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Border crossing – the long, fraught history of the Detroit-Grosse Pointe divide

When Grosse Pointe Park officials surprised even their own residents this summer by placing three farmers-market sheds in the middle of Kercheval Avenue, blocking access to Detroit, they said the structures were designed to develop a growing dining and entertainment district in that part of their city.

That explanation was greeted with skepticism by Detroiters – and many Park residents – who noted that, over the years, the Park had blocked nearly a quarter of its residential streets that connect with Detroit as the neighborhoods on the city side were becoming majority African American.

At a public meeting of the Grosse Pointe Park city planning commission in September, Mary Anne Barnett, a Park resident who is white, told commission members: “The sheds are a blazing symbol of what Grosse Pointe Park used to represent, that you say isn’t true now.”

“The history of the Grosse Pointes is one of segregation,” Barnett told Bridge after the meeting. “Everybody knows this. Grosse Pointe Park likes to claim that we have the most diverse population of any of the Pointes. But on the other hand, they don’t really mean it because they continue to do things that would indicate that they’re not really welcoming, especially to African Americans.”

One border, two worlds

The border between Detroit and four of the five communities of the Grosse Pointes is six miles long. The stretch between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park makes up about half of it.

It begins along the water, where Lake St. Clair pours into the Detroit River near the foot of Alter Road. Metal fences and a moat-like canal separate Detroit and the Park.

Wending northward, beyond seven barricaded street corners, the line between mostly black and poor Detroit and the largely white and wealthy Grosse Pointes is invisible, but always present. And it is unique. Virtually every other wealthy suburb in the metro area is several miles distant from Detroit. By contrast, the Detroit-Grosse Pointes border provides an in-your-face contrast that is impossible to ignore; a laid-bare primer on race and class in America.

The sheds fiasco arrived as the Grosse Pointes are undergoing significant racial change and Grosse Pointe Park is attempting to rebrand Kercheval as a regional destination. In the months since, the episode has spawned debate that is taking place in city hall meetings, letters to the editor and demonstrations in both Detroit and the Park about the nature (and limits) of city-suburban relations.

Grosse Pointe Park’s city hall is only six miles from Detroit’s, and many Park residents work and play in Detroit. Dick Olson, who has lived in Grosse Pointe Park more than 30 years, told members of the Park planning commission that he and his wife “love Detroit” and are heavily involved in its cultural attractions. “We do not want to live in a walled-off city,” Olson said.

Hans Barbe, a 30-year-old music teacher, told commissioners that the Kercheval entertainment district should be extended across the border into Detroit. “What’s good for our side would be good for their side as well,” he said.

As they currently stand, the sheds open up to the public on the Grosse Pointe Park side only. Detroit residents have an unenviable view of the back of the structures. Completing the look from the Detroit side is a series of concrete blocks, like the barriers placed around federal office buildings after 9/11.

“The city-suburb divide is very palpable,” Barbe said. “Those walls, in their physical form, represent something inside of us that hasn’t been resolved yet in society.”

Peeking over the fence

The five Grosse Pointe communities of Grosse Pointe Park, City, Farms, Woods and Shores extend eastward from Detroit along Lake St. Clair in a tree-covered swath of suburbia that, while generally prosperous and frequently wealthy, contains more economic and housing diversity than is generally known.

The Park streets near its western border with Detroit are filled with 1920s-era flats, bungalows and small apartment buildings that house numerous renters in a densely packed neighborhood known as the Cabbage Patch. Further in, Balfour marks the beginning of a district of sweeping lawns and baronial homes.

Collectively, the five Pointes have six lakefront parks open to residents only; mansion-filled Lake Shore Road, high-achieving schools, two country clubs, three yacht clubs and a total of 45,598 residents, 23 percent less than in 1970.

On a warm evening in September, people ate oysters under a large white tent at a church benefit at Kercheval and Lakepointe in Grosse Pointe Park. Beer drinkers talked at a brewpub in a former church next door, and down the street, diners ate deboned chicken and drank wine at sidewalk tables. Expensive cars and high-end bicycles passed under the twinkling lights strung across the roadway.

Crossing over to the Detroit side, the devastated landscape has an isolated, almost rural look in the area west of Alter Road, but the border also runs along East English Village, one of Detroit’s most cohesive middle-class neighborhoods.

On the same night that people were slurping oysters in Grosse Pointe Park, the streets were quiet on the Detroit side of the sheds. There are two bars, an old apartment building, a church and gutted storefronts. The streetlights weren’t working. A man rode by on a rickety bike, heading west on Kercheval, past empty lots and into a neighborhood that has more unruly green lots than homes.

The disparity between next-door neighbors is rare – not only in metro Detroit, but across the nation as well.

More than 30 years ago, Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson, in “Crabgrass Frontier,” his celebrated history of suburbia, called the Alter Road boundary that separates Detroit from the Pointes “the most conspicuous city-suburban contrast in the United States.” The disparity has only grown since then.

An invisible wall

As the border edges out from the water, the boundary runs along the rear property lines of back-to-back homes on Alter in Detroit and Barrington in Grosse Pointe Park. The neighborhood on the Park side has a median household income of $111,974. It’s $24,440 on the Detroit side.

At Kercheval, the old commercial street that runs through Detroit and the Pointes, the boundary cuts directly through Shaw’s Books, an antiquarian bookstore with a regional clientele. Shaw’s maritime, Great Lakes and railroad sections are in Detroit; mysteries, poetry and African American literature sit on shelves in Grosse Pointe. Owner Henry Zuchowski pays taxes to both cities.

The border proceeds down the middle of busy Mack Avenue for about three miles, then makes a 90-degree turn to the northwest, cutting through the sprawling St. John Hospital campus east of Moross before it reaches the intersection where Detroit, Grosse Pointe Woods and Harper Woods meet in a pleasant residential neighborhood. The border here is unmarked and unseen; it is impossible to tell one city from the other.

A backstory on barricades

The sheds are but the latest in decades of street closings along the border. In the 1980s, for example, as the Detroit side was becoming a black majority, Park residents petitioned to barricade Korte Street, near the water. They cited traffic problems.

Today, Korte is closed to cars, but the sidewalk remains open through a tunnel-like passage forged of trees and bent bushes. Julia Solis, an artist who lives nearby in Detroit, says the city side, lush with vegetation, canals and ramshackle homes, reminds her of Louisiana bayou country.

“You cross the bridge on Korte and get to a little opening in the foliage off Alter that is like a rabbit hole into Grosse Pointe,” she said. “And suddenly you're in a completely different world, a perfectly manicured suburb with white people in pink jogging outfits who won't let Detroit residents into their parks. It's surreal.”

Each of the Grosse Pointes has a lakefront park with swimming pools, boat wells and other amenities. The parks have been residents-only since both sides of the border were white, but the exclusion today, when the Detroit side is majority black, takes on a racial cast.

“I see the barriers as people being very protective of their way of life,” said Myrtle Thompson, who helps runs a community garden nearby on Manistique in Detroit, “and as a lack of understanding that Detroiters and Grosse Pointers have more in common – wanting to live a decent, safe, fruitful life.”

The Pointes have enforced their prerogatives in more subtle ways, too.

The Grosse Pointe schools are known for their excellent level of instruction, high test scores and fierce opposition to becoming a school-of-choice district, which would allow students from other cities to attend Grosse Pointe schools. The school board has been known to conduct vigorous investigations of students suspected of lying about their address.

This past summer, the CEO of the Massachusetts-based Talbots women’s clothing store was forced to apologize to Detroit attorney Portia Roberson ‒ who runs the city law department’s civil rights and justice division ‒ when Roberson, who is African American, was questioned and searched after the Grosse Pointe store manager called police, apparently suspecting she was shoplifting.

Divides softening

Yet while hard and forbidding to black Detroiters in places, the border has been more yielding in others. Besides shopping, dining and working in the Grosse Pointes, African Americans are gradually reshaping the Pointes, especially the Park, where 10.5 percent of the population is black, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Park was only 3.5 percent black in 2000.

The Grosse Pointe school district, which includes some students from Harper Woods, is 19 percent African American this year; Grosse Pointe North High School is 29 percent black. Ebony magazine sits on the shelf of the main library and a group of residents has formed a community group called the Grosse Pointe Black Cultural Association.

African Americans are also opening businesses in Grosse Pointe Park. The Rev. Marcia Fairrow’s Higher Grounds Ministry owns the three-story building at Nottingham and Mack that features a coffee shop on the ground floor.

Fairrow, who lives near the border in Detroit and, can look out of a second-floor window at the sagging porches and boarded-up windows of the homes Nottingham on the Detroit side of Mack. Behind the building, in the Park, Nottingham is filled with modest but stylish old homes and finely sculpted lawns and trees.

“You’re not going to see blight in Grosse Pointe Park because the city has rules and regulations, and they enforce them,” she said. “You’re not going to see garbage on the street in Grosse Pointe Park. You’ll get a ticket. In Detroit, you can have garbage on the street and nobody will give you a ticket.

Across the street from Fairrow’s building, also in the Park, Jai-Lee Dearing, a Grosse Pointer whose family runs Bert’s Warehouse in Detroit’s Eastern Market, opened Rockefeller’s Oyster Bar and Grill in August to positive reviews. A few blocks away on Charlevoix Avenue, a recently opened fitness studio, Rock n Ride, is also black-owned.

“I love Grosse Pointe Park,” said JeDonna Dinges, an African American and former Detroiter who lives in the Park’s Cabbage Patch. “It’s a very pretty community. Most people here are very friendly. Schools are great. I love my block and I love my neighbors ‒ single people and families, black and white, single moms, senior citizens.”

Grosse Pointers reach across the border in different ways. Where other Catholic parishes along the border long ago closed their schools, St. Clare of Montefalco, a striking church on Mack in Grosse Pointe Park, offers preschool through eighth grade; 75 percent of its students are Detroiters, according to Sister Kathy Avery, OSN, the principal.

“I firmly believe we have a purpose here on the Grosse Pointe-Detroit border,” Avery said. “We teach children to get along with each other.”

With the help of the Lear Corporation, St. Clare also rehabbed a nearby Detroit playfield. In a similar vein, a Grosse Pointer, Doug Kempton, founded the non-profit Eagle Sports Club, which has spearheaded the $2 million transformation of once-scruffy Balduck Park, a couple of blocks inside Detroit. It's now a field of shiny backstops, manicured infields and frequently mowed lawns, where nearly 2,000 children play baseball, soccer and flag football.

Border security

On a September morning in Grosse Pointe Park Municipal Court, Judge Carl Jarboe is hearing the cases of people who decided to fight a traffic ticket.

The judge runs his court in a welcoming manner, and he gives many offenders a break, allowing them to take a class to avoid putting points on their record. The friendly atmosphere and relief of many defendants in Jarboe’s court is a far cry from the apprehension that many Detroiters experience when they cross the border in their car.

Virtually every one of the two dozen people interviewed for this report mentioned a fact of life along Mack Avenue: Aggressive policing along the Detroit-Park border, a reputation that is well known among black motorists, but was also prevalent in the decades before 1970, when both sides of the border were virtually all white.

Grosse Pointe Park Police patrol the border “like they’re Homeland Security,” said George Corsetti, a white Detroiter who lives near Mack. “I think it’s boredom,” he added, referring to the low Grosse Pointe crime levels.

An incident in late 2013 hardly burnished the department’s reputation: After protests and negative publicity, five officers were disciplined for involvement in recording or distributing phone videos of a mentally challenged black man.

“I have six brothers,” said Dinges, the woman who lives near Alter and Kercheval in the Cabbage Patch neighborhood. “I have conversations with my brothers and my nephews. When they are coming to visit me, I tell them what streets to take. I say, ‘Go down Kercheval, come up to Cadieux off of 94, go to St Paul, turn right, take St Paul all the way to my house.’

‘You’re less likely to run into the police. If you come down Mack, you’re going to run into them.’”

Grosse Pointe Park tickets do not carry racial designations.

But in Jarboe’s courtroom that day, 11 of 19 people ‒ 58 percent ‒ of those who came before him to contest traffic tickets were African American in appearance.

What to make of that? And what should be the percentage be in a city that is 10.5 percent black, but that shares streets with a much more populous city that is 83 percent black? Jarboe, who is white, does not see discrimination.

“I’ve watched it for 20 years,” he said, “and I’ve had people say they got it because they had a red sports car, I’ve heard them say they got it because they’re a young kid. I’ve heard everything. But I don’t think there is any sort of a pattern, from my observation.

“From what I see, if you’re speeding you’re going to get pulled over. If you’re not, you’re not.”

Park Public Safety Chief David Hiller declined to discuss the police force.

Fear of big-city dangers

For the overwhelmingly white residents of the Grosse Pointes, the border can invoke a different kind of fear – of crime. Inside their cities, crime is low, even by suburban standards, though details of incidents, like burglaries, circulate quickly. The main fear is felt by the necessity of passing through Detroit.

Some Grosse Pointers adjust driving habits to and from the Ford Freeway ‒ which runs through Detroit, blocks north of the Pointes ‒ depending on the time of day: the Cadieux exit on the Pointes side is considered a safer route to Grosse Pointe than the Chalmers-Outer Drive exit in Detroit, which leads to Alter Road.

Cathleen Sullivan, a Park resident who grew up in Detroit, said she loves the city and never has felt fear when venturing into the city. But then she read about two Detroit men charged in June in the beating of a Grosse Pointe Park man after he collided with their vehicle while driving the wrong way on Vernor, a few blocks from the border.

She frequently drives the same street. On a subsequent trip into into the same Detroit neighborhood where the beating took place, Sullivan said she felt an “inner panic” for the first time in her life when she saw three or four men standing next to a parked car near a corner. They did nothing to arouse her fear.

“I began to think of escape routes.... just get me across the border, to safety,” she said.

But nothing happened.

“I know this won't seem like much to most people,” she said, “but when you don't live in fear on a regular basis, when it does hit, it sort of shakes you up. Makes you think how sheltered you are.”

A shed showdown

In three public meetings in September to address the shed controversy, critics greatly outnumbered shed supporters.

The sheds went up in an area targeted for renewal at the west end of Kercheval, next to the border, where early signs of blight had begun cropping up. To help revive the area, the Cotton family, led by David Cotton, founder and CEO of Detroit-based Meridian Health Plan of Michigan, began buying up land for redevelopment.

While still a work in progress, there is no question the Kercheval district enjoys new life, with two options that have attracted notice beyond the east side: Red Crown, a restaurant serving American comfort food in a converted gas station, and Atwater in the Park, a microbrewery and beer garden in an elegant decommissioned church that has drawn crowds and rave reviews in its first three months of operation.

Atwater was jammed on summer weekend nights with noisy beer drinkers from across the region who were predominantly white. It attracted a volume of nightlife that never seemed to take hold in Grosse Pointe in the past. At the planning commission meetings, the idea of turning that stretch of Kercheval into a Ferndale-like destination was widely supported.

Palmer Heenan, Grosse Pointe Park’s 92-year-old mayor, a Princeton-trained lawyer first elected in 1983, declined to discuss the Kercheval issue at length with Bridge, but when asked about the sheds controversy, said, “It’s not a big deal. We’re just trying to improve our property for everyone. It’s been very difficult.”

Critics said the sheds sent a hostile message to Detroiters. They also complained of what they saw as secrecy in planning and building the structures. They demanded more transparency and asked officials to seek the input of Detroiters in any future plans.

“The sheds are a symbol of many issues around race and class that are as old as Grosse Pointe that we haven’t dealt with yet,” said Graig Donnelly, a member of Diverse GP, a group that a supports the Pointes’ growing multi-cultural composition.

City officials have chafed at much of the criticism. At a commission meeting in August, Mayor Heenan, according to the Grosse Pointe News, impatiently told critics to “wait and see what we come up with,” adding, “You ought to be grateful you live here.”

David Gaskin, another longtime Park politician who chaired the commission meetings, appeared perplexed by the demands for a more open process for decisions about the border. “Who do we listen to?” he asked at one meeting. “Who’s the guru? How do we redevelop the last block on Kercheval?”

Following intense publicity from media outlets, Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit announced late in the summer that they had struck a deal to have the sheds removed in November. In return, Detroit will demolish a handful of blighted homes near the border and build a traffic circle on the city side of the boundary to slow traffic entering the Grosse Pointe Park business district.

Much remains up in the air. Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Dale Krajniak said Detroit and Park officials continue to discuss a more detailed agreement for that mostly invisible three-mile line that separates the two cities and symbolizes so much.

“We’re negotiating contracts for the entire border,” Krajniak said. “It’s very positive. It will be a very progressive plan.”

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