Hard-hit Delray Still Feels Like A Community to Those Who Live Here: The Detroit Agenda

June 9, 2014

By Pat Batcheller

"We're alone on our own little island out here."

Selena Carreon, who has lived in Delray since she was 12.

WDET asked Detroit residents what issues matter most to them as the city goes through bankruptcy. Their answers are part of an ongoing series we call “The Detroit Agenda”. One of the things we heard was how important it is to maintain a sense of community. Few communities have suffered Detroit’s decline as much as Delray, nestled along the Detroit River between Zug Island and the Ambassador Bridge. Pollution, blight, and crime have cut Delray’s population to a 10th of what it once was. There’s really not much of a community left. But as WDET’s Pat Batcheller reports, those who remain say they’re determined to make Delray vibrant again.

I met Tom Cervenak at the Delray Community House on Leigh… headquarters of Peoples Community Services. He’s the executive director. He’s also a Delray native…and he took me on a tour of the neighborhood. We had barely left the parking lot when he pointed out the wrought iron fence surrounding the community center—or what’s left of it.

“It was gorgeous, and made the place look like Graceland or something. And we had a metal scrapper just down the street, he was coming and just demolishing it. Lookit, he even…see how he cut it here?”

Illegal scrapping is just one of the many challenges facing Delray. Pollution is another. Just beyond the children’s playground at the Community House is the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s massive wastewater treatment plant. The odor coming from it is indescribable…and, on this windy spring day, inescapable. Even long-time Delray residents such as Selena Carreon can’t get used to it.

“I was thinking I can’t even barbecue today, because, you know, the smell.”

As bad as the air and other conditions in Delray may be…Selena Carreon says she has found a sense of community here. It’s where she spent much of her childhood…and is now raising seven kids of her own. Her neighbors include her mother and her brothers. Those deep family ties run throughout Delray… something Scott Brines noticed when he moved in about 12 years ago.

“You’re living in our great-grandmother’s house, and you kinda want to keep that. That’s a part of you. There’s a sense of community. People want to keep that, they live next to their friends, their neighbor, their family.”

But keeping a sense of community anywhere is difficult when most of the people have left. Delray’s population was 23,000 in 1930. Today, it’s less than 3,000 according to the Census Bureau. At St. Paul AME Southwest Church on Rademacher, Pastor Jeffrey Baker has seen his congregation shrink from 350 to about a hundred over two decades--enough of a decline to test his own faith.

“So many families and individuals in the community feel hopeless because of the blight, the conditions of the community. It’s a real challenge.”

Pastor Baker says many families in his congregation don’t live in Delray anymore, but they come back to worship at the church their ancestors built, because they feel a connection to the community. It was—and to some extent still is—a place where neighbors looked out for one another and helped each other. For example, store owners would lend credit to customers on tight budgets. Michael Christopher says his father did that when he owned a service station at West Jefferson and Green.

“When times got a little difficult, they couldn’t pay, ‘Mr. Christopher, we have a little receipt.’ We’d write their name down, and they tell us the day they’re going to pay.”

Christopher says most stores practiced the same principle because it was good for the community. Longtime residents say there was a time when people didn’t have to leave Delray to shop because they could find whatever they needed in one of the neighborhood businesses. That’s not the case today for residents like Selena Carreon. She shops downriver to buy groceries for her seven children, partly because she doesn’t want to pay the steep prices nearby convenience stores charge their customers.

“And they charge you double there. Sometimes triple. I mean they can go in there for a gallon of milk and might be charged, you know--I don’t know, six bucks. Whereas if, you know, I go to Meijer’s and I’m charged maybe a dollar-99. I might be able to get two gallons for five bucks.”

The lack of an affordable neighborhood grocery store and other businesses reflects the deep poverty in Delray. But there is a glimmer of hope. Because this is where a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor could be built, anchored on the U-S side by a new customs plaza linking the bridge to I-75. The hope is that new businesses will spring up around the plaza, providing jobs and commerce that Delray hasn’t seen in decades. But until that happens—if it happens—life goes on in the community because, for many, there’s little else. Scott Brines says Delray does have good neighbors who mow their lawns and take care of their own property as well as the land around them.

“They do that every day. They get out there and they…they maintain lots that are city-owned, over and over. Three, four, five, six, 17 lots some people mow. They keep up the garbage, they pick up the garbage, you know. People do what they can to make a sense of community.”

Brines says he hopes that pride—and the development a new bridge might bring-change the way outsiders treat Delray. Amid the blighted buildings, there are vacant lots strewn with trash and piles of old tires. It’s an image far from what lifelong resident Michael Christopher remembers growing up in this community.

“I have pictures once where this was a beautiful place. It used to be Paradise Island out here back in the 50s.”

In many ways Delray is still an island…cut off from the rest of Detroit. A new bridge to Canada could reconnect the community economically, at least. And if the project goes forward…the residents I met say they hope it’ll be a boon…and not another burden on a neighborhood striving to maintain its sense of community.

WDET’s news team took to the streets to talk to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change. Learn more about The Detroit Agenda here.