I would love to take a house tour in Palmer Woods. Check out the slideshow with this story: “Touring Detroit’s Architectural Splendor.”
When I first visited, in the fall of 2009, I was awestruck. I had seen well-heeled black neighborhoods before—the prosperous suburbs ringing Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Chatham in Chicago, Baldwin Hills in L.A. But the gates of Palmer Woods are a wormhole out of the angry city and into an opulent idyll. Sleepy curvilinear streets with names like “Strathcona Drive” and “Argyle Crescent” snake through the 188-acre hamlet and its sprawling, irregular lots. Across Seven Mile Road sits the venerable, members-only Detroit Golf Club, which remained all-white until 1986.
Even as Detroit groaned under the weight of crime, failing schools, and high taxes, Palmer Woods held steady. But the country’s financial straits, particularly the collapse of the real-estate bubble and the struggles of the Big Three automakers, were a direct assault on the region’s twin pillars: houses and cars. The neighborhood association considers approximately 15 out of its 292 homes to be in jeopardy. Problems that were once rare—crime, for instance—are cropping up, as Palmer Woods at last succumbs to the gravity of the city. As a result, those who were once excluded from the neighborhood’s vision of the American dream are now in the position of defending it.
Its homes were built after the fashion of European aristocrats—châteaus with large libraries and secret passages; cottages of ashlar masonry, brick, and stucco; servants’ quarters with separate stairwells. (Note: This is just the kind of house I would love to own one day.) The lords of Palmer Woods vacationed in Europe, golfed at the Detroit Golf Club, and, excepting the live-in help, excluded blacks: “Said lots shall not be sold or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race,” read the Palmer Woods housing covenant, “but this shall not be interpreted to exclude occupancy by persons other than of the Caucasian race when such occupancy is incidental to their employment on the premises.”
When restrictive covenants were ruled unconstitutional in 1948, black families began moving in, infusing the customs of black America’s ancien régime into the ethos of old Detroit money. They pledged their children to Jack and Jill of America, joined the neighborhood association, and held potlucks and barbecues to raise money for local charities and black artists. Many had or went on to illustrious careers: Lamont Dozier was part of the popular Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland. Keith Ellison became the first Muslim congressman.
One afternoon, I visited Lorna Thomas in her English Tudor, a short walk from Seven Mile Road. Thomas’s great-great-great-uncle was the first African American in the Michigan state legislature. She proudly showed me the April 2, 1959, issue of Jet, with her on the cover clutching a test tube. “Lorna Lacen,” the caption read, using her maiden name, “Detroiter, 16, has A’s in prep subjects, takes special college courses.”
Now a dermatologist, Thomas went to Wellesley with Cokie Roberts and Nora Ephron. We sat at her kitchen bar for a spread of cranberry juice, coffee, and tea cakes. Then we took a 45-minute tour of her home. Her guest bathroom had a waterfall literally tumbling over the mirror, and an original Richard Yarde watercolor of Paul Robeson as Emperor Jones. “I did an interview for Crain’sDetroit Business about five years ago,” she told me. “The reporter came in and I said, ‘I want you to print something and I want you to print it just the way I say it: I live here because I chose to be in Detroit. I am not stuck. I could be anywhere I want.’”
Upper-middle-class survivalists such as Thomas consider residency in Palmer Woods a political act. As Elliott Hall, another resident I spoke with, put it, “Every advantage I received in my life came out of the city of Detroit.” Hall’s family had originally come up from Alabama and Arkansas to live in Black Bottom, the childhood home of Joe Louis and storied epicenter of black Detroit, lost to urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s. His family migrated westward with the years, following the retreat of white Detroiters. Now Hall stays with his son on Palmer Woods’ Lucerne Drive. “I got my grade-school and law-school education in Detroit. I sat on every nonprofit board in the city. And there are a number of other folks who feel the same way. And they’re willing to deal with crime and everything that goes along with it. It’s not like we’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough, we’re out of here.’ … We always have to believe things are going to turn around in a city that we love so much.”