When the newly restored David Whitney Building opened a few days before Christmas touting “the grandeur of Detroit’s past and the promise of its future,” Nancy Edwina Patterson felt torn.
A lifelong Detroiter who so loves the iconic 1915 skyscraper, Patterson, 64, once wrote down her plans for how she would redesign the building where she used to visit regularly to see her doctor, purchase perfume or just sit in the lobby and enjoy the pianist.
“All those years it was vacant, I’d ride by on the People Mover and imagine what I’d do if I was the owner,” she mused the other day while sitting in her Palmer Park apartment. Perhaps a jazz restaurant named in honor of her parents, she said. A market with fresh produce.
But when she read that all the hotel’s 136 rooms were rented by the first weekend, Patterson took to the comment section of DeadlineDetroit.com. Her frustration was rooted in the time-worn paradox now resurfacing in many downtown centers on the rebound. Is it progress if an influx of money and young entrepreneurs means low-income residents can no longer afford to stay in the city they call home?
“Many of the buildings downtown have priced out the senior citizens who lived downtown for years and kept the buildings downtown open,” Patterson wrote. “None of them can afford the David Whitney Building, where one-bedroom units start at $1,050 for 569 square feet. It is unfortunate that those who paved the way often have to move where it’s affordable.”
“I am happy to see my city on the mend,” she continued. “And I know that it will take money and more to return Detroit to its former glory. I understand sacrifice, but the city belongs to all who live here.”
Patterson was speaking from experience. Having spent a 30-year career working for the state of Michigan in various human services programs (she retired as a department analyst for the Work-First program), Patterson planned to spend her retirement years living downtown. In 2007, she moved from her home on Northlawn and Joy Road into a one-bedroom suite in the Leland Hotel on Bagley, minutes away from theaters and her beloved riverfront. But when housekeeping slacked off and the elevator kept breaking (she lived on the 18th floor), Patterson decided to leave downtown. She moved to Palmer Park late in 2012.
Her comments sparked such a lengthy discussion that the website re-posted Patterson’s posts as a new article, complete with her byline and a photo plucked from her Facebook profile, which came, frankly as a shock to Patterson.
“I was a little offended that they didn’t have the courtesy to contact me first and say, hey, this is something we’d like to do and I probably would’ve said OK.”
Patterson, who works as the church and pastor’s secretary at Zion Chapel Church of Christ (Holiness), welcomed the discourse that went on for a week and covered every hot-button issue from race and slumlords to hipsters and poor minorities. Through it all, she managed to stay above the fray.
“One person said I want to see Detroit go back to years gone by,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, I do because Detroit was vibrant when I was growing up.’ ” Born in 1950, Patterson grew up in a four-family flat on Brooklyn and Grand River. It was a multiracial neighborhood, she said, where everybody knew each other. Patterson’s father owned a Mobil gas station on Tireman and Kentucky, and her mother was a nurse who later became president of her local chapter of League of Women Voters, the first black woman to lead a chapter in the U.S., Patterson said proudly.
In one breath, she can tick off a panorama of bustling activity. “Carl’s Chop House was one block over. We had Awrey’s Bakery and the Wonder Bread factory. Sealtest Ice Cream. Wrigley’s Market. The Detroit Bank and Trust was on the corner. The Globe Theater. There were no empty buildings anywhere going down Grand River. Anywhere.”
Still, she knows this is not realistic.
“I know there’s not always going to be a level playing field. There are always going to be income differences. I get that.
“I’m just a proud Detroiter who wants a city that is affordable for everyone. I want Detroit to be a 21st-century city with the vibrancy of the ’50s and ’60s. That’s what I want.”