Families Matter

Let's face it, some people think raising your kids in Detroit is borderline child abuse. If you're a Detroit parent, you know there's no end to the sneering questions people ask about raising kids in the city. If you're not, then you may be surprised by how many people, who could easily put down roots elsewhere, have chosen Detroit — and wouldn't have it any other way. Meghan McEwen gathers a panel of city parents for a discussion about what it's really like.

The panel:

Jim Griffioe, who recently moved from San Francisco, is the father of a 2-year-old daughter and writes a blog, www.sweetjuniper.blogspot.com.

Faith Howard-Drain has two children ages 5 and 22 months.

Jackie Victor is the mother of two children, ages 6 years and 17 months.

April Boyle has three boys ages 7, 5 and 5 months. (Her husband Brian Boyle is a co-founder of Model D).

Sylvie Malo has a 6-year-old son and teaches at Friends School.

Tony and Annette Kinsey are the parents of three boys, 13, 7 and 5.

MEGHAN McEWAN: As the mother of a 6-month-old, the question I get all the time is: "So when are you moving to the suburbs?" I think that's the biggest myth — that everyone moves to the suburbs when they have kids. Since this is a panel of parents who didn't, let's start by explaining what makes Detroit a good place to raise children:

JACKIE: I have to say that Detroit is not yet a great place to raise children. I think that it has great things to offer families, but I think it's for families who have a different consciousness. I want our children to grow up in a home where they experience a family who's committed to something larger than ourselves. And that's a big reason why I'm in Detroit.

Because of the lack of healthy institutions, in a lot of ways, there is more of an opening for individuals to make more of a difference. Our business — we own Avalon Breads — is a perfect example. We couldn't do it in San Francisco, trust me. Or Atlanta or New York ... As families we can create institutions and some things here that maybe we wouldn't be able to so easily create somewhere else, where everything is already done. There's a lot of room for creativity and for creation here.

SYLVIE: I agree with Jackie. I don't think it's a great place to raise kids. But I'm committed to raising kids in an urban environment, and I'm making it work. But I don't think it's very easy. I can afford to send my kids to a private school, but if you can't, it can be a problem, depending which neighborhood you live in. I was raised in a city and so was my husband, and we've never spent a day of our lives living in the suburbs, and I couldn't imagine raising my kid there. You have to be creative, you have to be committed. It has to be a project, and you have to know why you're doing it. …

APRIL: I think that people think that we're delusional—that we don't know about the bad things. And we do know. But it's not enough to make us run away, to stop us from our commitments to all these things we think are more important than the illusion of safety in the suburbs. So I think that's a major myth: we are aware that it's not perfect …

JACKIE: I have become much less judgmental about people moving out of the city, because a lot of people can't afford to live in the city anymore because of high taxes and school tuition and insurance. People are financially pushed out of the city who would stay. I feel like I'm in a privileged position, being able to send my daughter to Waldorf and living in a neighborhood that's safe. So I don't want to say that people who move to the suburbs move for bad reasons: I think they do it for good reasons.

The other great thing about living in this city is there is such heart. … We opened our business 10 years ago, and it was on a song and a prayer, and the amount of love and support and gratitude that we have received is so much more than what we have put into it, I can't even find words for it. I find that when there is a gem in the city, people will gather around it and they are like warriors about it. They want things to work so much. So the one beautiful thing about it: my daughter, my kids, they will grow up with a sense of gratitude. …

APRIL: One thing that is a concern for me is not getting caught up in continuing to buy a bigger house and the bigger lots and the consumer culture of the suburbs. I think living in the city, you can kind of shield your kids or shelter them away from that a little bit.

JACKIE: Yes, I love that.

FAITH: I agree.

MEGHAN: What are some other myths that you guys are dying to dispel?

APRIL: That there aren't families living in the city. I think that's a myth. That people think it's just drug addicts and…I don't know what they think!

FAITH: That everybody here is stuck. That we have to be here. We don't have to be here. We choose to be here.

TONY: Or that it's so scary you can't even walk to your car.

APRIL: Like we're in a war zone or something.

TONY: That you can't go jogging or ride your bike, and that it's just so scary and far from reality. The area we're in, people are worried about the bums. But you know, I'm going to ride my bike. I'm going to do whatever I need to do to be normal, because we bring normal. If you can't jog down your street or walk with your kids, then the thugs have won.

APRIL: And that there are thriving neighborhoods — really nice, well-maintained, beautiful places to live in the city.

SYLVIE: I think that is something that suburbanites don't know. They go downtown, but they don't' know about our nice, little neighborhoods.

JACKIE: The housing stock here is phenomenal.

FAITH: You can't get better.

JACKIE: No, you can't get better. Really, our standard of living here is so much higher than it would be in another city. We have a great house that in a million years we couldn't afford somewhere else.

JIM: I was in San Francisco, in a two-lawyer household, and we were living in a one-bedroom apartment with our baby for 19 months. My wife does public interest law, and we just couldn't buy a house there. And now we're living in 1,500 square feet, and it's the most luxurious environment.

JACKIE: And that's small for Detroit…

SYLVIE: And that's the payback for being a pioneer. Although I don't consider myself a pioneer at all. I live in Corktown, which is a neighborhood that was pioneered 25 years ago. But now, it's kind of easy.

JACKIE: Well, Faith, where you're living…I feel like you're a pioneer…

FAITH: Definitely. I used to call it living amongst the ruins, because you have a bunch of mansions that are bequeathed to people who don't care what they turn into. You have bombed-out places, but your house is there, and this is where you prefer to be.

The welcoming committee for my neighborhood was being robbed at gunpoint. I was single then, and everyone was like, "Get out, get out." But I cannot run. This place used to be a safe haven. It was a place I played hopscotch, and my aunt used to watch me in this house. ... This house was a mansion to me. Whenever I walked up to this house, I was like "[Gasp] I'm going in the castle." And still it's a castle to me, but amongst ruins. Now I have children, so my priorities have shifted, but I still want my girls to have their castle…

MEGHAN: Some of the trash talk is true. Not all, but some. So what are the hardest parts of raising kids in Detroit? And how do you negotiate that?

FAITH: I think you have conversations every other week about staying. Every time you come up to your house … "Are we staying? Are we staying this week? Are we leaving this week? No we're not leaving." We have good neighbors move in, then we have renters move in, so you don't know who you're going to wind up with, but you hope it's someone who loves your block as much as you do. And I have all these older people on my block who I don't want to leave to just anybody…so it's a big battle all the time about what you are going to do next week. Are you safe? Are you scared coming in late? ...You pray, you become more cautious. You don't want to be hyper vigilant. You say, "I won't pull up Grosse Pointe on Century 21 one more time, I won't."


SYLVIE: For me, the hardest thing has been having kids around to play with my son. I have an only son, and he needs friends. He's very friendly. Where I live, it's a cool neighborhood. There are a lot of hip people, but not a lot of children. And that's a problem. ... So we have to be extra creative. Of course I love the school my son goes to—it's Friends School—and that has become the neighborhood. …

JACKIE: I was experiencing some guilt. I was so clear about my political … and just personal choice. I don't want to live in the suburbs; I want to live in the city. I love my house, I love my neighborhood, I love all that stuff. I was so clear it was the right thing. Then my daughter became 4, 5, and now 6. And a lot because we're Jewish, and she went to preschool in Oak Park and the whole community is there, and she made a lot of friends there. And the whole community lives in Huntington Woods, where there's tons of recreation, and everyone lives in each others' houses. And I do find myself feeling guilty, like am I being selfish? …

TONY: I think the school thing is always going to be looming over our heads, if we're making the right decisions. Our oldest son, he's 14, and we were driving all around. We weren't at the local school. Even now, he goes to a West Side school and we live on the East Side. And I was thinking, 'Is this right?' … But I realized when we had more children and as we debated about the move, I think you're going to have issues wherever the kids go to school. Even if we moved to Grosse Pointe—that's where all the East Siders want to live—we're going to have issues wherever we go. If there are only five black kids in the whole school, you're going to have that issue. If it's all black, that's an issue, too. …

FAITH: The school thing won't change for me, because I'm happy with Detroit Waldorf. I love Waldorf. Even if we moved to Grosse Pointe, we would stay at Waldorf. Our neighborhood school, I don't know what that is. It was never a choice.

But we're living in Detroit and raising our kids here for a reason. I want to hear more of those reasons.

APRIL: I don't know all you guys, but I bet I'll run into you in the next week or two, because Detroit is the biggest small town in the world. Everybody is one degree of separation away from another person. … You [Jackie] said to me, 'It's a very spiritual place to live.' When you get together, you love these people. You know that you have things in common with them. You all share a sense of depth, and you're here for a reason—to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I don't find that a lot when I'm at Somerset Mall or some of the suburban environments that I'm in. There aren't a lot of these conversations going on—about being a part of something.

SYLVIE: When we first moved to Detroit, everybody said, 'You can't live in Detroit. You've heard the stories.' What struck us from the get-go was how interesting and friendly people were, and that's what kept us here, for sure. We like people in Detroit: they're all crazy. You have to be a little crazy to live in this city. You have to have a mind that is a little more open. You have to be a little more adventurous. You have to be a little more of a risk-taker. You have to be all these things, and I like being around them. I would like my son to have an open mind, too. To me, that's the big advantage. That's why we're here.

JIM: For me, part of the biggest attraction to Detroit is that it's an absolutely beautiful city. And I want to raise my daughter with that sort of appreciation. I want her to have an aesthetic where she looks at these buildings, even the rotted-out buildings, and understands that there's a history and a reason and a story behind all of these places.

I walk around the entire city with my daughter. I take pictures of her in front of graffiti. And no one ever bothers us. Again, it's the most beautiful place I have ever been—and I've traveled all over the world.

You go out to the suburbs…every Outback Steakhouse looks like every other Outback Steakhouse in every other suburb across America. There's nothing in Detroit like an Outback Steakhouse. There's so much more here than that.

TONY: I think it's beautiful. We live five blocks off the river. Where else can I live off the river for under a half million dollars?

MEGHAN: Let's talk about the camaraderie of Detroit parents. How does the sense of community here shape your experience?

JACKIE: We're just starting … You have to be very scrappy, and you have to piece everything together. I was having some discussions with some of my sort of political allies, and we started talking about this vision of Detroit being the greatest city for kids, but in an unconventional way. So we got together as a group of people, and we came up with this idea of Detroiters Dream for Children (e-mail: [email protected]), so we're creating it as we go.

ANNETTE: To create camaraderie is essential, because I've been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years. And what I began to do was seek out mother clubs, like I was a part of Mocha Moms. You go to the Detroit Public Library at 10:30 a.m. every day, and you see a lot more home moms. You have to begin to create and step out, and say, 'Hey, can I get your number. I would love to get together for a play group.'

SYLVIE: Every time I see a little boy or girl who seems to be the same age as my son, I say, 'Where do you live? Can I get your number?'

ANNETTE: You would be surprised how many home moms there are. When I go out to the suburbs, they're like 'There are African-American home moms?' They're blown away.

SYLVIE: That's the thing. You can do it in Detroit.

JACKIE: I know so many people who live simply in the city so one parent can work.

ANNETTE: You have to build your world…When we bring our Mexican and white friends to the table, our children are like, 'This is truly what Mom and Dad believe in.' That's how you begin to build camaraderie. I believe in building a community, where my children can have diversity in every aspect of life.

Meghan McEwan is a freelance writer who lives in Corktown.


Jackie Victor with her Children

Sylvie Malo

Faith Howard-Drain

Tony and Annette Kinsey

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger