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Downriver: Close to Detroit, Far from “Taylortucky”

August 16th, 2012

Over the past year and a half that WDET has been holding community conversations, as part of our “Crossing the Lines” coverage, the turnout has ranged from a few dozen to a handful.

A few minutes after setting up my table at the Grind coffeehouse in Wyandotte two community members arrived. They would stay for most of the time and share in an informative, rich and deep conversation on what downriver has been, is today and could be tomorrow.

“Have you heard any good jokes lately?”

Rodger and Theresa didn’t know each other before they arrived at roughly the same time and sat down to talk. Their age difference is probably 20 years – he in his mid-40s, her in her mid-20s. While both are college educated – he works for an auto company and is a Masters student, she is volunteering and a recent graduate – the real tie for them was being born, raised and currently living downriver. When asked about the image of his community, Rodger said the jokes, at times, are legendary. He told of friend that used to say "Every time I flush I think of you." Theresa said she often hears outsiders use the word “Taylortucky” to describe one of downriver’s biggest communities. The reason for that portmanteau is because of the area’s traditional blue collar residents, many of whom came from the South, possibly Kentucky, to find work in the auto industry and a better life, decades ago. Something that the pair agreed on is the “Pure Michigan” advertising parody is funny, even if it hurts a little.

Rodger added “This is not New York. This is a working class city. How can you run down someone from another part of the area?” At the same time, he said people who live in the downriver communities often don’t admit it, but their futures are tied to a thriving, vibrant City of Detroit. While some outsiders joke about the communities that make up downriver, Rodger said many people, especially the older generation, appear to use the negative to hiding behind and keep new people out of their community – especially in his community of Grosse Isle.

Is “South Detroit” off the radar?

For years, some people who grew up locally and survived the era of arena rock, vinyl records and MTV playing music videos often wondered if the reference to “South Detroit” in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was pointing to downriver. A few years ago that rumor was squashed but still the area south of the big city has always been a place where things happen.

Rob Tyner, the singer of the legendary and influential band the MC5, was born and raised in Lincoln Park. Lee Majors, actor known for his role on the 1970s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man”, was born in Wyandotte. Steve Avery, a well-regarded Major League Baseball pitcher in the 1990s, was born and raised in Trenton. Many more from entertainment, sports and business have lived downriver including TV’s "Lucy" Lucille Ball, former Detroit Tiger Tom Tresh and auto executive Ransom Olds.

From my review, it often seems that when we speak of Metro area we have a tendency to look north of 8 Mile Road but rarely south of Detroit. Rodger said this often makes some in the southern part of Wayne County feel, like the talk in Grosse Pointe Shores of joining Macomb County, that maybe those communities should consider joining Monroe County since some feel a closer kinship to the hometown of George Custer and Laz-E-Boy Furniture than the city that put the world on wheels.

Downriver has been known for its industry for over a century. Big names like Firestone, Wyandotte Chemical, McLouth Steel, BASF and others supplied the “Big Three” during the glory days. But when fortunes turn for the auto industry, chiefly in the 1970s and 1980s, those companies, and the communities around them, started to slip. New ideas were added to the mix to make downriver a viable, attractive community for those who didn’t leave for warmer places in the “sun belt”.

Today, downtown Wyandotte’s architecture and local shops have a “Main Street U.S.A.” kind of feel. It reminds me of a blue collar Royal Oak or downtown Mt. Clemens (see, looking north of 8 Mile, again). Both Rodger and Theresa talked about how it’s great to have a walkable, arty downtown but the question is how to get younger people, in their 20s and 30s, to consider the area, put down roots and build families. Maybe that could happen if there was some sort of “anchor” to draw those people said Rodger.

But what that “anchor” looks like, it’s hard to say. At the bare minimum, Rodger said he feels that if gas prices stay high, and the economy doesn’t see a drastic rebound, then people will look to the “inner ring” suburbs and find places like downriver not only affordable from a housing standpoint but with good services/schools and good transportation connections to all of Metro Detroit.

Right now, Rodger said the aftermath of the housing market crash is bringing in more and more people who never considered the community. They are buying, renting and making their lives in a community that was not affordable to them years ago. Rodger said the new people leads to new interactions and openness in the community.

Trying to find the “anchor”, Rodger said that Oakland County is a great model because he feels the cities along the Woodward Corridor, like Ferndale, Royal Oak and Birmingham, seem to work together for the betterment of the community. He said there are groups working to do the same downriver but the effort doesn’t seem to jell and are not comfortable making hard decisions on “winners” and “losers”. He said he feels the epicenter of new growth would have to be Wyandotte because of its walkable downtown and the proximity to the river. Rodger said bike lanes and connecting the riverwalk from Wyandotte to downtown Detroit should also be considered because they would be a great magnet for young people who enjoy bike culture and the benefits the riverwalk.

To help make that happen, both Theresa and Rodger talked about the need to bring young people to the area for tours, maybe pub crawls through the art galleries & local eateries in order to showcase the local businesses and natural offerings.

“Stay in the Boat!”

Downriver, like much of Southeast Michigan, is known for boating culture. But, Rodger said since the September 11th attacks it’s been hard to enjoy time on the water because of the heavy presence of the Department of Homeland Security’s Board Patrol agents. He said on one afternoon he was stopped twice in about 20 minutes while out fishing with his son by the same patrol boat. Rodger said he feels the local authorities are unwilling to say about thing about the patrols because the Federal government assists with money and equipment to the cities. But, regardless, he said the business of boating is down considerably in the downriver community.

“Don’t put all your eggs in the movie studio basket.”

A few years ago officials in the City of Allen Park decided to put its chips on the line and gamble on what it felt would be a growth industry – Hollywood in Michigan. The city paid up taxpayer dollars to help build a movie studio complex. But that risk hasn’t paid off and, in fact, the investment of taxpayer dollars could be a large part of any takeover of Allen Park’s finances give the recent concerns by the state.

Theresa is a long-time Allen Park resident. While still in her mid-20s, her family has owned a Mexican restaurant in nearby Taylor for almost 60 years. But when she considers her hometown she said she feels it’s a great place for families to raise their kids in a great school system for less than other places. But admits cutting of city services after what she called “the Hollywood rabbit hole” has hurt the community. At the same time, the Allen Park police appear to be quick with pulling over speeders. Rodger said he was once ticketed for a 27 in a 25 mile per hour zone and felt that was a bit excessive. He said as the city has been struggling with financial concerns, it appears police are pulling over and ticketing more people.

“A Comfortable Place”

Before leaving to enjoy the rest of Wednesday, Theresa said, to her, downriver is “a comfortable place.” She said she finds it a community that is close and willing to come to the aid of neighbors. It’s a place that doesn’t put on a show. She talked about how fashion is not the focus instead you can just be yourself.

In the end, downriver sounds like a place I’d like to get to know better and beyond the stereotypes. Thanks Rodger and Theresa for taking the time to educate a Macomb County native. You can bet I’ll be back soon, that banana bread at the Grind was excellent.

You can contact me through the following: rstmary@wdet.org 313-577-5237 Twitter: @RobDET

I look forward to hearing from you soon! Thanks again, downriver! Rob St. Mary

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