A Neighborhood On The Brink: Can Mike Duggan Save MorningSide?

April 28, 2015, 11:37 AM

MorningSide has a large stock of classic brick homes, but many streets -- such as Beaconsfield, above -- are pocked with blight. 

Sitting in their million-dollar home in San Diego last year, Amy and David Wolf watched globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain sample dishes from Detroit restaurants on his CNN show. Then they had a brainstorm.

They decided to move to Detroit.

As Bill McGraw reports in Bridge Magazine, the Wolfs, who have four children under 14, never had been to the city. They chose the east-side MorningSide neighborhood, an area of large brick homes with leaded glass and plaster molding.

It is also a neighborhood that -- despite years of help from philanthropic organizations, governments, residents and outside individuals -- still appears trapped in long-term decline, a deterioration made worse by the recent mortgage crisis.

“Everything is way too expensive out in California,” said Amy Wolf, 38.

“We came here because it’s cheap to live. We came here basically for opportunity. We’re kind of retired. We have income. My husband did real estate, so we have profit from that every month. It’s not a lot, but enough so that we could actually move here and live off of what we make by getting a really cheap house, and yeah, we have to completely rehab it, but…”

Wayburn Street is transformed into a suburban-style area.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is staking his political future on people like the Wolfs: outsiders who have bought into the promise of a Detroit neighborhood and boosted the city’s population by six. Duggan’s strategic focus has been on “stabilizing” — the word often used by city officials — selected city neighborhoods with an eye toward increasing Detroit’s population for the first time since the 1950 U.S. Census.

Yet the challenge in MorningSide ‒ and numerous, so-called “tipping-point” neighborhoods across the city beyond downtown and Midtown ‒ is steep. Decades of decay, no matter who was mayor, no matter how much help they received, have left even the most cared-for communities struggling, seemingly resistant to widespread rebirth.

Despite the philanthropic love, many blocks in MorningSide -- which shares a border with Grosse Pointe Park -- remain pocked with blight. Twenty-seven percent of the homes were vacant in 2010, the most recent year data are available, and more than 20 percent of the parcels were empty lots; some are littered with trash. Crime remains an issue, though such offenses as robbery, burglary, larceny and stolen vehicles are down significantly so far this year compared with the first 15 weeks of 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to Detroit Police statistics. The commercial strips of Mack, East Warren and Harper are struggling.

By any measure, it is a neighborhood trapped in a long-term downward spiral, though city officials still regard it as a neighborhood worthy of first-in-line investment to keep existing residents from fleeing.

The Wolfs are battling the decline by rehabbing their 79-year-old English Tudor. The three-bedroom home was abandoned when they bought it, and sits between two other abandoned houses. It cost the couple $3,000, plus $6,000 in back taxes to purchase, but needed a new kitchen, furnace, plumbing, electrical system and other items. Many of the windows were broken. They estimate the rehab will cost between $30,000 and $40,000.

They moved in in February. Down the street, a man was shot and killed in March, not far from the tree where a police chase ended in December, leaving one person dead and four passengers seriously injured. Nearby, toppled trees have crashed into an abandoned home and garage, and they just sit there, as in a forest.

“Our families think we’re crazy,” Amy Wolf said.

Read more:  Bridge Magazine

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