Ed.'s note: What can you learn about a neighborhood in a quick visit? We picked an arbitrary number, 37 minutes, found a resident and started the stopwatch. This is the first in an occasional series.
"You take the good with the bad, that's for sure," says Esteban Castro as we walk through his Southwest Detroit neighborhood, passing barking dogs, an empty snow-dusted park and some graffiti that would make you blush painted on an old car bumper. "You can't hide the bad, you can only fix it."
Castro, a 29-year-old Detroit Diesel technician, was born and raised in Southwest Detroit. He went to high school at International Western. He left for a bit, then came back, and now owns a beautifully restored old home on the same street he spent his formative years.
Castro and I are on our way to the Inferno, a newish eatery off a vibrant section of Vernor in Southwest Detroit, and one of Castro's favorite places (he loves the chicken, by the way). Castro is going to spend the next 37 minutes drinking a Sol (an import beer from Mexico) and talking to me about how he sees – and what he sees in – Southwest Detroit and its future.
It's a cold December day, mid-week, and mid-afternoon. Not surprisingly, the Inferno is empty, the exact opposite of how it would be on a Friday or Saturday night, he tells me. We grab a couple seats by the window and open two bottles of beer.1 Minute …
A lot has changed in Southwest Detroit since Castro was called a teenager. The '90s, he says, didn't treat the area very well. There was a lot of gang activity, the parks were vacant, unkempt, and not exactly a place for the kiddies, and the simplest things – like sign replacement – went by the wayside. People were leaving.
"Ten years ago people thought the grass was greener on the other side," he says. At the time, it may have been true, but things are changing and have been changing since then, he says.
"This city is the easiest to bash," Castro says. "But I say come down here, let me show you Vernor, let me show you these restaurants, these parks. How can you bash us then? How can you bash such a strong community?" Along Vernor, even on this bitterly cold day, there is a bustle about town. People are walking in and out of grocery stores, and they are standing outside taquerías talking (in the cold!). A parking spot along the street would be a hot commodity right now – the scene could have been in Brooklyn, easily.13 minutes …
There are parks, Castro says, that have remained vacant for years and years but now are being redone. "There is much more community involvement now, and we look out for each other," he says. "There is a higher amount of ownership and care taking place."
It's the little things that seem to make the difference here for Castro. And these little things have been the biggest turn-around from years passed. Raking leaves, painting over the spray paint, cleaning up the parks so the kids have a place to go. And it has an effect, a contagious effect.
"In this community the people want to keep up with the Joneses," he says, laughing, two sips of his Sol gone. "Neighbors notice a nice yard and want a nice yard, it is so simple and easy, but it makes such a difference." It seems as if taking pride in your yard transfers into pride in the community, and then, in a bigger sense of things, the city of Detroit. "There is pride still here in these neighborhoods, and it's beautiful."22 minutes …
Castro owns a home on the corner of Mason Place and Woodmere, across from the Woodmere cemetery, and lives there with his fiancé Angela Zanardelli, a learning specialist at Wayne State University and not a Southwest Detroit native.
The floor creaks, but with history and not faulty construction. And, he says, eventually the pitter-patter of little feet might induce such creaking. That's always a healthy contention to living in the city. The Detroit Public School system isn't exactly ideal and private schools aren't exactly cheap. However, Castro says he's staying, possibly going the way of private schools. Regardless, one thing is certain to Castro: "Southwest Detroit is a place to put roots down."
I crack open another Sol. Castro's is half done.
In November, Model D and the Southwest Detroit Business Association hosted a pub-crawl through Castro's stomping grounds. Castro and his fiancé showed up to "spy." The turnout was amazing, according to Castro, especially on such a chilly evening.
"It put people on our streets who otherwise may have not come down here," he says. "They got to see the vibrancy of Southwest Detroit, of Vernor. " And he says there is more where that came from.
"We're on the verge, right here," he says. You can feel the pride and passion he has for his neighborhood and community in his words. "There is real value here."31 minutes …
Sitting so close to the window, in a kind of lounge-y area with cushion chairs, it's not exactly an "inferno," so to say, here at the Inferno. And the cold from the bottle of beer isn't really helping. Castro leans away from his seat and looks out the window. "That building over there," he says, pointing toward a structure that lines the block with what appears to be a newer façade. "It didn't always look like that." On one end, on the bottom floor, is a dance studio, and at the other end a library. On the top are apartments. He says the library door is always swinging open and closed, and oftentimes dancers fill the studio's room. "People are seeing reasons to invest here," he says. "There's a future here, and that is an example."37 minutes …
Time is up. Thirty-seven minutes and three beers between us. It is enough time to establish Castro's love for his immediate neighborhood and the whole of Southwest Detroit. It is enough to feel that, whatever you do, it'll make a difference, even if it is merely raking leaves.
As the time ticks toward zero, Castro gets out one last thing.
"We're building toward something," he says, in a blitz, as if I would actually cut him off. "And coming back here, buying this house, is my contribution to the city. Raking my leaves and painting over the graffiti on garage door is my contribution to the city. Little things turn into big things."
Castro kills the remaining drops of beer in his bottle. "Are we done?"
If you have more than 37 minutes in Southwest Detroit, Esteban Castro recommends:
- Las Brisas Restaurant for good, authentic food.
- Arandas Tire for local, honest, auto work.
- Roman Village (it's in Dearborn, he says, but might as well be Southwest Detroit) for some amazing Italian food.
- Telway Burgers on Michigan Avenue for burgers at all hours of the day (and night).
Have feedback or want to spend 37 minutes with Model D in your neighborhood? Email us here
Scrappy gonzo journalist, Terry Parris Jr., interviewing Southwest Detroiter Esteban Castro.
Esteban Castro in front of his Southwest Detroit tudor style home.
Original lead glass front door lends a peak into the Castro's homeAll photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.