In many ways Grosse Pointe is emblematic of the racial divide that cleaves Detroit. Long an icon of wealth and privilege, it’s once unrivaled and unquestioned position at the center of upper class Detroit society, has slowly drained away to the point that it is a mere island of affluence, albeit a lovely one of beautiful homes and excellent schools. the Grosse Pointes are hemmed in by Detroit neighborhoods to the west that are either ghastly or in decline and the downscale suburb of Harper Woods. Room to grow with new construction was used up in the area by 1960 with the build-out of Grosse Pointe Woods, the most modest of the Grosse Pointes. To the North lies the suburb of St. Clair Shores, a large lower-middle class suburb. As all of the the Grosse Pointes are fully developed, the future will be one of teardowns and redevelopment.
A large majority of Detroit’s upper and upper-middle class has long since decamped for Oakland County centered on the four suburbs of Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield Township, and Bloomfield Hills. the Southern third of Bloomfield Hills is the wealthiest Block Group in the entire Detroit metro area with a mean household income of $386,591.
Grosse Pointe is actually made up of five separately incorporated suburbs that together are 12 square miles and technically made up of 4 cities and one village. Each of the cities has a slightly different personality and although they all have separate small shopping areas (except Grosse Pointe Shores), “The Village” in Grosse Pointe acts as the downtown for all five of the burghs. (Wikipedia) Together they had 47,752 residents in the 2000 Census. Their collective population had declined to 44,995 as estimated by the Census Bureau in 2006. Population decline in fully developed older suburbs adjacent to the central city is often found in similar places across the United States.
The Grosse Pointes population decline is exacerbated by the city of Detroit’s ongoing demographic and socio-economic collapse. The city’s population was once a mighty 1,850,000 in 1950, however by the 2000 Census the population had plunged to 951,000. The population has continued to plummet since the last Census. In 2006, the Census estimated the city’s population at approximately 834,000.The city is still hemorrhaging people at the rate of as many as 20,000 people a year. The number of abandoned housing units in the city has climbed from 38,668 to 85,951 in six years (2000-2006). This is a statistic that is mind boggling for its social and economic ramifications.
The mass exodus of middle class Non-Hispanic Whites has been followed by a similar, albeit smaller exodus of middle class Black households. There were a mere 357 (out of 37,798 in the Metro area) Non-Hispanic White households in the city of Detroit reporting an income of over $200,000 in the 2000 Census. This compared to 2,565 Black households in the central city with an income over $200,000. There were a total of 4,176 African-American households in that income bracket for the entire metro area, therefore the central city has retained 61% of the wealthiest Black households in the Metro area (Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area). There are very few Non-Hispanic Whites left to flee the city. In a short 6 year period (2000-2006), the Census estimates that the Non-Hispanic White population (of all classes) declined from 99,921 to 68,883. Non-Hispanic Whites were estimated to make up only 8.3% of Detroit’s entire population.
As non-Hispanic White families have fled the city proper, they have left some of Detroit’s most lovely historic neighborhoods to be rescued from creeping blight by Detroit’s wealthy professional nouveaux riche Black households. Nestled around the elegant Detroit Golf Club on the North Side of the city are Palmer Woods (mean household income: $133,894), Sherwood Forest ($107,559) and 125 houses around the perimeter of the Detroit Golf Club ($156,928). These three neighborhoods of beautiful houses were 78.7% African-American in 2000. However, it is important to remember that the three areas are relatively small (568 households) and combined have only 116 of Detroit’s African-American households earning over $200,000.
For the truly adventurous there is Indian Village located among the ruins of East Detroit. Indian Village is a 6 by 3 block architectural gem of a neighborhood that was originally served by streetcars. The eclectic mixture of large mansions and houses of lesser ambition are on city-sized lots in a wide array architectural styles. The prices for these Grande Dames of Gilded Age gentility would make a San Franciscan cry as unfortunately, this lovely compact neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by some very mean streets. This problem is somewhat mitigated by a pro-active Indian Village Homeowners Association that has hired its own security. The mean household income for Indian Village in 2000 was $99,381. The neighborhood of approximately 350 homes is 64.4% African-American.
The five neighborhoods of Grosse Pointe that are in the Higley 1000 makeup only 13% of the households in Detroit’s 25 neighborhoods that are on the list. Eighty-six percent of the Higley 1000 households are located in Oakland County. The only place on the list that is in the Detroit Metro area that is neither in the Birmingham-Bloomfield sector nor Grosse Pointe is the tiny village of Barton Hills (population: 335) that is located just north of Ann Arbor.
The Mean Household Income in the 2000 Census for the Grosse Pointes together was $118,541. Like any large suburban area there are pockets of great wealth nestled next to comfortable upper-middle class neighborhoods. Many spectacular mansions that were remnants of Detroit’s halcyon day of past have been torn down, but there are still thousands of older beautiful homes across all five villages. One can also find many a lower-middle class neighborhood throughout the five villages.
The Greater Grosse Pointe area has historically remained highly segregated with 95.6% of the households in the 2000 Census in the Non-Hispanic White racial category. Only 1% of the households were African-American. That is in stark contrast to the city of Detroit (83% Black) that geographically adjoins the Pointes to the west. The drive from Detroit into Grosse Pointe Park along Kercheval Avenue is a stark experience of passing from Black inner-city impoverishment to comfortable White upper-middle class life. After a few blocks of transition, Nottingham Drive announces a different world of suburban affluence. My only personal experience that rivaled this jarring socio-economic juxtaposition (and in an even more stark way) was driving from Newark into South Orange, New Jersey.
Map of Grosse Pointe Higley 1000 Neighborhoods
View Larger Map of Higley 1000 Neighborhoods in Grosse Pointe
There are Higley 1000 neighborhoods in four of the the five Grosse Pointes. Grosse Pointe Woods is the only Grosse Pointe without a representative neighborhood on the list. The five Higley 1000 neighborhoods are as segregated as the lesser parts of Grosse Pointe. Together the five Higley 1000 neighborhoods in the Grosse Pointe area were 95.2% Non-Hispanic White and a mere .7% African-American. When one factors servant households into the equation (see the Methodology section), there are very few Black households in any of Grosse Pointe’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
This pattern of racial segregation is nothing new in the industrial Midwest. It is a continuation of the racial geographical pattern found throughout this part of the United States. Segregation is equally entrenched in Chicago and Milwaukee as in Detroit. It has been characteristic of the Detroit metro area since the great African-American Northern migration began in the Twenties. The Detroit metro area has regularly topped Massey’s Index of Dissimilarity, a statistical way to measure Black/White segregation. In short, Detroit has always been highly segregated.
In the spring of 1960, a civil court suit unexpectedly shed light on how the real estate market operated in Grosse Pointe. The trial revealed that there was a screening system in effect in the Grosse Pointes that required real estate brokers to submit the name of a potential property purchase to the Grosse Pointe Property Owners Association. The Association then engaged a private detective to fill out an investigative questionnaire. As was written in the pamphlet Rights, a publication of the Anti-defamation League of B’nai B’rith ( N. Braverman, 1960), “The filled out questionnaire was then turned over by the Association to a committee of brokers which totaled up the scored points and sent it back to the Association. They made the final evaluation as to whether or not the prospective buyer had made a passing grade.” Out of a maximum of 100 points, a passing grade was based on a sliding scale for different nationalities; “Poles would pass with 55 points, Southern Europeans with 75, Jews with 85.” Negroes and “Orientals” were not even eligible; their disqualification was automatic.” The point system considered such details as whether the prospective buyer was “American” or “Americanized,” if his occupation was typical of his own race, or if either the Mr. or Mrs. was “swarthy” in appearance or spoke with an accent. The private detective was also asked to find out about the prospective buyer’s reputation and how the outside and inside of his previous home was maintained.” (How this was determined without being a peeping tom was not in the court record!). “There was a question as to whether the buyer dressed “neat” or “slovenly;” and “conservative” or “flashy.” The trial even revealed that a new form had been introduced, the “blue form,” because too many Jews were passing the existing point system. The real estate brokers were constantly tinkering with the system to keep “undesirables” out of the Grosse Pointes. The trial also revealed that the system had been adopted in 1945 and that the Grosse Pointe Homeowners Association, in league with local realtors , had been blatantly discriminating for fifteen years. (from my book, Privilege, Power, and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class, p. 42). Today, almost 50 years later, there may be no systematic approach to Antisemitism and racism but Grosse Pointe remains a bastion of segregation that would put Selma to shame.
The five Higley 1000 neighborhoods found in the Grosse Pointe area clearly show the difficulty in defining pockets of wealth amidst a Block Group map that doesn’t always correspond to where the wealthiest residents of Grosse Pointe live. The huge mansions that line the grounds of the Country Club of Detroit are subsumed by a Block Group that would not make the Higley 1000. I therefore have made the houses around the Country Club a Higley Designated Place and estimated the mean household income ($271,500). Fortunately, as the Census breaks down racial statistics block by block, the racial makeup of this Higley Designated Place is accurate. The “neighborhoods” that make up the Higley 1000 places in the Grosse Pointe area, are actually a collection of the wealthiest Block Groups in each community. Along with the Country Club of Detroit, there are three Block Groups along the waterfront of Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Farms which I have dubbed “Grosse Pointe Farms Lake Front” (mean household income: $218,375). There is also one Block Group on the lake front of Grosse Pointe ($239,297), and Grosse Pointe Shores ($226,846). There are two adjacent Block Groups in Grosse Pointe Park that made the list as a single neighborhood ($189,221).
In summary, Grosse Pointe remains a sharply defined bastion of White upper and middle class affluence surrounded by the urban degradation of the city of Detroit. Currently the future of Detroit metro region is unsettled. The continuous decline of the American automobile industry does not bode well for many parts of Michigan, including the Detroit area. As this article is written, Chrysler has announced yet another round of layoffs, Ford is in deep trouble, and GM is being challenged by Toyota for supremacy in worldwide auto sales. Michigan’s high unemployment rate and depressed economy is a big problem for some of the wealthy, many of the middle class, and most of the working class. For better or worse, the Grosse Pointes’ futures are more closely tied to the City of Detroit than the far flung burbs in Oakland County and Livingston County. It is sad to see a great city brought to its knees by racism, market forces, and governments at all levels that consider the impoverished Black population of Detroit expendable.