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Aviation Subdivision: A neighborhood in two cities

 A view of Littlefield from above. The street used to be an airplane runway. Courtesy Nadir Ali

The Aviation Subdivision may not be the most well-known of metro Detroit's neighborhoods, but it's certainly one of the most interesting—and not just for its curious name.

For starters, it sits in two cities. Bounded by Joy Road, Schaefer Highway, Wyoming, and Warren Avenue, the one-square-mile, square-shaped neighborhood claims both west Detroit and northeast Dearborn as its stomping ground.

The Aviation Subdivision also has an attractive, symmetrical geometry, with Tireman Avenue neatly bisecting the neighborhood and two conspicuous diagonal streets, Littlefield Boulevard and Esper Street, intersecting at Tireman.

Tireman Road divides the two cities. Photo by David Sands.

 
Dearborn Homes, the website of a local realtor, notes that the Dearborn portion of Aviation Subdivision was "one of the first exclusive subdivisions built outside the city of Detroit." A variety of home stylestudors, colonials, bungalows, and ranches ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 square feetcan be found in the subdivision.

Gary Alexander lives on the Detroit side of the Aviation Subdivision, and along with his Trivium Capital Group partner Siegel Clore III, owns numerous properties there.

"A lot of the homes have decorative plaster ceilings and big glass windows," he says. "Then there's some with additional architectural nuances, like an extra foyer or decorative tiles that separate them from being a new, run-of-the-mill type of property."

The Aviation Subdivision has served as Alexander's home off and on since the late 1960s. He says it's a very stable community where people maintain their lawns and keep up their homes. While there's a little blight on the Detroit side, it still enjoys a high occupancy rate and has crime statistics similar to those found in Dearborn.

Alexander remembers the neighborhood being a very diverse place. But at least since the 1980s, there's been a noticeable increase in racial disparity. Nowadays, the Dearborn side is mostly Middle Eastern, and the side predominantly African-American.

But that, too, is changing.  

"What you see in my neighborhood, especially on Tireman, is people are moving in from Dearborn," Alexander says. "It's the same house at a cheaper cost, and the diversity is returning."

A mysterious origin

So what's the story behind the Aviation Subdivision's unusual name? Many residents believe the neighborhood sits on an old airfield once owned by Henry Ford, the two diagonal streets having been landing strips. Others believe the automotive magnate built the subdivision to provide homes for his engineers.

When I paid a visit to the Detroit Public Library's Burton Historical Collection, the librarian told me that in her twenty years working there, she'd never heard of the neighborhood. What's more, the archives didn't even have an index file for Aviation Subdivision.

An archival image showing an early conception of Aviation Subdivision. Courtesy of the Dearborn Historical Museum.
 
After that, I contacted Ford's corporate historian Robert Kreipke. According to him, Henry Ford was indeed involved in building a neighborhood for his workers called the Moloney Subdivision. Its boundaries, however, were Michigan Avenue, Greenfield Road, and the Rouge River.

"I'm not aware that we got involved in the building of houses in [the Aviation Subdivision]," says Kreipke. "He may have bought some properties there. Henry Ford owned vast acreages all over the place."

Frustrated, I turned to the Dearborn Historical Museum to get some answers. Mason Christensen, an archivist with the museum, told me the land for the subdivision was acquired by real estate developer Robert Oakman, the namesake of Oakman Boulevard, in late 1921 or early 1922, and that it seems Ford did use it for an airplane drag strip.

"The area was originally Morrow airfield and used by Ford up through World War I," Christensen says. Morrow Field was named after Lt. Karl Morrow who was killed at a Detroit air show. "Ford apparently found having the airport superfluous considering they owned the one near Greenfield Village."

A variety of opinions

As can be expected in most communities, residents of the Aviation Subdivision have differing opinions about the place they call home.

Hasham Haider, a mechanic who's in the process of moving out, tells us the Dearborn side of the neighborhood where he currently lives has seen better days.

"It used to be good, and then it started to get run down around 2003, 2004," he says. "Old people started moving out, new people started moving in, and they don't take care of their homes."

"This side, the Dearborn side of Aviation, there's no burnt abandoned homes, but on the Detroit side there is," he adds.

Adam Abayas, a microbiologist who recently moved from Virginia to the Dearborn side to be near relatives, had a much more upbeat impression of the neighborhood.

"It's very nice," he says. "It's quiet. It's great. There's such a sense of community."

Nadir Ali, 27, first moved to the neighborhood in the '90s with his parents and now lives on the Detroit side with his wife, Athar. He works with the Detroit Grand Prix as a Challenge Detroit fellow and owns a business called 3andathird that makes Detroit-themed decals.

"It's a nice neighborhood," says Ali. "You can do the basic thingsgo bicycling, go joggingand it's still relatively safe."

Nadir and Athar Ali live near the Detroit/Dearborn border. Photo by David Sands.


Although he wishes property values would rise, he says there's many amenities nearby, like Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries, plus superstores like Meijer and Target.

"I still live in Detroit," says Ali, "but I have the ability to get what I need without it being a struggle or having to go out of my way like some of my friends living in other parts of the city."

I met Patrice Stringer, an engineer with Ford, while she was bicycling on the Detroit side of the Aviation Subdivision with her son. A 21-year resident of the area, she says that, while she loves her neighborhood, she's noticed a difference in the quality of city services between Dearborn and Detroit.

"You can definitely tell the difference when the winter comes," Stringer says. "The streets across Tireman are done and the streets on this side are not."

"You also see it when the spring kicks in," she continues. "The trees have blossomed [on the Dearborn side], and on this side they haven't. If you pay attention, there's a water or fertilizer truck that comes down and takes care of the Dearborn side."

According to Stringer, things got tough for the Aviation Subdivision following the recession of 2008, but with the economy bouncing back, things are on the upswing.

Patrice Stringer's favorite neighborhood activity is riding her bike, Photo by David Sands.

Asked for her favorite thing about living there, she immediately mentions bicycling with her family, especially on Oakman Boulevard's bike lanes. 
 
"I feel comfortable riding, and I just like where I live," she says. "I like my neighborhood. I love my neighbors. I've been a Detroit resident all my life and this place has made it comfortable enough for me to not want to move."
 
This is the latest feature in Model D and Metromode's "Life on the Border" series, which explores how political, social, and geographic boundaries throughout the region affect the lives of metro Detroiters. Read prior stories below.

Examining the borders that define metro Detroit
Life on the Border: Blurring the lines that separate Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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