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Aaron Foley Tells Us About His Childhood Neighborhood, Russell Woods

Foley shares fond memories of the rich architecture and history of his old neighborhood

Russell Woods Michelle & Chris Gerard

The People's Guide is Curbed Detroit's tour o' the neighborhoods, led by our most loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and other luminaries of our choosing. Have a piece to say? We'll be happy to hand over the megaphone. This week, we welcome Detroit author Aaron Foley, as he tells us about his childhood neighborhood, Russell Woods.

Neighborhood: Russell Woods

How long have you/did you live there?: We lived there from 1996-2001. My mom, brother, and I lived in an apartment in Lafayette Park that was OK, but cramped. I remember we searched all over Detroit for a home. My mom was particularly in love with East English Village at the time, but one of her girlfriends told her that her sorority sister’s neighbor had recently died, and the family was going to sell the house. It was in Russell Woods -- an immediate turn-off at first, because before Lafayette Park, we used to live in an apartment complex called Russell Woods Apartments on Webb Avenue near Central High School that was near but not in Russell Woods. When we lived over there on Webb, someone was shot and killed in the apartment next door, prompting our move to Lafayette. But when we found the house and found out where Russell Woods really was, we all fell in love. We didn’t know this neighborhood was hiding right off Dexter.

What do you like best about it? It wasn’t a mansion, but our house had amenities that felt like one. I was a kid at the time and I loved architecture and design and all that stuff. This house had so much more than our apartment: A nice staircase, a library, a wet bar, a temperature-controlled walk-in cedar closet, a sun room on each floor, walk-in showers. My mom even had temperature controls in her walk-in closet, and I had a walk-in even though I didn’t have the master bedroom. But the thing is, so many homes in Russell Woods had the same kinds of things. One of my friends lived in the only house in the neighborhood with an in-ground pool. Up until that point, I only saw pools in Indian Village. All the houses had stained-glass accents, leaded windows, big bay windows, things like that.

Russell Woods Michelle & Chris Gerard

I also loved the history of the neighborhood, so much so that I did a report on it for my 11th-grade global issues class. Like many westside neighborhoods, it was a mostly Jewish neighborhood; there are still some buildings in the area adorned with Stars of David. By the 1960s, it was a hotbed for the middle-class black Detroiter for a long time; Florence Ballard lived there, and so did some Motown session musicians. Thomas Batchelor, a top-ranking black doctor in his day, lived in our house. There used to be an art and music show in Russell Woods Park for years. I found out recently that Golden World Records, which is part of Detroit’s rich soul history, had a studio in a building on the corner of Buena Vista and Dexter. It’s a liquor store now, but hey, that’s Detroit. I also learned from Anna Clark’s literary tour of Detroit that Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside Press -- an important publisher of black writers -- lived in a house on Old Mill Place.

When we lived there, Kwame Kilpatrick, then a state representative, lived around the corner from us with his family. (I still remember the security detail on the street after he was elected mayor. Save the angry comments, though, I’m reminiscing on a world without text messages.) But it wasn’t just him; you couldn’t go far without running into other community leaders. It seemed like everyone was in a fraternity or sorority, sat on a board of something or another, or was working some other important job.

What do you like least about it? Dexter Boulevard, one of the main commercial strips that border the neighborhood, never recovered from the riots, and that was evident by the time I was coming up. There were businesses, but hardly anywhere to sit down and eat or drink. There are still a few businesses there, but far more vacant storefronts.

Looking back as an adult, I think Russell Woods could’ve done better with synergizing with the other neighborhoods around there -- Durfee, Petoskey-Otsego, and the rest -- to make sure those areas didn’t succumb to the same kind of blight seen in other neighborhoods. It was always sort of an island unto itself; I remember all the time people saying not to cross the "other" side of Dexter going toward Linwood. But you tell people the cross streets, and people usually think of the other side anyway, which isn’t doing as well.

How has it changed in the past 10-20 years? There are empty houses here and there like every neighborhood -- a house two doors down from where we used to be is sadly falling apart -- but every time I drive through there, it looks almost the same. Cortland, Buena Vista, Tyler, and Waverly took some hard hits as those streets are mostly multi-family homes; you go to any neighborhood, and you see lots of abandoned flats and duplexes. But Glendale, Leslie, Fullerton, Sturtevant, Broadstreet, and Old Mill Place are mostly stable.

What don't we know about it? That it’s there. Say "Dexter" around anyone and they immediately flinch. Say "Davison" and people wonder why everything there hasn’t been bulldozed so they can get to I-96 quicker. When I tell people I lived in Russell Woods, I may or may not get a reaction. But if I say I grew up near Dexter and Davison, they’ll let me know what time it is because they have those negative impressions of that intersection. I keep having to explain that you never know what’s hiding on these side streets.

What are some hidden gems in the neighborhood? Abstract answer here, but look where Russell Woods is, location-wise. You’re not far from 96. Not far from the Lodge. It’s right off Davison -- you can make it to Hamtramck in like 10 minutes. Take Livernois up to Ferndale, or down to Southwest. I think its hidden gem is convenience.

Beloved neighborhood joint? Old-time Detroiters know about Dexter Esquire, the legendary corned beef deli right there on Dexter and Leslie -- but it’s closed! But like a lot of neighborhoods, people usually leave the area to hang out. I do love Manhattan’s, the little takeout chicken place at Livernois and Davison.

Where are the best places to chill? Maybe someone else’s basement? I’m going to make a guess that at least 80% of those houses have bars.

Final word. What do you want us to know about it? It’s there, and it’s still there.

Aaron Foley is the editor of BLAC Magazine and the author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass.