There Are Echoes of Ferguson in Detroit

A wealthy white suburb is building barricades to seal itself off from Detroit, but the divide is about more than physical barriers. 

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Kercheval Avenue, before a traffic circle erected by the suburb of Grosse Pointe Park cut off traffic to and from Detroit. (Google Earth)

When a suburb of Detroit erected a barn on one of the main roads leading into the city last month, critics rendered a verdict fast: Here was tony Grosse Pointe Park constructing a shed on Kercheval Avenue to anchor a farmers market. Not along the thoroughfare, but right in the dead center of it. 

People on the other side of the line heard the message loud and clear. In fact, this isn't the only road barrier that Grosse Pointe Park has built. "I want to say I'm shocked," Detroit resident Cynthia Jackson told the site Motor City Muckraker. "But this has been happening for as long as I remember. Might as well put up a sign that says, 'No Coloreds.'"

Back in June, the city turned the intersection of Kercheval and Wayburn Road into a small traffic circle—a roundabout with no entrance or exit for Kercheval traffic heading to or from Detroit. Grosse Pointe Park built the enormous barn to anchor a permanent farmers market immediately west of the circle, in the middle of the street. There was just one problem with the plan: The site where Grosse Pointe Park dropped its barn fell along a small indentation in the border between the city and Detroit. So the suburb accidentally built its barrier on a Detroit street.

That helps to explain why officials in both cities agreed this week that the farmers-market shed has to come down. But it doesn't explain why Detroit agreed to concessions—officials consented to remove or repair blight on the Detroit side of the line—when the city was in the right. (If not on moral grounds than on geographic ones, at least.) And removing the barn may not bridge a divide between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park that looks even more severe in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

By most indicators, Grosse Pointe Park is the opposite of Ferguson. Grosse Pointe Park is an affluent, predominantly white suburb (the nearest of the five separately incorporated suburbs that make up Grosse Pointe). Grosse Pointe is as white as Detroit is black—above 80 percent. Park residents enjoy a median household income more than twice that of the average for Michigan. Less than 5 percent of residents live below the poverty line, compared with Detroit's 38 percent.

In the worst possible ways, though, the city is emblematic of the crisis in Missouri. Late last year, Grosse Pointe Park police launched an investigation after Detroit blogger Steve Neavling posted videos in which an alleged officer repeatedly humiliated a black, 55-year-old mentally disabled Detroit resident named Michael Ronnie Scipio. After the investigation was handed off to Michigan State Police, Grosse Pointe Park law enforcement took action against five officers. They were suspended for two months without pay for recording or distributing videos in which an officer asked Scipio to sing, dance, and imitate a monkey.

As the police have done in Ferguson, the Grosse Pointe Park Police Department pledged to improve officer training and increase its diversity. (Park law enforcement included no black officers at the time of the controversy.) Police chief David Hiller signed a memorandum with officials from the Michigan Division of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice to that effect earlier this year. 

The case echoed the worst aspects of the suburb's history. From 1945 to 1960, the Grosse Pointe suburbs deployed some of the most heinous redlining practices in the nation. The Grosse Pointe Brokers Association secretly hired a private investigator to screen would-be home buyers, scoring them on subjective criteria (such as "general standing") designed to suss out the racial and ethnic backgrounds of applicants. Americans with Polish, Jewish, and Southern European heritage were required to meet higher minimum passing grades than other whites; Asian, Latino, and African American buyers were excluded from consideration outright. 

So it is alarming, if not altogether shocking, that officials in Grosse Pointe Park are barricading streets that lead to Detroit. It's not just the farmers market on Kercheval: Seven different thoroughfares connecting Detroit and Grosse Pointe have been severed. Neavling created a map that shows where officials have blockaded these streets with barriers or changes to street flow. Some of them are blunt: A permanent fence with a "Road Ends" sign has blockaded the intersection at Alter Road and Brooks Street for years, according to a Booth news reportGrosse Pointe News confirms that these blockades are all still standing. (My calls to the city were forwarded to Grosse Pointe Park city manager Dale Krajniak, who did not return them.)  

To their credit, Park residents cried foul over the closure of Kercheval, according to a recent writeup of a tempestuous city council meeting. For their part, officials involved in the decision say that they want to build more walkable neighborhoods and keep blight out of their community. Detroit has reportedly agreed to clean up signs of disrepair along Alter Road. But the problem is and always has been Alter Road itself.

"There is the perception that all the rich people live in Grosse Pointe and all the poor people live in Detroit, and Alter Road is the dividing line that not only denotes the physical border, but also a social border," said former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (and former San Antonio Mayor) Henry Cisneros—nearly a decade ago. By all signs, Grosse Pointe Park intends to keep it that way.

That psychological border is now a literal wall, iterated through planning changes and barricades in the name of creating pedestrian-friendly communities. There are so many ways to create pleasant farmers markets that don't seal off white communities that one wonders whether a farmers market could possibly be the primary goal. Perhaps Grosse Pointe Park planners should join their colleagues in the police department in diversity training. The city is building a walkable community—but walkable for whom?

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.