder of a local podcast network called Audiowave, and we’ll lace up our skates and take a spin at MorningSide’s Royal Skateland roller rink. This is the place to see and be seen for teenagers in the neighborhood. Teenagers of all ages, I should say—Miss Mary has been skating there for thirty years. She wears white skates with gold wheels, and she is good.
Miss Mary: Even before you walk in through the double doors, you hear the music blasting, so that gets you pumping right away where you just wanna come in and put your skates on and you hear an old school or you hear just a song that you’ve been wanting to skate to, and you be like, “Okay, let me hurry up, get my skates on so I can get on the floor and do what I do.”
AH: Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA, for supporting Out of the Blocks as we share our documentary model with other cities across the country. If you like what you hear, do us a favor and tell a friend about the podcast or pop on to Apple Podcasts and drop us a review. Thank you for helping to spread the word, thank you for listening, and let's do it again soon. Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and from the Cohen Opportunity Fund, the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, Patricia and Mark Joseph, Jonathan Melnick, the Andy and Sauna Brooks Family Foundation, the Hoffberger Foundation, Associated Jewish Charities, the John J. Leighty Foundation, the Kenneth S. Batty Charitable Trust, and the MuseWeb Foundation.