Even 1,100 miles from Miami, Maricruz Moya felt right at home.
Moya remembers arriving in Southwest Detroit with her parents at 9-years-old, almost instantly appreciating the Latino presence and Hispanic influence in one of the city’s most festive, lively districts.
“Here, I was able to find the connection,” she recalls. “The cultural connection and the people reminded me of Florida and the Cuban community.”
Now 21, Moya is not only devoted to her adopted hometown and her neighbors, both Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking, she has become a goodwill minister for the city. Appointed by Greening of Detroit to facilitate events in Romanowski Park at Lonyo and Michigan Avenue, Moya is one of many people reflecting diverse cultures and eclectic styles that characterize the city’s District 6.
Mayor Mike Duggan appointed Rico Razo neighborhood district manager of the region, encompassing not only southwest, but extending into much of Detroit’s cultural center.
“I think the mayor’s whole idea of expanding from the Coleman A. Young Building to the neighborhoods was a good start,” says Razo. “We have people who’ve lived in the district their whole lives, who say they’ve never had the mayor’s office show up at their front door. We come to their houses and their jaws drop.”
Under Duggan, neighborhood managers have been assigned to offices throughout the city in locations where residents may directly contact them to express concerns, and where managers are charged with addressing the community, including visiting residences. Operating from a small suite at Patton Community Center, 2301 Woodmere St., Razo and Ninfa Cancel, deputy district manager, field a daily average of 50 calls from residents, respond to countless e-mails, post on social media, and work in the field, making frequent house calls.
By establishing more direct relationships with the residents and business owners the pair say they gain insight about citizens’ daily and ongoing concerns, while researching growth opportunities in the district, like their current plan to resurrect the Michigan Avenue Business Association.
Both say they have personal and family roots in Southwest Detroit, best known throughout the region for its vibrant Mexicantown commercial center. Cancel says she was born and raised in the area, and is happy to see signs of resurgence.
“Growing up, I remember cars riding down the street with all kinds of people playing all kinds of music,” says Cancel. “It’s a tight-knit community.”
Often Southwest Detroiters come from multiple generations of family members living within close proximity. Events at Clark Park and other venues, even average street corners on summer days, can make visitors to the area feel like old friends stopping by.
Still, District 6 faces challenges, including vacant structures that dot parts of Southwest Detroit’s landscape. Razo and Cancel admit removing abandoned homes and other buildings can be a long, costly process, but Razo says aggressive initiatives to sell property through Detroit Land Bank auctions is paying dividends. The auctions have drawn as many as 600 people looking to renovate and become part of the community. Held weekly, the sales and volunteer-driven neighborhood cleanups have contributed toward Razo’s goal to repopulate emptier blocks, or at least, to help re-energize some residents who lack next-door neighbors. The city provides boards and supplies for able and willing volunteers and can even recruit assistants “to handle the problem” of blight, adds Razo.
Among Detroit’s neighborhood districts, Southwest might be uniquely situated to provide a model for more sustainable development among both long-time, lower-income residents and more affluent newcomers.
“How do we balance gentrification?” Razo asks. “People are moving out of Midtown. They’re getting priced out. People are moving out of Corktown. They’re getting priced out. Now they’re moving into Southwest.”
“We’ve got the most dynamic district in the city,” he adds. “We have people who make $2,000 (a year) and we probably have some millionaires.”
Even more diverse is the community’s ethnic makeup, primarily concentrated in the United Nations General Assembly-like complexion of Southwest Detroit neighborhoods. Latinos account for about 57 percent of residents, blacks represent about 23 percent of the population, and whites represent about 16 percent, with the remaining numbers comprised of various other races, according to Data Driven Detroit. About 43,000 people live in the Southwest community, which could rightly be regarded as District 6’s capital.
Born in Mexico chef Luis Garza, owner of El Asador, 1312 Springwells St., says he never seriously considered another neighborhood when he opened the popular steak restaurant in 2013. Attracting online customer reviews like “food is phenomenal,” “mouth-watering, delicious,” and “off-the-chart great,” El Asador has built a following that adds to the district’s reputation for serving the best meals in the city.
“A lot of people ask me why I put my restaurant in this spot,” says Garza. “I said, ‘If the food is good, people will come wherever you are.’ Not only that, but I’ve lived here a long time and I see Detroit is going through big changes.”
Located at the former site of a party store, El Asador embodies the kind of community commitment District 6 needs from entrepreneurs and youth, Cancel says.
“There are a lot of young people who would start working for themselves if they knew how,” says the deputy manager. “We’re a family-friendly district and we have people asking, ‘Why do we have to go out of the neighborhood to Chuck. E. Cheese? We should be able to stay right here.’”
In a similar homesteading spirit, Moya, the diehard Detroiter from Miami, says she wants to link neighbors, particularly the Arab, African American, and Latino communities around Romanowski Park, with one another. Moya plans to launch the Nuevo Comienzo Detroit (“New Start Detroit”) web site soon, to connect residents with activities in District 6.
“The people, the resources, and the culture are what I like most about being there,” she says.
Using the social media “trending” phrase, “#NoDaysOff” to proclaim devotion to District 6 residents, Razo says the community has always maintained a rarified air of style.
“I remember talking to a TV crew from out of town and they were saying Detroit was getting ‘cool’ again,” he adds. “I just started laughing until they asked me what was so funny. I said, ‘Southwest has always been cool!’”
Photos by Paul Engstrom