Bankrupt. Dangerous. Vacant.
Such adjectives are typical in describing the demise of Detroit, a metropolis that was once one of America’s greatest cities. But in a southwestern neighborhood of Detroit, the future of the Motor City takes on a different description.
Hopeful. Young. Hispanic.
As Detroit makes history as the largest American city to file for bankruptcy, there is a small glimmer of hope for the city: A Latino population that continues to grow and prosper.
Since 2000, Detroit’s population has plummeted by 26 percent and its unemployment rate has tripled. But in southwestern Detroit, nicknamed “Mexicantown,” the Latino population has grown and small business has flourished. Over the last 20 years, Detroit’s Hispanic population has grown by 70 percent, from 28,473 in 1990 to 48,679, according to the 2010 Census. The Hispanic community in Detroit is also young, with a median age of 24.
The Latino community has only grown by a couple thousand in the last decade, but in a city experiencing mass exodus, Latinos have seen their influence grow – from 5 to about 7 percent of the city’s overall population.
Kathleen Wellner, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association who said she has been a “Detroiter” her whole life, said "Mexicantown," is a working-class affordable neighborhood and has attracted immigrants, many from the Mexican the state of Jalisco. Many have sold their ranches in Mexico and have opened up shops in the city.
“The typical businesses that drop out of low-income neighborhoods, banks and insurance companies, we’ve got them all,” Wellner told Fox News Latino, adding that Hispanic immigrants have always been a major part of Michigan’s second largest business, agriculture. “Waves of immigrants was the asset in Detroit and is the asset now.”
"Mexicantown," just five miles from downtown Detroit, has managed to shield itself from the brunt of the city’s financial disarray, experts said. More than $200 million has been invested in southwest Detroit in the past 15 years, according to a report by The Associated Press, which has attracted retail and new homes, including an $11 million condo development. In fact, the neighborhood has been doing so well financially that the mayor didn't include it in his plan to pump millions of dollars into distressed areas.
Yet, the influx of Latinos in Detroit has not been welcomed with open arms – there have been tensions between longtime residents and immigrant newcomers. Federal immigration agents patrol the area constantly, which is somewhat expected given that Detroit is a border city – across the Detroit River from Windsor, Canada.
The area was built up in the 1920s and 1930s through the lines at automobile factories. Three GM factories that closed in the 1980s have been replaced with vibrant Latino food businesses that cater to the mostly Mexican community, though it also draws non-Latinos.
Over 250 small businesses, including Mexican restaurants, taquerias and bilingual storefronts line the streets particularly, particularly the main drag of West Vernor. These food businesses, which make up close to 50 percent of the businesses in the neighborhood, serve as the lifeblood of a community that has not only withstood the recession, but has learned to prosper as other neighborhoods shut down their storefronts and left empty buildings behind.
“Small business is the key to keeping community,” said Jordi Carbonell, a 37-year-old business owner from Spain who immigrated to Detroit in 2004 and opened a coffee shop called Café Con Leche. “
"The neighborhood never lost this feeling of a neighborhood,” he said.
Carbonell says he used to be the only coffee shop in a three-mile radius. But in the last three years, he said, five other coffee shops have opened up. The business owners all know one another and aren’t afraid to help each other.
The Southwest Detroit Business Association was the first in Detroit and Michigan to institute a “Business Improvement District.”
Under the program, all the local commercial property owners agreed to a separate tax that is then allocated to work on cleaning the neighborhood and keeping it safe. As a result, "Mexicantown" has its own clean teams, graffiti-removal crews, lighting and flower pot programs to enhance appearances and to draw in more customers.
"It's one of the few places in the city where you are seeing a lot of private investment," Olga Savic of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the city's public/private development arm, told The Associated Press. "West Vernor Avenue was once primarily vacant. Now, it's 90 percent full."
"Mexicantown" is 50 percent Hispanic, 25 percent black, 25 percent white and about 5 percent Middle Eastern. The community is diverse and the business association credits the immigrant entrepreneurial spirit for the improvements.
"I think that welcoming new populations is the key to growth," said Wellner. "The multiplicity of ethnic groups is an asset not a liability."