Snapping Back

Like many West Siders, Linda Smith had no idea neighborhoods like MorningSide or East English Village to the far east even existed. That is, until one day she decided to take a drive down eastbound Mack Avenue into Grosse Pointe.

She was surprised to discover the city limits stretched for than 10 miles beyond Gratiot. As Smith passed Alter Road she found herself in virtual shock at the startling contrast between the Grosse Pointe Park community south of Mack, and Detroit’s MorningSide neighborhood to the north. “I wasn’t prepared for that,” Smith recalls.

With no knowledge of the history of tensions on both sides of the Detroit/Grosse Pointe border -- where streets were walled-off to discourage visitors from entering certain streets via Alter – Smith wondered how a simple throughway could present such a chasm between communities. Her perspective is understandable, because for 20 years she has lived in the Eight Mile and Greenfield area, where there is little difference between Detroit and Southfield, on either side of the busy city-suburb divide.

The drive an indelible impression on her, and in the 11 years since, she’s helped pump new life into one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods.
Smith is the executive director of United Streets Networking And Planning: Building A Community, commonly known as U-SNAP-BAC, one of the largest community development corporations (CDCs) in metro Detroit — founded in 1985.

CDCs are nonprofit housing and community builders, typically formed by community groups or churches to revitalize distressed neighborhoods. They use a mixture of public and private funds, including foundation grants and tax credits, to get projects done.

Smith took over U-SNAP-BAC in 1995, and since then the group has built and sold 67 single-family homes and 64 townhouses for lease in MorningSide. The neighborhood is bounded by Alter and East Outer Drive, Mack and I-94, and includes 4,900 households.  

U-SNAP-BAC’s homes are located on Alter and two streets to the east, Wayburn and Maryland. And while new homes are sprouting up across Detroit at breakneck pace, 10 years ago, that simply wasn’t the case.
Smith chose to start building on MorningSide’s western fringe because vacant lots were abundant. There were seven houses on Wayburn at the time, and only two of those were occupied, Smith says. The other five either sat charred or crumbling.

Several experts warned Smith that the task was too great. ShoreBank, a Chicago financial institution that planted roots on Detroit’s east side in the mid-1990s, had helped a local developer with an ambitious plan to bring new homes and businesses to the area. But that grand plan never left the drawing board because it had no money behind it.

Job one for Smith was to find money for the ShoreBank project. However, she quickly realized that was not going to happen. After all, building in Detroit neighborhoods at the time was considered incredibly ambitious.

“The original plan called for streets to be changed, transportation, daycare centers to be built … a lot of good stuff. But it had no funding attached,” says Smith.

The situation was so bleak, in fact, that a Bank One executive told her to give up. “He said ‘Linda no one is going to buy a house over here. No one,’” she says. “You’ll find out that I don’t believe in ‘no’s.’ No’s are just opportunities to create yeses.”

So she scraped the ShoreBank plan and started over from the ground floor.

Planting roots

While 691 housing permits have been issued for single family homes since 2005, only 67 were issued in 1995, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. Back then, navigating the bureaucracy of the city’s planning and development department was an arduously task to say the least, because few developers were building in Detroit. “So they were not geared up,” Smith says.

The initial phase of the MorningSide Commons development called for 10 new homes. Smith says it took nearly two years from initial development to completion. She lost some homebuyers along the way, because they could not wait out the process. Smith used incentives to keep people interested, like stylish screen doors and appliances, and even helped some potential buyers pay their rent while they waited for their homes to be completed.

But those who stuck it out got rewarded beyond their dreams. They now live in a picturesque community as tony as most suburbs, complete with parks and freshly manicured lawns.

“I’m happy to say that our (10 original) buyers are still in their homes and what was vacant land with seven properties is now a block of 40 homes,” Smith says.

Those homes originally sold for about $65,000 and now appraise for more than $100,000. For sale signs, which dot nearly every community across the region, are nonexistent.

East MorningSide is a solid neighborhood, with incredible Tudor, Cape Cod and colonial housing stock. West MorningSide, for the most part, has not held up so well. However, MorningSide Commons is an oasis, one which U-SNAP-BAC hopes to expand.

“I feel that the work of U-SNAP-BAC has put our neighborhood on the map with the (city) administration, and with the development community in Detroit and statewide,” says Eric Dueweke, president of the MorningSide Community Organization. “Thanks to the organization's success under Linda's leadership, people know where MorningSide is, and perceive it to be truly a community on the rise” – which just happens to be the neighborhood group’s slogan.

Plans call for 10 single-family homes a year for at least the next five years. Smith says her group hopes to build a total of 100 to 200 different types of housing units, including homes for seniors. Plus, U-SNAP-BAC is working with Habitat for Humanity-Detroit, to build another 100 in-fill homes in MorningSide.

Thirteen of those units have been completed over the past year.
“The past and present successes of U-SNAP-BAC will have an even bigger impact on MorningSide in future years due to the new partners they have attracted to our community,” says Dueweke.

In addition to Habitat, those partners include Detroit LISC and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's Office of Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization, which have selected the area for future investment--not just through bricks-and-mortar building, but also increased funding of human services.

“It’s exciting to be in Detroit, and I’m not just saying that because of what we do,” Smith says.

What is U-SNAP-BAC?

• United Streets Networking and Planning:  Building a Community (U-SNAP-BAC) was incorporated in 1987 by a consortium of seven neighborhood organizations and four business associations to revitalize Detroit's East Side.  

• Its board is derived from representatives from its member organizations: the Balfour Buckingham Nottingham Block Club, Chalmers Block Club, Chandler Park Neighborhood Association, Civic Center East Business Association, Mack Avenue Beautification Association, Mack Avenue Renaissance Alliance, Neighbors United, People Lending United Support, Southeastern Community Association, The Seca Merchants, and the Warren Conner Development Coalition.

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Homes on Alter and Wayburn

Linda Smith

Homes on Alter and Wayburn

Homes on Alter and Wayburn

An East Side Street with Tudor and Cape Cod Housing Stock

Morningside Commons Community Park

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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