Dearborn's eclectic neighborhoods reflect city's diversity

It's no secret that Dearborn is a diverse city.

In addition to Arab-Americans and others with roots in the Middle East, sizable numbers of Latinos, African-Americans, and whites also call the southeast Michigan city home. As for languages, according to U.S Census Bureau data, in addition to English, Arabic and Spanish, you can find residents who speak French, Polish, Italian, Chinese, and even Urdu.

But beyond this multicultural richness, Dearborn also offers another kind of diversity—a rich tapestry of neighborhoods. Nestled in the Southeast Michigan community's city limits, you'll find it all; historic brick homes, affordable flats, senior living communities and even upscale dwellings located next to golf courses.

"We offer a little of everything, but it's a little bit of a surprise to some people," Dearborn's Mayor John O'Reilly tells Metromode. "If they haven't had any engagement with Dearborn, they have no notion of how unique it is."

Maysam Alie-Bazzi agrees, A 40-year-old executive administrator with Dearborn Public Schools, she lives in the west side of the city near the Dearborn Country Club.

"Our previous home was just a mile away," she says. "We loved the neighborhood and wanted to remain close to family and my job. A bonus of remaining in Dearborn is that the housing market continues to increase in value. "

Maysam Alle-Bazzi. Photo by David Lewinski.

East side, west side

Salam Aboulhassan is a divorced Wayne State Sociology grad student who grew up in east Dearborn and recently moved to Ford and Telegraph at the border of west Dearborn and Dearborn Heights. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she grew up in east Dearborn around Warren and Schaefer.

"It's very different from where I live now because it’s in the heart of the ethnic community," she says about where she grew up. "Arabic signs, Arabic words, Arabic culture."

Salam Aboulhassan. Photo by David Lewinski.

More recently, she moved from an east side home near Chase and Warren. The street she lived on, Steadman, served as the dividing line between students who went to Fordson High School and Dearborn High; so depending on which side of the streets you could see different school colors on display.

Aboulhassan says that neighborhood is a blend of working class whites and Arab-Americans, and is currently seeing an influx of immigrants from Iraq. The housing stock tends to have more colonials on the east side, and they tend to have front porches. In her current neighborhood on the border of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, ranches and bungalows dominate the streets, and brick tends to be the building material of choice.

Although she misses the tight-knit community of the east side, she feels where she lives now has a lot to offer too.

"West Dearborn is still really lovely," she tells Metromode.  "I love that I live in a more diverse area. I've made friends with neighbors that are not from the Arab world that has been great. You're able to build bridges."

A colorful history

Mayor O'Reilly is certainly no stranger to his city's streets.  A Dearborn native, he's lived in two of the city's historic neighborhoods.

He grew up in Aviation Subdivision, which gets its name from an old airfield that used to be located there. Split between northeast Dearborn and western Detroit, it's notable for a prevalence of beautifully designed all-brick homes.  O'Reilly recalls how strong the multicultural dynamic was there, even in his youth.

"When we played out in the street, the mothers would come out to call in the kids for the night, and I'd hear all these different languages," he says.

Later on, he made his home in the Henry Ford Homes Historic District, originally built for workers by the famous entrepreneur for his west Dearborn tractor plant. Teams of specialized skilled builders worked in a method similar to his assembly lines to construct the homes.

Mayor O'Reilly also ties the neighborhood's diversity back to Henry Ford. Ford's River Rouge automotive complex, at one time the largest integrated factory in the world, attracted tens of thousands of workers from a variety of backgrounds to the area following its completion in 1928.

Henry Ford Homes Historic District. Photo by David Lewinski.

"There were a lot of tenements in the south end of Dearborn, nearest to the plant," O'Reilly says. "But then as people came and moved they moved west, you have a whole different type of housing mix."

"As white collar jobs became much more prominent," he continues, "all of a sudden the city began to revolve around the needs of those very different interests in terms of housing. So that's why we have such an incredibly diverse housing product."

Planning for neighborhood future

Although Dearborn was hit pretty hard by the foreclosure crisis, it’s rebounded sharply. This year the city has received 50 new home permits and 40 major renovation permits, about ten times what it was getting back in 2008.

The city has strong neighborhood planning in place to guide that development. While it may not have a Department of Neighborhoods like Detroit, Dearborn's city master plan names "great neighborhoods" as a priority and divides up the city into 25 separate neighborhood zones.

"We know that the boundaries are there," says Nick Siroskey, Dearborn's Director of Property Maintenance & Development Services. "And we are aware of each neighborhood's key elements; what they have to offer."

The city works closely with its 25 neighborhood associations to keep tabs on things and keeps an ear open listen to community concerns.

Map: Explore Dearborn's Neighborhoods

A case in point is Crowley Park, a recreation area in northwest Dearborn with a traffic circulation problem that was driving neighborhood residents crazy.

"People would come from Telegraph through the residential area to get to the park during major baseball events," says Mohamed Ayoub, a senior planner with the city of Dearborn. "We reached out to the neighborhood, and residents were able to provide us with feedback and recommendations."

The city ended up creating a new access route to the park to alleviate congestion on a nearby street.

Dearborn is also hard at work preserving what it has. To keep things ship-shape, the City of Dearborn maintains properties through regular inspections tied to sales rentals and other home improvements. It also conducts surveys to help determine which roads and sewers get replaced first.

And city government is doing what it can to expand residential living options within neighborhoods. One of Mayor O’Reilly’s signature policies has been his side lot program. Dearborn experienced a high number of foreclosures as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. 
To help get the situation under control, the city began acquiring vacant properties on the east side, demolishing homes on narrow lots and offering them up to neighboring homeowners. Since many of the homes in this part of town are built close together, this gave residents a chance to improve their properties with garages or other additions.

"We've been doing that now for a number of years and it's been paying off," says O'Reilly. "We're trying to transform those neighborhoods into something that's much more family-friendly, but that's still cost effective and works."

Beyond that, the city is also busy with plans it hopes will help attract Millennials and other younger folks to become residents. Right now, they're working on getting incentives to install housing above retail spots in the downtown areas.

And they're also taking steps to encourage non-motorized travel within neighborhoods. Wayfinding signage and walking tours are in the works for the Warren Avenue business district, and a bicycle route is being looked into that could connect several neighborhoods along Outer Drive with the Hines Drive Trail. These efforts dovetail with Ford Motor Company's plans to transform its R&D center to an open campus, which would open more of west Dearborn to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Mayor O’Reily is hopeful that these initiatives can bring new life to the city while preserving the eclecticism and diversity of its neighborhoods for generations to come.

"Diversity has been an important part of our past, and it continues to be an important part of our future because we are such broad and diverse community," he says. "And because of that, we want to have something for everyone."
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Sands.