May 26, 2013 at 1:00 am

Residents strive to revive Westland's historic Norwayne neighborhood

Hank Johnson, founder of the NorWayne Community Citizen's Council, at a community garden the group has started in a vacant lot. (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)

Westland — When Marguerite Wojewski moved into Westland's Norwayne subdivision in 1952, she found a tight-knit and unique little community to raise her six children.

"In the summertime, the adults would go sit in somebody's yard and talk and the kids would play games like hide-and-seek," said Wojewski, 90. "There were no fences and everything was open. The only thing they knew was when the streetlights came on, they had to come inside."

Much has changed since then in Norwayne. Now when children in the neighborhood head out to play, they run past dozens of dilapidated buildings, abandoned schools and overgrown grass. Each lot has a fence and the sidewalks that used to run behind the houses were torn out to prevent people from congregating behind private property.

"I can't imagine ever moving from here," said Wojewski. "But I don't know if I'd want to (raise children here) now."

Norwayne boasts a proud history that began when it was built seven decades ago to house thousands of people who worked at the nearby Willow Run and other armament factories during World War II.

City officials hope to use that heritage as a springboard to revive the neighborhood. Westland's application to add Norwayne to the National Register of Historic Places awaits approval from the U.S. Interior Department.

Joining the register could open up federal grants and tax credits to fund revitalization projects.

"The federal government came in and they didn't just build the houses, they built a community and that's what I'd like to see it come back to," says Hank Johnson, who grew up in Norwayne and has lived there for most of his life.

Norwayne was developed in 1942-43 by the federal government, and its residents built thousands of B-24 Liberator bombers, an integral part of the "Arsenal of Democracy" that helped defeat Germany and Japan.

The homes were put up quickly, with whatever materials were available during the times of scarcity due to the war. Builders erected single-family homes, duplexes and sprawling quadplexes in a series of courts to encourage neighbor interaction.

The new neighborhood included two schools, many open green spaces, a community center and stores.

But over the years after the war, homeownership declined, rental properties became prevalent and the area took on the nickname "Shacktown."

"It's very offensive and it's a negative connotation that we've been fighting all along," said Mayor William Wild, who was born in the Norwayne neighborhood and lived there for a year before his family moved. "It's unfair to the residents there."

After the city closed the two schools in the Norwayne neighborhood five years ago, Johnson was instrumental in reviving the Norwayne Community Citizens Council, a group dedicated to reviving the subdivision.

"At that point, I became very concerned that there would be no opportunities for the neighborhood," he said. "There's nothing in place to provide for the community."

The group took on projects like starting a community garden and renaming an old park next to the community center "Liberator Park," after the area's bomber heritage.

In 2008, Westland was chosen to receive federal funds for neighborhood stabilization and has worked to purchase some of the blighted homes and structures and tear them down.

Some new homes have been built and outreach is being done with long-term residents and landlords who own about half of the neighborhood's homes, said Joanne Campbell, director of Westland's Housing and Community Development Department

"Every little step we take is a step that wasn't being taken before," said Campbell. "Just because a place has taken on challenging times, doesn't mean it's not important."

City officials and Norwayne residents hope the neighborhood's modest appearance won't stop it from being added to the National Register. The Michigan State Historic Preservation Review Board voted this month to recommend the neighborhood for approval by the federal government.

"A lot of that housing had to be put up very quickly," said review board chairman Richard Harms, who serves as the curator of archives at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. "It's modest stuff, it's not high style architecture, but it's associated with that historic development."

If Norwayne is accepted, it will be listed alongside other notable places in the state, including the Henry Ford Estate in Dearborn, the Fox Theatre in Detroit and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

"Most people think things get on the National Registry because they're very grand, but this is significant because of the events it was tied to and not because of the architecture style," said Harms. "Just because something is plain doesn't mean it isn't important."

Supporters say Norwayne deserves a brighter future that reflects its significant past.

"There is a pride and people want to have things taken care of," said Larry Clos, who said his family was the first to move into Norwayne in 1942.

His father, George Clos, was hired by the government to supervise the grounds and his mother, Margaret, lived in the family's home, a duplex, until her death last year at 100.

As he fixes up the duplex to try to sell it, Clos, who now lives elsewhere in Westland, says he believes the neighborhood just needs some attention and care.

"Without the support of the city, without the support of somebody, that pride isn't going to be there," he said. "It's going to come when they start realizing that the homes are being taken care of and someone is listening."

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Marguerite Wojewski, 90, in front of her NorWayne Community home. (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
Single family homes in the NorWayne neighborhood (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
A duplex home in the NorWayne neighborhood (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
Norwayne was built seven decades ago to house thousands of people who ... (Detroit News)
Builders erected single-family homes, duplexes and sprawling quadplexes in ... (Detroit News)