Growing up in shadow of campus, kids had inviting, fenceless refuge

My dad used to brag that our neighborhood, just west of the University of Detroit, would never go down because it was in the shadow of the college. He was wrong about that.

When I grew up on Santa Rosa, just a couple of blocks away from what is now UDM (before it merged with Mercy College), there was no fence around the school. The campus seemed welcoming to neighborhood kids. Its open areas hosted pickup ballgames and its traffic-free expanse was great for bike riding. As a teenager, I used to hang out there instead of going to church at Gesu, across McNichols from the campus.

Unfortunately, over time, the neighborhood did decay. Newly built dormitories on campus attracted the students who used to rent in the neighborhood, and a sturdy fence went up around the grounds. Security booths were set up at the entrances. Whether it was intended by the university administration or not, the UDM campus was shut off from the surrounding neighborhood.

Maybe the gates are opening up now.

Recently there was lots of hoopla announcing the creation of Live6, a partnership between UDM, the Kresge Foundation and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. aimed at making the Livernois and McNichols intersection the center of the city's next thriving residential and economic success story. The intention is to develop the area between Puritan, Curtis, Fairfield and Wyoming into a vibrant community — particularly the business strips. The three organizations have contributed $700,000 to get things started over the next two years.

The name Live6 represents the streets of the intersection where UDM resides. Most folks in the area refer to McNichols as Six Mile Road. Those not familiar with the nomenclature are often left scratching their heads when someone tells them that something is on Six Mile. At least the partners of Live6 got that right. Using the language of the locals helps.

“Just as Midtown Detroit Inc. is to the Midtown community and its geography, Live6 promises to take the lessons of Midtown to build something as fine-tuned for and with this community,” Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, said at the press conference.

Don't get carried away now. Livernois and Six Mile are not going to turn into Midtown. Midtown has major anchor institutions — Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and the Cultural Center — and is squeezed between a resurgent downtown and the New Center. Not to mention they’re building a train line along Woodward Avenue tying the three areas together.

Live6 has UDM, which by comparison has about 5,000 students to WSU’s 25,000. The medical center is Detroit’s largest employer. I’m guessing the largest employer in the Live6 area is UDM, and after that Marygrove College.

I was surprised to not hear Marygrove mentioned in all this. Marygrove sits at Six Mile and Wyoming on the west end of this proposed revitalization effort. It’s done a great job of community outreach and probably has a lot to contribute to the effort in the long run. Maybe it was just that the institutions represented by Live6 are the ones who ponied up the $700,000 seed money.

The Fitzgerald Community between Puritan and Six Mile and from Stoepel to Prairie – the area closest to UDM – is the most devastated. That’s where I lived from ages 11 to 18. North of Six Mile and west of Livernois, in the Bagley Community, things get immediately better although it’s still fairly rough.

University District is north of Six Mile and east of Livernois. It’s one of the most stable neighborhoods in the city. It has its issues – that’s where federal Judge Terrence Berg was shot in the spring. But the fact that the federal judge lives there says something about the neighborhood.

The commercial strip along Livernois and Six Mile isn’t even a shadow of what it used to be. There were furniture, home lighting, sporting goods and other stores along Livernois. There were two banks on the strip, a post office, a movie theater and a wine and beer bar that catered to the university crowd. Greg’s pizzeria used to stand on the corner where there is now a McDonald’s.

I wasn’t old enough to go in there, but I remember reading the marquee at the Chess Mate coffeehouse where John Lee Hooker, Chuck and Joni Mitchell, Madcat Ruth and Maruga Booker would play.

On Six Mile, Largo’s restaurant was a fancy place with valet parking. There was a drug store, a Sanders ice cream place, a Kresge dime store, and a supermarket. My big brother took me to Lou’s Delicatessen for my first pastrami sandwich. At least Lou’s is still there.

It takes a long time to fix a city. The vibrant Detroit that old-timers remember during the 1960s was a half-century in the making. And the unmaking of the city took nearly as long. Midtown Detroit Inc. started out as the University Cultural Center Association back in 1976. That’s almost 40 years of effort finally coming together in there.

The Live6 area is smaller and already has a residential base. University District and the nearby Bagley community are fairly stable, so that issue isn’t as big as things were in the pre-Midtown days. It was once a thriving commercial area so maybe that can happen again, but it will take decades.

I lived in the Cass Corridor when what you now see in Midtown was hardly imaginable. And I lived in Fitzgerald when the crap you see now was hardly imaginable. The seed money for Live6 is hardly enough to start an office, have a few meetings and write a few grants over the next two years. But it's a start.


Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator. He is author of “Daddy Plays Old-Time New Orleans Jazz,” which is available at Source Booksellers in Detroit.