Neighborhood Rebranding, Cass Corridor to Midtown: The Detroit Agenda

June 11, 2014

By J. Carlisle Larsen

“Well this is the area the Detroit Free Press always referred to as the ‘Notorious Cass Corridor’…”

--George McMahon

Midtown Detroit has been held up in several media outlets as the city’s best example of revitalization. USA Today recently listed Midtown as one of the “10 Up-and-Coming Neighborhoods” in the country, referring to it as the “heart of the city”. The publication credits the upcoming M-1 light rail line along Woodward…and the growing number of small businesses. Development is booming as well…with several buildings being renovated for apartments over the next couple of years. But the neighborhood has had a long history--particularly in the area previously known as the Cass Corridor--which for decades had a reputation for crime and blight.

“Well this is the area the Detroit Free Press always referred to as the ‘Notorious Cass Corridor’," says resident George McMahon. He’s been a resident of the Cass Corridor —now Midtown—since the early 1960s. Throughout his time here… he’s been involved in social justice initiatives through Saint Patrick’s Church. McMahon says he’s seen the ebb and flow of the population of the neighborhood. He still lives here with his wife. Sitting on the back deck of the house he’s owned for decades. McMahon says his neighborhood feels emptier now, but that wasn’t the case when he first arrived.

“It was wall-to-wall people. Lots of kids, lots of people in the street all the time, lots of activity: it was an exciting place to be, a neat place to be. I liked the Cass Corridor…all the color and all the people, all the activity. It was an interesting, interesting and vibrant place to live," He says.

McMahon says over the past 40 years, he has seen his neighbors leave the area. The neighborhood has long had a reputation for prostitution and drug abuse. Local organizations decided a change needed to be made.

“I was at the meeting of Second Avenue Business Association’s when they talked about this. And they said we need to change the image of the Cass Corridor, because people are not going to come and want to live in the Cass Corridor. So it was a concerted effort to leave-—to erase the image of the Cass Corridor—-by naming it Midtown," he says.

At the Bronx bar at Prentis and Second…barmaid Sharlene Dexter doesn’t mince words when she discusses the renaming of the neighborhood.

“Midtown will always be the Cass Corridor, honey. In peoples’ eyes Midtown will always be the Cass Corridor," she says. Dexter has been in the area since the late 1970s. She says when she first arrived, she didn’t mind walking the streets late at night. But she admits that she changed her mind when prostitution and drug use got worse. She says she feels an affinity for the neighborhood and wants it to get better.

“It’s coming back, but it’ll never come back in my lifetime," she says.

At the bar, another Midtown resident is beginning to eat lunch. His name is T.J. Smith and he works for a nearby property rental company. Smith is a transplant from Grand Rapids and has been living in the area for about 12 years.

“I love it. I’m a huge Tigers fan, we’re two miles from Comerica Park. Every major event downtown, all the concerts, all the—it’s, it’s fun, it’s a good place to live because it’s safe. It’s safer than downtown, it’s safer than anywhere—the response time from the police department is twenty seconds or less. It’s phenomenal,” he says.

Smith is young, enthusiastic, and says he feels connected with Midtown. He says the company he works for has done what it can to improve the neighborhood by maintaining empty lots…and keeping an eye on the surrounding buildings. He’s also engaged to get married and hopes to eventually start a family. But he says while he loves Midtown, his time in the neighborhood is finite.

Smith says, “We will be staying here for another five to seven years, unfortunately the family thing, the school districts here are still not up to par to raise a family. It is what it is. If you’re raising a family, you’re putting your child’s interest first and that’s going to be education.”

Smith’s stance isn’t uncommon and some movement has been made to help accommodate families with children. But Sue Mosey—President of the development company Midtown Detroit Inc.—says while retaining families would be nice, the neighborhood isn’t geared towards children.

“Cities have a life cycle. Most cities don’t retain folks when they have kids. Like—almost no major city. New York may be uh an example of one that does a better job. Cities across American aren’t rebuilding based on family units, that’s just not practical. That’s just not going to happen,” says Mosey.

But she says with the neighborhood growing and the need to help create a stronger community… her organization is responding by establishing public spaces for people to meet.

“You know, we funded a ton of outdoor patio spaces, we’re redoing a lot of parks in the neighborhood—uh—we’re doing all of these green alleys, we’re now doing two dog parks, we’re doing lots of places that we hope that people will be able to interact more. Because living in—you know—mostly large scale apartment buildings can be isolating for people.”

Avis Vidal is a professor of Urban Planning at Wayne State University. She agrees that high rates of apartment dwellers in an area can curtail community engagement. She says that’s especially true in the Midtown neighborhood where there are also large numbers of university students.

“Among people other than folks who have been around for some time. Students often don’t—particularly undergraduate students—don’t intend to stay a long time and they know it. Even if they stay in Midtown, they may move quite frequently and they don’t have the same sense of place attachment. And they don’t have that much in common with a lot of the other people either. Being a student…it’s its own lifestyle,” says Vidal.

She says the frequent turnover, with new people likely outnumbering former Cass Corridor residents…can have an effect on developing a stronger sense of community. But resident George McMahon says that same development can be used for the benefit of the community with some intentional planning.

“What you can do is channel the development and I think we need to do some social engineering based on that, based on the concept of diversity in society. And make for a really vibrant city and a just city. It can’t be done without that goal of diversity,” says McMahon.

The conversation surrounding the balance between fostering the existing community, while meeting the demand for housing for newcomers isn’t likely to end soon. But as Detroit exits bankruptcy and interest in the city grows nationally, both sides will need to work together to guarantee the neighborhood’s health and success.

--J. Carlisle Larsen, WDET News.

Photo Credit | J. Carlisle Larsen

Sue Mosey Photo Credit | Nathan Skid, Crain's Detroit

Avis Vidal Photo Credit | Living Cities

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.