Meet The Downtown Residents Who Say They Are Being Pushed Aside For The 'New Detroit'

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More interesting news about the future of downtown emerged Thursday, as a Birmingham-based partnership announced it has purchased the 12-story Griswold residential building in Capitol Park, the historic and funky square west of Woodward where other developments are picking up steam.

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The 127-unit building will house "market rate" apartments after construction begins next spring and the current residents are evicted. On Thursday, those people -- mostly low-income seniors, many of them disabled -- reacted with anger, fear and philosophy, asking why there doesn't seem to be a place for poor people in the future downtown that is slowly emerging from the drawing boards.

"There's all this hubbub about a 'new Detroit,'" said Recardo Berrien, 58. "I was born and raised in Detroit. For us not to be part of this 'new Detroit' is absurd. We don't see 'us' in none of this. No elderly and poor. We are nowhere in the plans of anyone down here."

Vanessa Hicks, 60, said she is not surprised that poor people are being kicked out when the market changes for the better. She said she realized when she was young that "nobody invests in poverty."

But, she added: "You can be humane. You can be fair."

The issues raised by the Griswold residents are increasingly heard throughout downtown and Midtown, as surging development  rapidly sets apart the 7.2-square-mile area from the rest of the 139-square-mile city and new housing for young workers with good jobs dislodges longtime residents.

Gentrification has long been an issue in other major cities, but less so in struggling Detroit. The upside is obvious: Vibrant streets with new shops catering to the newly arrived middle-class clientele and additional tax funds for the nearly bankrupt city.

New owners work with Gilbert

The Griswold residents were notified a month ago that they would have to move by March 31 next year, but they didn't know until Thursday who had bought the building and what it would be used for.

A statement by the partnership, 1214 Griswold Apartments LLC, said the new owners are working closely with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the current property managers to ensure that residents are informed of their options, the Section 8 voucher process and other available resources.

"They are committed to providing residents with the utmost respect during this transition through residents' meetings and housing fairs," the statement said.

The partnership was created by Todd Sachse and Richard Broder, principals in both Sachse Construction and Broder & Sachse Real Estate. Sachse Construction, which is planning to move downtown, has done much of the renovation on buildings purchased in the central business district by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert.

Residents said many people in the Griswold live on less than $600 a month and rely on walkers and electric mobility scooters. Monthly rents can be as low as $130.

One resident, 90-year-old Esther Harding, has lived in the Griswold for more than 29 years.

"I feel safe here," she said. "I am alone. I'm afraid of what I might run into where I have to move."

Another resident, Avery Chambers, 24, is disabled and moves around in a wheelchair. He has lived in the Griswold since he was 13.

"I've grown up here, and now they're taking it all away from me," he said. "I don't know where I'm going to move."

Residents have a May 15 meeting to explore their rights with representatives of the United Community Housing Coalition, but they say they have been largely kept in the dark since they received letters in late March  telling them they will have to move.

They have been promised vouchers to continue living in Section 8 subsidized housing, but they cannot afford moving expenses, they say, and they fear losing the family atmosphere a number of people described at the Griswold.

"I have no idea where I'm going, and I am too crippled to get on a bus and go look for a place," said Jacqueline McCoy, 65. "We thought this was our home. The rug has been pulled out from under us."

Said James Johnson, 74, a 19-year resident: "They're only doing this because we're poor. They think they can get away with anything."

A historic site

The Griswold, on Griswold Street north of State, was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn. It sits on the east side of Capitol Park, which 190 years ago housed a courthouse that served as the capital for 10 years after  Michigan became a state in 1837. When the capital moved to Lansing in 1847, the building was used as a high school until it burned in 1893. Michigan's first governor, Stevens T. Mason, is buried in a vault under his statue in the park, which was a transit hub from 1955 until 2009.


A resident looks over the balcony into Capitol Park. [Photo by Bill McGraw]

The park is heavy on cement, but it has a cozy and urban feel because it is ringed by a series of 100-year-old buildings in a variety of styles that mostly are five to 13 stories high.

Today many of the structures are in various stages of disrepair and covered with graffiti. Lansing developer Richard Karp is working to renovate three of the buildings, including the 98-year-old Farwell, which is also set to become market-rate apartments.

Creating an arts environment and staging special events in Capitol Park figures prominently in the long-term vision for downtown Gilbert unveiled recently. The plan envisions closing down Shelby Street and erecting food stalls, benches and tables. Earlier this week, the Archdiocese of Detroit announced it is selling its longtime headquarters on Washington Boulevard and will bring 185 employees to five leased floors of the 1212 Griswold building on Capitol Park that once housed the United Way. 

The backside of the Westin Book Cadillac towers over the park's southwest side. At the northern end sits the Urban Bean Co., a recently re-opened coffee shop with an orange exterior and two floors, two turntables and a rack holding Dwell and Interview magazines. You could sit on the second floor on Wednesday and watch a woman emerge from The Grind strip club across the street wearing little more than a thong and furry black boots. On Thursday, you could see a small group of people drinking and barbecuing in a small grill on the sidewalk to the south.

Berrien, the Griswold resident, said a dollar store in the neighborhood recently closed. "We can't afford this new stuff," he said. "I could at one time, but I can't now. I'm not saying I don't believe in progress. I do. I understand business. But the way this is being carried out is not humane."

Despite their plight, some residents said they were happy downtown seemed to be turning around.

"We're all good people," said Hicks. "We work elections. We volunteer on clean-ups. We just don't have no money.

"But we love Detroit."

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