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Far from Mexican border, a new wave of Latinos helps revitalize southwest Detroit

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT, Feb. 28, 2008 (AP): The broad-brimmed western hats, colorful festival dance dresses and Mayan-style pottery that line the shelves at Xochi’s Mexican Imports are common sights at stores in the Southwest.

But it’s southwest Detroit on a cold, dreary winter day, not sunny El Paso, San Diego, Tucson or other cities just north of the Mexican border.

From its Mexican Town restaurant district to the new shops of the La Plaza Mercado retail development, southwest Detroit is doing something it hasn’t done in years—grow and prosper.

``We come starving for a better life,'' 32-year-old dance instructor Valeria Montes said. ``We want to strive and we've found in southwest Detroit a place to do it. The opportunity was here for us and we took it.''

Latinos are carving out a niche in neighborhoods far from the southern border more and more—from Bagley and West Vernor Streets here to the Mitchell Street area in Milwaukee to Bailey's Crossroads in Fairfax County, Va.

A new wave of Latino immigrants is following others who established communities in northern cities in the 1950s after getting jobs in the auto and other manufacturing industries. The attraction now is employment in restaurants, shops and other service-oriented businesses that cater primarily to residents in those communities but also draw non-Latinos.

``A number of folks who are coming up—documented or undocumented—are finding jobs,'' said Enrique Figueroa, director of the Roberto Hernández Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The now-vibrant neighborhood wasn't always so.

Its fate had mirrored most other areas of Detroit that began to lose businesses and people following the city's 1967 riot. Boarded-up buildings and an unappealing mix of fast-food stops, dank bars and seedy strip clubs lined the streets.

Gang violence was rampant and the housing stock crumbled.

``It wasn't a neighborhood where you could walk down the street,'' Southwest Detroit Business Association deputy director Edith J. Castillo said. ``Now, you can actually walk down West Vernor. You can take your family out for ice cream after church.''

Castillo's nonprofit is one of several working with city officials and businesses to resurrect the area.

More than $200 million has been invested in southwest Detroit in the past 15 years, which has attracted retail and new homes, including an $11 million condo development.

``It's one of the few places in the city where you are seeing a lot of private investment,'' said Olga Savic, of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the city's public/private development arm. ``West Vernor Avenue was once primarily vacant. Now, it’s 90 percent full.''

The neighborhood is doing so well the mayor didn't include it in his plan to pump millions of dollars into distressed areas.

Quick facts about southwest Detroit


• Population grew by nearly 7 percent to 96,500 residents by 2000 as overall Detroit population dropped by 7.5 percent
• By adding undercounted Latino population, the estimated trade area is believed to be more than 120,000 residents
• 60 percent of area respondents in 2000 Census identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino of Any Race
• U.S. Census sample data show that 44 percent of southwest Detroit's foreign born residents arrived between 1995-2000
• Average household size is 3.22 persons
• More than 35 percent of residents are younger than 19
• 40 percent of residents don't have primary access to a vehicle
• Average household income is $31,217
• Resident purchasing power is more than $1.4 billion
SOURCE: Southwest Detroit Business Association

Blight hasn’t been totally wiped out, but older Latinos and the new immigrants are helping with the transformation.

``These are people who are risk takers ... and understand if they are going to make it, it's up to them to make it successful,'' said Rubén Martínez, director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University. ``Many others, who have been here for several generations, don't have that.''

The Detroit neighborhood is known as ``Mexican Town,'' but it truly is a melting pot.

About half the residents claim a Latino heritage, 25 percent are black, 20 percent are white and 5 percent are Arab-American, according to the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

In contrast, more than 80 percent of Detroit’s 920,000 residents are black.

And while the city's overall population has plummeted in recent decades because of white flight and more recently the exodus of the black middle class, the southwest side's population has grown considerably, up 6.9 percent to more than 96,000 people from 1990 to 2000.

The city's Latino population grew by nearly 19,000 over that period to more than 47,000.

Without the manufacturing jobs that attracted many to places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, Latinos have found opportunities in their own backyards, Figueroa said.

``Once you had a cousin, uncle or aunt there, that was a logical place to come because there were still jobs,'' he said. ``The Detroit economy and Milwaukee economy have not done so well in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But what has occurred in the Latino community is the establishment of new businesses, primarily service-oriented businesses that serve the Latino communities that were established in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Mexican restaurants and bars along Mitchell Street and in other parts of Milwaukee attract non-Latinos, but it's Latinos that keep the bakeries and grocery stores open, Figueroa said.

``There is enough money in the economy that people can sustain retail establishments by primarily relying on Latino clientele,'' he said.

It's that sense of community that led Montes and her husband to move from a downriver suburb of Detroit to the southwest side.

``I feel like I’m at home,'' she said. ``I go to get a haircut, I speak Spanish. I go to mercado, I speak Spanish. My daughter goes to school and there are a lot of Latino kids. It's a great feeling.''

Editor’s Note: A large concentration of Latinos live in an area southwest of the Ambassador Bridge, which carries traffic to and from Canada. The barrio is primarily bounded by Springwells Street, I-75, I-94, and Michigan Avenue. 






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