|TaNisha Prater's clothing store is one of 37 businesses that opened last year in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood. |
Credit Joshua Lott for The New York Times
When Christopher Prater and his wife, TaNisha — Detroit natives who returned home after 12 years in Atlanta — went scouting for a location for the clothing boutique they planned to open, he was horrified by the address of a spot she suggested. It was on Cass Avenue, a once-blighted strip with a sordid history of drugs and prostitution.
“I told her very adamantly and vehemently that there is no way in the world I’m taking my sons to Cass,” he said. “To my mind, that was no place to be at 12 noon, much less 12 midnight.”
The neighborhood Mr. Prater found, when he was finally lured out to look, bore few traces of the one he remembered.
Now called Midtown, the area is one of Detroit’s most striking economic-revival success stories and a veritable haven for small businesses, which had been among the biggest casualties of the city’s urban decay. Coffee shops, yoga studios, restaurants and clothing boutiques now fill spaces that sat empty for decades. The district’s retail vacancy rate has fallen to 10 percent, down from 22 percent six years ago, and its residential occupancy rate tops 97 percent.
Nearly every business is locally owned, though a few national chains are creeping in. Whole Foods arrived two years ago, and Carhartt, the Michigan retailer known for its rugged work clothes, is preparing to open its first Detroit store.
Years of dogged, incremental work went into the district’s renaissance, much of it led by the nonprofit development group Midtown Detroit Inc. But those who live and work in the area also point to a more unusual catalyst: the Wayne State University police department, which has become the primary security force in Midtown.
This is no ordinary campus police squad. The department, which spends most of its time operating beyond the university, has invested in high-tech security equipment that looks as if it came straight from the set of “C.S.I.” Since most small businesses operate on razor-thin margins and cannot afford the financial toll of even petty crime, the force has been one of the area’s biggest assets, residents and owners say.
“We couldn’t operate here without them,” said Christina Lovio-George, who has run a public relations firm in the neighborhood for 33 years.
All of Wayne State’s officers are commissioned by the Detroit Police Department, with the same enforcement powers as the city’s force. The department’s hiring standards, though, are stricter: Wayne State requires its officers to have a bachelor’s degree, while city officers need only a high school diploma. The two departments collaborate closely, and of the 1,362 arrests made in Midtown last year, 61 percent were made by Wayne State’s officers.
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