When former State Rep. Steve Tobocman and his wife were moving to Detroit from Ann Arbor years ago, they had their pick of any neighborhood (or suburb) in the area. Enticed by the strong community and diverse culture of Mexicantown, they bought a duplex fixer-upper in the historical Hubbard Farms neighborhood. "We wanted to be a part of that," says Tobocman. "We like the fact that it's an established area. It's not all new. Our neighbor had lived there for 50 years."
Rehabbing called for a new kitchen, heating and cooling system, the floors, the exterior, and lots of general maintenance — but their hard work was worth it. In fact, they’re so happy with their neighborhood, Tobocman says he’s recruited at least five other people to buy houses nearby — a few even on the same street.
Mexicantown is a bustling ethnic enclave in Southwest Detroit. It’s a neighborhood filled with residents who’ve been there for generations, as well as an influx of new immigrants and area residents like Tobocman who are attracted to its homes ripe to be rehabbed and strong senses of culture and community.
The freeways come together here -- Interstates 75 and 96, with easy access to I-94 and the Lodge. There’s proximity to Downtown offices, not to mention the convenience that comes with living in one of the only truly walkable neighborhoods in the city. Block after block along Bagley and Vernor are lined with markets, bakeries, restaurants, pizza-combo-taquerias, video stores, bars and ice cream shops.
Kids play and residents walk their dogs in Clark Park -- a sprawling urban green space that most residents count among their favorite neighborhood perks. There’s a brand-new ice rink with bleachers, lights and ice-makers, and the park recently received a $1 million grant for improvements from Wayne County. Its improvements represent the kind of growth bringing new residents to Mexicantown.
Restaurants, bakeries and supermercados thrive, housing continues to go up, and the influx of people continues to climb. It’s a part of Southwest Detroit -- one of the only neighborhoods in the city where population is growing. As business prospers, the neighborhood is retaining its strong sense of community and Latino culture -- an homage to the very reason it's booming in the first place.
Culture and diversity
"You don't have to be Mexican to live in Mexicantown," says Vince Murray, the Executive Director of Bagley Housing Association.
The ethnic breakdown of Mexicantown’s population is, in fact, incredibly diverse. According to the Mexicantown CDC, the numbers go something like this: 50 percent Hispanic, 33 percent black, and 37 percent white. One local landlord describes the renter’s demographic as one that ranges from young hipsters, students and artists to working folks and families. (A Google search on Mexicantown repeatedly turns up the tidbit that Jack White of the White Stripes grew up there.) Tobocman, who was drawn to the diversity, he says there’s also strong base of people in the neighborhood who are working professionals with a passion for social justice — teachers, non-profit and government workers.
Critics wonder whether the hype and commercialization of gringo-suburban tourism has watered down the neighborhood’s cultural legacy. Actively involved residents Vito Valdez and Mary Herbeck couldn’t disagree more. “It’s a good thing that people want to come here, “ Herbeck says, seemingly stumped by the alternative. “It’s good for the community and good for the small businesses, and the culture is still very much here. You go into the businesses, and sometimes the people don’t even speak English. It really is like a little Mexican town.”
Attend one of the neighborhood’s annual cultural festivals -- Cinco de Mayo, Day of the Dead, or Unity in the Community -- and you’ll have no doubt the rich cultural heritage is very much alive and thriving in Mexicantown.
Cost of living and housing
A drive through residential Mexicantown reveals a wide variety of housing. Beautiful, hulking structures, ripe for renovation along Grand Avenue and streets like Vinewood, are getting the tender, loving care they deserve from folks like Tobocman. Brand-new, market-rate Ste. Anne condos, designed to look like peaked-roof row houses, are the latest addition to Bagley Housing Association’s revitalization plan. Over on 16th, 17th and 18th -- more of the many residential blocks pioneered by the BHA -- new A-frame houses with manicured lawns and a spruced-up collection of older ones are quietly creating a quaint neighborhood, lit up by the night-time glow of the Ambassador Bridge.
Margaret Garry lives in the neighborhood says reasonably priced housing and the low cost of local goods and services are one of neighborhood’s biggest draws. “There’s a low, low, low cost-of-living here,” she says. Tobocman agrees, “My wife was in grad school and I had school loans to repay, and it was in our price point. We were able to find what we wanted at the price we could afford.”
Murray rattles off a list of neighborhood price points -- $80,000 for an old home that needs work and new market-rate condos for $160,000 -- most of which are made more attractive by tax abatements and subsidies.
Local artists Valdez and Herbeck bought their 105-year-old home on 18th Street through the BHA, who rehabbed it and helped them through the subsidy process. “It’s great. Working artists can actually buy a place without having to beg, borrow and steal the money,” says Herbeck.
Anyone can walk into the BHA looking for home-buying guidance. They’ll set you up with information packages, lending institutions, income guidance charts and offer home-buying counseling. Since so many of the houses go by word of mouth, they can offer advice on where to find market-rate houses.
Community and pride
Tobocman is enthusiastic about Mexicantown, but not with the kind of blind boosterism that makes you think he’s an overly idealistic politician. “It’s not a suburban picket fence environment -- the type of place where you don’t see anyone who’s homeless. So, if that’s what you want, then it’s not for you,” he says. “But you do see a lot of people out jogging and walking their dogs. And there’s steady and constant change. The non-profit development community has done a lot of hard work,” he says. Community is strong there, he says, talking of CB-watch patrols and neighborhood get-togethers.
Garry says that neighborhoods in Mexicantown can go head-to-head with the downtown area in terms of safety. Hubbard Farms, for instance, regularly comes in second as the area in the city with the least crime. The Joshua Project shows crime in Mexicantown has gone down 35 percent.
Herbeck and Valdez had a strong sense of belonging before they even moved into the neighborhood. They were both actively involved in the community and the art scene in Mexicantown, particularly Valdez, who teaches at the DIA and whose murals (Cornfields at Bagley and Ste. Anne streets) and sculptures (fish sculpture on Vernor, just west of the Train Station) can be spotted all over Mexicantown.
Once they moved in, they noticed a park off Vernor alongside I-75 -- it was an empty, littered lot with homeless people drinking out of paper bags and basketball courts that nobody ever played on. They decided to start a community garden, now called Earth Mother Art Garden Park. They cleaned it up, planted a garden, created found-object sculptures, and painted the hoop’s backboards and poles. Valdez created a mural, incorporating his artwork into the existing tags, so there was a more positive message. Now, it’s a neighborhood hangout again, where kids actually use the basketball courts. As for the homeless, “We didn’t do this to displace anyone,” ensures Herbeck. “They’re part of our community, and they’ve taken ownership of the park -- they’re still there, but they keep it clean.”
As Murray says, “The people who have property in Mexicantown are active -- they really care about this community, and it shows.”
For more information about Mexicantown visit the Model D
- Visiting Guide
- Investing Guide
Directions to Mexicantown
From the East:
Take I-94 West and merge onto I-96 East/Jefferies Fwy via exit 213B toward Canada. Then take the I-75 South/I-96 South exit toward Toledo and continue to exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
From the North:
Take I-75 South and merge onto I-94 West via exit 53B toward Chicago, then merge onto I-96 East/Jefferies Fwy via exit 213B toward Canada. Then take the I-75 South/I-96 South exit toward Toledo and continue to exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
From the West:
Take I-96 East to the I-75 South/I-96 South exit toward Toledo. Take exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
From the South:
Take I-94 East toward Detroit and merge onto exit 213B for I-96 East/ Jefferies Fwy toward Canada. Take exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
Take I-75 North toward Detroit and continue to exit 47A toward M-3/Clark Ave. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn left onto Clark St and turn right to W Vernor Hwy. Either stay straight on W Vernor or turn right onto Hubbard then left onto Bagely.
Vito Valdez's fish sculpture
Roberto Clemente Recreation Center on Bagley
Clark Park Sculpture Project
Fiesta Mexicana at Fort Wayne
Ste. Anne Townhouses
New homes on 17th Street
Earth Mother Art Park on Vernor
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger