From Blue Collar To Rainbow Flags: How Ferndale Got Its Gay Groove

The Ferndale we know today is a picturesque community where diversity is encouraged and celebrated, independently-owned businesses are promoted and supported, the residential areas are clean and safe, and the downtown gets more walkable every day.

"Ferndale is a microcosm of the United States," says Charles Goedert, former mayor of Ferndale and current judge of the 43rd District Court in Hazel Park. "It’s because of the diversity of race, age, sexual orientation, class, everything – right here in Ferndale."

To point out that the city has a large LGBT community goes without saying; we wouldn’t exactly be shedding any new light on the subject by doing so. The real question is, how did Ferndale become the progressive inner-ring suburb that it is today, and why was the LGBT community drawn to this area en masse versus Royal Oak, Oak Park, or any other nearby suburb?

There is a big difference between being inclusive and being tolerant. Cities like Royal Oak and Ann Arbor are gay-friendly; there are gay bars and gay businesses and a strong show of LGBT neighbors within their respective communities. But the difference between Ferndale and other cities is the difference between "us" and "them:" in Ferndale the gay community is simply referred to as the community; it’s not about being gay-friendly or tolerant but being fully inclusive and integrated - to the point that "gay" isn’t even part of the discussion anymore.

According to the latest census information, in Michigan, Ferndale is second only to tiny but tawny neighbor Pleasant Ridge for percentage of households with same-sex couples. In fact, Pleasant Ridge ranks among the top ten nationally.

"There are a lot of things that go into it," says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority. "It’s not about just being gay-friendly and open but being a hub; there’s a difference in terms of how a city embraces [diversity] and what else they do to encourage it. It’s one thing to say you’re gay-friendly and one thing to actually BE gay-friendly."

Sheppard-Decius attributes much of the growth of the LGBT community within Ferndale to the government officials who became proactive 20 years ago in making a positive impact on what was then a crumbling city, as well as the LGBT activists who worked tirelessly at promoting safety and integration. And the DDA continues to foster diversity by ensuring that their board members represent the community’s diverse population.

The past is present

The LGBT community has had a history of following Woodward since World War II (when LGBT communities really began to cluster), a social migration pattern that has been happening for nearly 70 years. Prior to WWII the gay community was centered downtown, then moved up Woodward to settle in New Center and later Palmer Park. In Detroit, when the push for gay rights became part of the national debate, Palmer Park would have been our Castro or Montrose. But there was a series of vicious crimes and murders in the 1980s and people began to flee up to Ferndale.

"In the beginning of the '80s Ferndale was a blank slate," says Oakland County Commissioner and former mayor of Ferndale Craig Covey. "The downtown was empty. You could roll a bowling ball down the middle of 9 Mile and not hit anything." Home values were declining; the storefronts downtown were almost entirely empty except for a few adult bookstores, nail salons, wig shops and a strip club.

"We had to turn that around," Goedert says "Folks could see, 'Hey, this place is going somewhere, they’re working to revitalize themselves,’ and they wanted to be a part of that." Goedert served on the Ferndale city council from 1992-1995, then as mayor from 1996-2001. "I was a lone voice on council the first four years," he says. "I wanted to get some things done to revitalize the city."

One of his first crusades was the take-down of the old Reichhold Chemical plant, which had a terrible impact on the community because of pollution and its hulking decaying structure. Goedert forced Lansing’s hand and Reichhold was directed to clean up the site and contain contamination. A developer came in afterward and built the housing that's now there.

Goedert then advocated for re-developing the downtown into a walkable business district. He restored on-street parking, allowed for sidewalk cafes, forced businesses to use their front, street-facing doors (instead of the parking lot-facing back doors) as the main entrance, instated beautification efforts, then created the Byld Program, which allowed business owners and merchants to access grants and low-interest loans for building improvements from a pool of money designated to help revitalize the downtown.

"There was a lot of resistance to all these changes," Goedert notes. "We took the better approach and it worked … instead of bulldozing it for a strip mall as the old leadership wanted."

The "old leadership" was extremely conservative and extremely entitled. Once liberal Goedert became mayor, he shook up city hall by displacing long-term seat-holders on the Planning Commission and instead brought in qualified professionals willing to volunteer their time.

"A lot of these components together attracted an LGBT community that saw a revitalized neighborhood that cared," Goedert says. "It snowballed from there."

One of the draws to Ferndale was affordable housing. "Royal Oak was growing and starting to gentrify and wasn’t affordable at the time," Covey explains. "In the '80s and '90s there was more affordable housing in Ferndale, classic homes built 80 years ago that were kind of shabby. Gay people historically tend to move into classic neighborhoods that need gentrification - all of these things created a kind of perfect storm."

The city also had easy access to major highways and was the epicenter of metro Detroit. Ferndale became a great place to invest, and as the government worked hard to attract forward-thinking people in order to stimulate the economy and stop the housing downturn, the historically blue collar "old guard" began to see their city flourish. New people and new ideas were welcomed.

New neighbors

As it became evident that there was a steadily growing LGBT population settling in Ferndale a handful of community leaders and activists became politically proactive, forming organizations like the Friends and Neighbors (FANS) of Ferndale, the state’s first gay residence association. The group provided social opportunities for Ferndale’s LGBT community (one of which evolved into the long-running Ferndale Pub Crawl, the largest annual pub crawl event in Michigan, which raises $20,000 annually for charity), supported local charitable efforts, and created a political voice for the LGBT community with a focus on safety.

Community activist Ann Heler spearheaded the latter. She recalls an instance in which a fellow member of the LGBT community recounted walking down his own street and having pejorative terms yelled at him.

"For some reason at that time it sparked us," Heler says. "We thought, 'Wait just a minute here, we put our money and effort into this community just like everybody else did, we at least deserve community respect.’ You should be able to walk down your street and just walk down the street." She called up Police Chief Sullivan and requested a meeting with him to discuss hate crimes in the neighborhood; he agreed immediately,  and the Police Positive subcommittee (targeting hate crimes) was formed, which she chaired.

"Chief Sullivan said, 'ALL citizens deserve the support of the law; ALL citizens deserve the respect of their communities.’ There were no lawsuits, no petitions, just that," she recalls. "We went to city council and they said all support will be available to all citizens and no quarter would be given to anyone who would do anything less than that. It was incredible!" The police took hate crimes and threats very seriously and were absolutely supportive of the LBGT community, and each succeeding police chief continued to propagate those values.

"I look at it as a microcosm of what more places need to do," says Equality of Michigan Executive Director Denise Brogan-Kator, "to hang out their 'Everyone is welcome here’ sign."

In the late '90s, Ferndale passed an anti-discrimination law, sending a clear message to the community: you are welcome here, and you are safe here. "Among the first new businesses to open in downtown Ferndale were A Woman’s Prerogative and Just 4 Us, two LGBT-owned bookstores that catered specifically (and openly) to the LGBT community. Cobalt opened as the first gay bar in Oakland County. Covey ran for city council as an openly gay person in 1995 and came in last; he ran again in 1999 and won.

"One of the reasons I won that election was because the general population began to appreciate us," he says. "We went from an unknown, perhaps frightening, new group moving into town to longtime residents greatly appreciating us because we were bringing their town back."

This was when Ferndalebegan to lead the county for several years in fastest-growing property values. Flash forward to the Fabulous Ferndale of today: festivals, clubs, bars, businesses, restaurants.

How's this for progress? Motor City Pride moves to Ferndale in 2003, then a second pride fest called Ferndale Pride launches in 2011 when Motor City Pride moves back to the Motor City. Every mayor beginning with Goedert officiates an annual gay union commitment ceremony. In 2006 the Human Rights Ordinance passes after two previous failed attempts. Covey runs for mayor in 2007 and wins; he runs again in 2009 without opposition. Following Covey’s resignation (in order to serve on the Oakland County Commission), Mayor Dave Coulter is elected and Ferndale becomes the first city in Michigan to elect two openly gay mayors consecutively.

In 2007, Affirmations moves into downtown, establishing a 17,000 sq. ft.  facility that serves as an "LGBT and their allies" community center, with a particular focus on gay youth. That same year fringe theater troupe Who Wants Cake? opens the Ringwald Theatre and becomes one of the most acclaimed troupes in metro Detroit, praised for their quirky, sometimes touching, decidedly gay (in sensibility if not in content) performances. In 2010 Heler’s latest community activist endeavor, FernCare, opens, a totally free clinic offering general practitioner healthcare to anyone without insurance or medical aid. T

Eventually the gay bars disappeared and just became bars, fully integrated drinking establishments that are neither gay nor straight. Downtown storefronts filled up, young families moved in, everyone agrees that Ferndale is the bestest city in metro Detroit, but hardly anyone knows or remembers why.

This is why. Any other city could have been Ferndale and any other city can still be if the people behind it are willing to put forth that same effort. Ferndale may be a microcosm of America in terms of its diversity, but it is also a template for the rest of America on how to engage that diversity for the greater benefit of the community.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.