Life on the Border: Blurring the lines that separate Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park

This is the second feature in Model D and Metromode's "Life on the Border" series, which explores how political, social, and geographic boundaries throughout the region affect the lives of metro Detroiters. Click here to read the first story.

At the foot of Alter Road in Detroit, Fox Creek juts straight inland from Lake St. Clair at Windmill Pointe. The waterway is crisscrossed by low arched bridges connecting Alter with Ashland Street, creating an effect reminiscent of Venice or Amsterdam.
It's a warm, cloudy June day, and a dozen or so African American fishermen are pulling bass, walleye and perch from the green-blue waters at the confluence of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. This group gathers here at Mariner's Park every summer Saturday, as they've done for as long as they can remember; grandfathers, fathers, and sons with bucketfuls of bait and coolers filled with their catch. Once a month, they hold a fish fry.
Just across the narrow canal, on the north bank of Fox Creek, is a high chain-link fence. It may only be 20 feet across the creek, but it marks the dividing line between two different worlds.
On that shore is the southern end of the city of Grosse Pointe Park, and behind that chain-link fence is Windmill Pointe Park, a residents-only municipal park. No "Keep Out" signs are visible. But the sentiment is clear.
A few blocks up on Korte Avenue just east of Alter Road, the roadway is barricaded. But a tiny tunnel, just visible, cuts through the greenery to allow pedestrians to walk through the border. On the Detroit side of the tunnel, many houses are boarded up and grass grows tall and wild. Loud music booms from a passing truck. On the Grosse Pointe side, all is quiet but for the buzzing sound of lawnmowers maintaining the meticulous landscaping.
The stark transition at the Grosse Pointe-Detroit border can be shocking to those who have never seen it firsthand. Race and class collide here like nowhere else in the region, perhaps the nation.
A New Focus on an Old Divide
The history of the Grosse Pointe-Detroit border is long and fraught, as Bill McGraw eloquently described in Bridge Magazine in 2014. And events in the last year have put even more focus on this border, which stretches from the foot of Alter Road and along Mack Avenue.

In 2014, the City of Grosse Pointe Park illegally constructed a farmers' market shed at the Detroit-GP border, blockading Kercheval, a main east-west thoroughfare, to automobile traffic. Delays in removing the sheds, part of which were located on City of Detroit property, led Detroit Mayor Duggan to publicly accuse members of the Grosse Pointe city council of being "liars." The blockade was finally removed at the end of the year.
And then in December, a group of Grosse Pointe teenagers were shot with a semi-automatic rifle, a few blocks from the border. One girl, 16-year-old Paige Stalker, was killed. Days later, on Christmas Eve, another young person was fatally shot, this time an African American 22-year old woman named Christina Samuel.
All of this at a time when the Pointes are seeing an unprecedented level of racial diversity within the city. Some citizens are trying to open dialogue, while others are installing tighter security.
In the wake of the two homicides last December, a "peace and unity" walk took place in May, sponsored by the families of Stalker and Samuels. Hundreds walked the Mack Ave. border between Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit, and Detroit Mayor Duggan and Police Chief James Craig attended.
Jennifer Stalker is Paige Stalker's mom. She and the Samuel family have started a foundation, Save Our Children's Future of Michigan, to work towards safer neighborhoods. Stalker reached out to Samuel's family in January.
"As a family we knew what they had been going through, and we started getting together every week after that," she recalls. "We all decided together to start the foundation to bring safety and awareness to our neighborhoods and our communities about the effects of crime and what really needs to be done to make our children safe. Paige was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Strong Neighborhoods Endure
Part of creating a safe neighborhood is knowing your neighbors, according to William Barlage, president of the East English Village Association in Detroit. The neighborhood is tucked along the northwest side of Mack Avenue; Grosse Pointe Park is just across the street. Barlage moved to the neighborhood after a short stint in Grosse Pointe Woods, seeking to live in a place where he could really know his neighbors and feel a part of a community.
"I am very proud to say we are the neighborhood that everyone wants to be in," he says. "We are financially, racially, and religiously diverse. We have a little bit everybody here, and so it's a good place to be."

William Barlage, president of East English Village Association.
According to Barlage, the relationship across Mack Avenue is much more friendly and open than along Alter. "The police are constantly on Mack, so it's been an added bonus for us," he says.
He says many kids in the Detroit neighborhood attend St. Clare of Montefalco, a Catholic school on the Grosse Pointe side of the border, and Grosse Pointers regularly cross Mack to shop at the Yorkshire market.
"Our residents walk over there, their residents come over here." says Barlage. "Our houses are very nice on both sides of Mack. We've been able to maintain the neighborhood. We are one of the places along the border on the east side that is extremely stable. If you drive down the streets, you don't even know if you are in Grosse Pointe Park or Detroit."
Breaking with Tradition
Perhaps part of what has kept Grosse Pointe so insular over the years is its strong sense of tradition – and the Grosse Pointe War Memorial has been one of the strongholds of that tradition.
But the War Memorial's new director, Charles Burke, is looking to reinvigorate the historically exclusive, sedate, Pointes-focused community center. He, with the support of the War Memorial's board, hopes to lead the venerable old institution into a new era that embraces the changing face of the community it serves.
Burke came to the 66-year old institution from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. One of his first goals: add diversity to the organization's board of directors, which has never included a member from outside of the Pointes, and never an African American.
"I think diversity is critical to our future as an institution," says Burke. "We strive to have diversity of thought, diversity of gender, diversity of culture, diversity of the least, because in that diversity we’re greater and we’re able to serve more and reflect the community."
Burke is looking to position the War Memorial as a connector between communities; not only between Detroit and Grosse Pointe but across the region.
"This is an institution that is an open, accessible space to observe and participate in the beauty of water. It is the only open, free, accessible space [on Lake St. Clair] in all of Grosse Pointe," he says. "We are on the Jefferson corridor; we are a pivotal point not only for Detroit but also for Macomb."
In addition to diversifying the board of directors, Burke is looking to position the institution as a hub for political and cultural conversations that transcend community borders.
"We have a responsibility to be a tent that welcomes all people from all geographic locations, and we’re building that into our mission," he says. "We desire to be a beacon for the entire region."
Reaching Across Borders
David Lawrence is Paige Stalker's grandfather. He's lived in Grosse Pointe his entire life, and can recall a time, 30 years ago, when the worst crime he'd heard of was a stolen bicycle.
"We didn't have the robberies that we have today, and certainly we never had murders in the community," he says.
But for Lawrence, there is no going back to the old days. He believes the only way to move forward is to connect the communities. He sees a big challenge ahead, especially along the Alter section of the border.
"So many have moved out on the Detroit side," he says. "There's streets where only one or two houses are still viable. And the people that do still live there live there in fear. I've gone and knocked on doors and talked to people. I talked to one woman who said she doesn't get a job because she's afraid to leave her house just to walk to the bus stop to wait on a bus."
Chris Samuel, father of Christina Samuel, and Dave Lawrence, grandfather of Paige Stalker. The men have forged a bond out of grief, and meet regularly here at Harry's Restaurant in Grosse Pointe.

He's optimistic about a joint development agreement between Grosse Pointe Park and the city of Detroit along Alter Road and Kercheval. The plan will extend the revitalizing business district in that area across the border. More plans are in the works to revitalize eastside Detroit neighborhoods.
And he's developed a strong personal cross-border relationship with Chris Samuel, the father of Christina Samuel. The two men meet regularly for breakfast to talk not only about their shared loss, but also about how things need to change.
"For years, we lived in a bubble," says Lawrence. "I was lying in bed last night and thinking about Ronald Reagan when he said 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.' We've really had an invisible wall at our borders. If we're ever going to be safe, we can't do that. We can't have a wall. That means that we need to get involved in each other's communities to make it safe."

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.

All photos by Amy Sacka.

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