With change afoot in Southwest Detroit, can residents steer development?

Alvaro Padilla can see that change is afoot in his neighborhood. Maybe it was the time one summer afternoon when a pack of 20-somethings on bicycles made a pit stop at his father's Mexican restaurant, El Nacimiento. Or perhaps it was during the World Cup last year, when the place filled not just with your typical Mexican diehard futbol fans, but with folks of all backgrounds who were searching for a more welcoming place to watch the televised broadcast.
For Padilla, 32, whose immigrant family from Guadalajara, Mexico moved to Southwest Detroit 18 years ago, the changes taking place around his neighborhood are inviting, and not just for business.
"There's more life here than before," Padilla says. "I think it's good for anyone to come and make it a better place."
Indeed, other longtime residents have taken notice of these seemingly small changes.
Ana Martinez recalled when she was coming of age in the neighborhood in 1993.
"The past time for the younger generation, we would just kind of drive by and watch the houses burn down," says Martinez, who is now raising two teenage boys there. "What I've seen here more recently is a real investment."
Martinez spoke with Model D after a community meeting organized to inform the "Vista Plan," a project of Southwest Solutions that last year began to take on the challenge of redeveloping 20 blocks around the Michigan Welcome Center.
That area, which spans west of Michigan Central Station to West Grand Boulevard, has about 400,000 square feet of commercial property, 100,000 of which is still vacant, says Daniel Pederson, program director with Southwest Solutions.
That property is prime space for the development of greenways and places for kids to play, Pederson says. In a survey of 700 households last summer, Vista Partnership organizers learned that's what families want – safe places for their families to enjoy the outdoors.
Pederson says some of the Vista Partnership's efforts thus far include several pocket parks along the Vernor and Bagley corridors, with more on the way, and the purchase of the long-vacant St. Anthony Church, which is now partly being used as a community space and for tutoring. Negotiations are currently under way to purchase other properties.
The meeting earlier this month was attended by at least 100 people, who packed into the former home to 555 Gallery, eager to hear about efforts being made by a dozen or so grassroots organizations and startup incubators. The residents were urged to get involved by joining committees to address several key issues in the neighborhoods, including blight, public safety and youth engagement.
An interpreter was on hand to rattle off translations for the Spanish speakers in the audience who intently listened to her with headphones. Some nodded politely as if waiting for the pitch to be over; others like Martinez grabbed pieces of chalk to write on an oversized hope board with the prompt, "I wish this was…." in both English and Spanish.
What Martinez wants is "…que nuestros sueños sean una realidad. (…That our dreams are a reality)."
The sign is expected to be installed on the side of an abandoned building at the northwest corner of Bagley and 24th Street in the coming weeks.
Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda Lopez, who grew up in and currently represents Southwest Detroit, says she doesn't see this latest wave of development as anything new, but rather the continuation of years of strong economic growth. Thanks to the steady migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the area, parts of Southwest have been able to thrive while the rest of the city has suffered historic abandonment.
"During the recession, while businesses did struggle, they maintained themselves," Castaneda Lopez says. "I think that is one of the amazing strengths of this community."
That's important to remember as development in Corktown, Midtown, and downtown continues to branch out, says Todd Johnson, a Detroit native and marketing expert, who sees huge potential for the community's existing Latino population to continue to define the area's identity.
A longtime fan of the Mexican restaurants that dot Bagley, Johnson predicts that it will only be a matter of time before ambitious entrepreneurs bank on Mexicantown's decades-long track record of attracting business from all over the region and Canada.
When that day comes, those 20- and 30-something hipsters are going to need safe places for their kids to learn and play, says Johnson, who says when he started a family, he fled to the suburbs. Those pocket parks are just one way to make the community more attractive.
Safety was one of the prime concerns for Martinez when she was raising her two sons. The family left the city for Southgate when the boys were young because, as she puts it, "there was a time when it got scary, when the schools were not doing what was expected."
Now, her family's back. Her sons are teenagers and she's encouraged when she hears about all of the programs sprouting up to engage youth, particularly ones that encourage education in technology, moviemaking, and recreation.
What she doesn't want, however, is for an organization to come in and leave the existing community out of the conversation.
"I don't want for us to be stripped of our own businesses," Martinez says.
That's also something Pederson, a 23-year resident of Southwest Detroit, also worries about and says numerous prospective developers have approached Southwest Solutions that don't exactly fit the organization's vision for the community's future.
"We've said no to businesses that can be a plague to other urban districts, check cashing or payday loan places, adult-type businesses," Pederson said.
Back at Nacimiento, Padilla doesn't worry so much about that. When he got his first job as a dishwasher at Mexicantown Restaurant when he was 15, most of the customers there tended to be more drawn to the Tex-Mex style of cooking popularized at the more frequented establishments.
Now they're venturing further west to businesses like his family's restaurant, which he considers a more authentic take on Mexican cuisine.
"There's definitely more traffic here, this part of the city is more alive than ever before," Padilla says.

Support for this feature was provided by Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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