by Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Justin Hewitt fell in love with Detroit’s East English Village neighborhood at first sight.
The relationship with the community was unintentional. Actually, he and Stephen Thornhill had planned on relocating from Ferndale to a bigger house in Boston Edison. When they lost their bid, they discovered the well-kept neighborhood in the city’s northeast corner and chose a three-bedroom, cottage-styled Tudor – the first house they viewed.
Hewitt says he enjoys life in the village of about 2,100 homes that is bounded by Harper Avenue on the north, Cadieux Road on the east, Whittier/East Outer Drive on the west and Mack Avenue to the south. He moved to the village nearly two years ago and recently displayed his yard during the neighborhoods’ annual garden tour.
“We like the location. It’s right off the freeway (I-94),” says Hewitt, who develops apps for Apple and Android with Thornhill in their home-based business and is a vice president of the East English Village Homeowner’s Association’s board. “It’s close to Grosse Pointe and to St. Claire Shores. We like the neighborhood, the older house, and our neighborhood has a lot of character. It’s kept up and is one of the best neighborhoods in the city.”
HISTORIC & HIGHLY COVETED
East English Village was first developed in 1913 with distinctive Tudor, Cape Cod, Colonial and bungalow brick houses that feature hand-crafted fireplace mantles, plaster walls, Pewabic tile, hardwood and ceramic tile floors. Most were built between the late 1920s and the 1950s. Although, some houses may look similar from the outside, no two are alike. That’s because the original owners custom-designed the homes they purchased for about $5,000.
The neighborhood boasts a rich history, dating back to 1805 shortly before the territory of Michigan was created and Detroit was the capitol. Between 1808 and 1810, ribbon farms were registered under family names, such as Little, Rivard, Fournier and Tremble. Those farms were subdivided into what is now known as East English Village. By 1925 most of the land had been divided into parcels for houses. People from all over the world, who were attracted by Detroit’s booming auto industry, built here.
They were doctors, nurses, attorneys, firefighters, police officers, other professionals and blue-collar workers just as they are today. The neighborhood is among the city’s most diverse racially, ethnically, and by sexual orientation.
Arguably, no one is more proud and protective of the neighborhood than Bill Barlage, president of the East English Village Association for 15 years. On any given day, he can be found driving around spotting safety and nuisance issues or lawns needing attention.
He’s a man who relishes symmetry and detail. He believes window treatments should look uniform from the exterior, trash containers should always be kept invisible from the street and houses should be maintained.
Barlage knows the tree-lined neighborhood so well he immediately can spot new residents, many of whom he personally has encouraged to relocate to “the village.”
As he encourages street representatives in the neighborhood’s association to do, he welcomes them with bottles of wine or other treats along with a welcome guide that details the neighborhood, its standards and activities.
New residents range from young and not-so-young hipsters from Oakland and Macomb Counties to out-of-state transplants and there are older residents who sometimes scale down to smaller homes but remain in the neighborhood. Buyers choose available Detroit Land Bank houses, bank foreclosures or decide to buy after renting a house in the neighborhood. Lately, the majority of the newest residents are white.
Barlage frequently meets with police and other city departments to improve the neighborhood. That may be why when the city launches a recycling program or creates the Detroit Land Bank, East English Village is the first neighborhood to enjoy it and why when Vice President Joe Biden came to town, he toured the neighborhood and enjoyed a reception at Barlage’s house.
He’s lived in nearby Grosse Pointe Woods, Livonia and Minneapolis, but Barlage says he’s never experienced a neighborhood like this one.
“I know my neighbors,” he says. “More importantly, my neighbors are my friends. It’s a very comfortable place to live, where people genuinely have respect and a caring. I’ve never had that anywhere else up to this level. There’s a sense of ownership and pride that’s different. It’s welcoming and caring.”
ACTIVE & INVOLVED
Barlage purchased his impressive white Colonial in 1996 and quickly took on a leadership role in the association. Its board is comprised of elected officers and street representatives, who meet monthly. There is a monthly village hall meeting that regularly attracts 175 to 200 residents. Block captains also hold monthly meetings.
The meetings showcase the East English Village spirit.
Retired school teacher Gwen Wee, who runs the community’s car and bicycle safety patrols, gets there early to fill water pitchers and arrange the pizza customarily served. She often uncovers bowl of her famous brownies or fresh salads.
Bea Davis heads hospitality, and busies herself with the welcome table, arranging flyers, preparing sign-in sheets and engaging her warm smile. Her husband, Harry, may be moving tables and placing signs on them that welcome residents by street names and whatever else needs to be done.
At the meetings, information is shared about the community’s events, Detroit Land Bank home tours, and new city initiatives. Neighbors are reminded to contribute to the security patrol and snow removal. Sometimes, they discuss tough issues such as loud mopeds, squatters, an infrequent burglary, or the theft of a car. East English Village’s dedicated officers from the Detroit Police Department attend and quickly work to stamp out such issues.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Chief of Staff Alex Wiley, members of Detroit City Council and other city officials frequently attend. State Representative Brian Banks is a regular fixture, and so are other local elected officials. That’s because East English Village has one of the city’s strongest neighborhood associations, serious about stemming nuisance issues such as litter, crime and blight.
Neighbors are involved.
When Latisha Johnson Davis wanted to use a mini grant to develop a fitness park on Cadieux Avenue, she wrote the grant and recruited residents to help with digging and landscaping.
Two years ago, she took the helm of the MECCA Development Corporation, the community development corporation East English Village shares with nearby Morningside and Cornerstone neighborhoods. The organization works to get vacant houses renovated and occupied and to further develop the neighborhoods such as adding a walkable commercial corridor on East Warren Avenue.
“I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy solving problems. That’s what’s gotten me so deeply involved,” says Johnson Davis, who puts as much attention into the perennials near her front door. “You start to see challenges in the community, and a lot of them can be solved by residents. But residents need to know the process. I became the person who really tried to know and understand the process so we can see action and resolve.”
– Photos by Paul Engstrom