Friday, December 28, 2012

The Changing Demographics of Warrendale

Photo by Peter Mazurek
I received an email from a student at Kansas State University who was during a research paper on the Polish-American community in the Detroit area. Her research was primarily focused on Hamtramck where she found strong evidence that deindustrialization and race relations in 1960s - 1980s caused a considerable number of Polish immigrants, as well as 2nd and 3rd generation Polish-Americans to leave the inner city for the suburbs.

She wanted to know if there were similar parallels in the Warrendale neighborhood, which also had a strong Polish-American presence for most of its history. She wasn't able to find very much information about Warrendale so she reached out to me.

I wrote her a lengthy email in response with links to a few other resources. When I was finished with it, I thought it would make for an interesting blog post. Therefore, I have decided to publish my entire email below. I welcome your reaction, either in the comments section or in a private email.

Dear Researcher,

I'm not surprised that you had trouble finding data on the Warrendale neighborhood. There's very little out there. Even the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, which is a huge historical resource, only has 1 article about Warrendale and that is an article from the Detroit Free Press that discusses how little information is out there are about Warrendale.

As for your questions, Warrendale remained largely Polish and Italian up until the 1990s. (You can pull the exact number from the 1990 census. I can send you the census track numbers, if you need/want them.)

During the 1990s, a series of things happened that began to change the neighborhood. These collectively caused the slow trickle of people out of Warrendale to accelerate.

In 1992, the Detroit Board of Education re-opened a vacant public school in Warrendale as the Malcolm X Academy, which brought a few hundred African-American students into a completely renovated school surrounded by Polish and Italian families. There was a considerable amount of controversy as a result of this move. Some of it, unquestionably, was racism. There was also a general frustration with the fact that regular public schools, which Warrendale residents attended, were being underfunded in order to give a considerable amount of resources to the Malcolm X Academy.

Regardless, more than a few people in Warrendale became increasingly concerned that their neighborhood was changing. The neighborhood remained largely Polish. However, I believe that concerns that everyone had from that happened essentially set the stage for wide-scale migration of Poles out of Warrendale.

Next, in 1996, the Michigan Legislature enacted charter schools or, as they were called then, "schools of choice." To understand the implications of that, I should take a step back.

Warrendale was home to 3 parochial schools (Ss. Peter & Paul, St. Christopher, and St. Thomas Aquinas). All 3 schools serviced a predominately Polish-American population; consisting of 2nd and 3rd generation Americans. Each of those schools saw declining enrollments by the 1990s, largely because of declining birth rates as families that once had 4 or 5 children now only had 2 or 3.

Since those 3 schools were under considerable financial strain due to declining enrollment, the Archdiocese of Detroit eventually made the decision to close each of them. The school buildings were then leased to the private companies who operated these charter schools.

Schools have always been an instrument of holding a community together. With the schools closed, the sense of community that held Warrendale together began to further deteriorate. Less of a sense of community, quite frankly, gave people less of a reason to stay when they encountered any of the problems that Detroit is famous for (deindustrialization, crime, racial issues, etc.).

As all of this was going on, Warrendale also saw the emergence of other immigration patterns. We saw a lot of spillover immigration of Latinos for Southwest Detroit as well as Arabs from Dearborn. (Both areas are very close by.) This kept housing prices strong, ensured that there was always someone to buy a house when Poles decided to move, and simply made it easier for them to leave the area.

Finally, in 1999, the Michigan Legislature changed the law in such a way that cities and school district could no longer require people to live in a given city as a condition of employment. Warrendale was home to a considerable number of people in Warrendale worked for either the City of Detroit or the Detroit Public Schools in one capacity or another. There were lots of police officers and fire fighters who lived here as well as other civil servant positions. Once the legislature did away with the residency requirement, many of them left just because they could.

Throughout all of this, there are all of the issues that Detroit itself was dealing with, which you already identified. High taxes. Crime. Declining auto industry. The list just keeps going.

The final blow, however, didn't land until 2006-07 when the mortgage crisis erupted. Warrendale took it hard and was actually the epicenter of the mortgage crisis in the Detroit area. (I have a map somewhere that another researcher prepared of how the mortgage crisis hit Warrendale. Let me know if you want to see it.)

The Warrendale Community Organization, of which I used to be president, did regular surveys of the housing stock in the neighborhood west of the Southfield Freeway. (There's another organization that covers the other side of the freeway.) In the spring of 2006, 28 of the 9,081 houses were vacant. Most of those vacancies were houses where the original owner from the 1950s died and their heirs were in the process of selling the home. By the following spring, however, the number of vacant homes had jumped to 854.

All of these things combined to create an area with very few Polish-Americans left.

By the way, since you mentioned racial issues in the original questions, I should mention that one of the things that led to Detroit's 1967 race riot happened in Rouge Park, which is adjacent to Warrendale.

You'll find links to all of these things below. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Take care,

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