New Latino Wave Helps Revitalize Detroit

Corey Williams, AP, February 28, 2008

The broad-brimmed western hats, colorful festival dance dresses and Mayan-style pottery that line the shelves at Xochi’s Mexican Imports are common sights at stores in the Southwest.

But it’s southwest Detroit on a cold, dreary winter day, not sunny El Paso, San Diego, Tucson or other cities just north of the Mexican border.

From its Mexican Town restaurant district to the new shops of the La Plaza Mercado retail development, southwest Detroit is doing something it hasn’t done in years—grow and prosper.

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Latinos are carving out a niche in neighborhoods far from the southern border more and more—from Bagley Street here to the Mitchell Street area in Milwaukee to Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax County, Va.

A new wave of Latino immigrants is following others who established communities in northern cities in the 1950s after getting jobs in the auto and other manufacturing industries. The attraction now is employment in restaurants, shops and other service-oriented businesses that cater primarily to residents in those communities but also draw non-Latinos.

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“It wasn’t a neighborhood where you could walk down the street,” Southwest Detroit Business Association deputy director Edith J. Castillo said. “Now, you can actually walk down West Vernor. You can take your family out for ice cream after church.”

Castillo’s nonprofit is one of several working with city officials and businesses to resurrect the area.

More than $200 million has been invested in southwest Detroit in the past 15 years, which has attracted retail and new homes, including an $11 million condo development.

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The neighborhood is doing so well the mayor didn’t include it in his plan to pump millions of dollars into distressed areas.

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About half the residents claim a Hispanic heritage, 25 percent are black, 20 percent are white and 5 percent are Arab-American, according to the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

In contrast, more than 80 percent of Detroit’s 920,000 residents are black.

And while the city’s overall population has plummeted in recent decades because of white flight and more recently the exodus of the black middle class, the southwest side’s population has grown considerably, up 6.9 percent to more than 96,000 people from 1990 to 2000.

The city’s Latino population grew by nearly 19,000 over that period to more than 47,000.

Without the manufacturing jobs that attracted many to places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, Latinos have found opportunities in their own backyards, Figueroa said.

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Mexican restaurants and bars along Mitchell Street and in other parts of Milwaukee attract non-Latinos, but it’s Latinos that keep the bakeries and grocery stores open, Figueroa said.

“There is enough money in the economy that people can sustain retail establishments by primarily relying on Latino clientele,” he said.

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“I feel like I’m at home,” [32-year-old dance instructor Valeria Montes] said. “I go to get a haircut, I speak Spanish. I go to mercado (market), I speak Spanish. My daughter goes to school and there are a lot of Latino kids. It’s a great feeling.”

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