Life in Detroit: Gabriela Santiago-Romero

Gabriela Santiago-Romero

I’ve mentioned my interest but unfamiliarity with Southwest many times on this blog. Last week’s post inspired me to start learning more and I reached out to my friend Nick, who grew up in the neighborhood. He wasn’t able to meet, but introduced me to Gabriela Santiago-Romero and we met for breakfast at Evie’s Tamales Sunday morning. Gaby is friendly, composed, thoughtful and mature, I spent our meeting thinking this girl is going to go far and do great things. It fits her reputation because she begins her latest adventure as a Challenge Detroit Fellow with the Detroit Lions next week.

Gaby’s life is impressive and her insights about her community are thoughtful. She was born in Mexico, but her mother moved them to LA when she was a year old. After a year in California, they moved to Southwest Detroit for the job opportunities that were available. When Gaby was six, her brother was born and they moved from their apartment above a bar on Junction Street to a Southwest neighborhood close to Dearborn and near the intersections of Central and McGraw. When she was in high school her dad moved to Hawaii for work and by the time she was a sophomore at the University of Detroit-Mercy, her mom was ready to move too.

Life In Detroit: The Good, the Bad & the Progress
Our neighborhood was getting worse and worse and worse. It was during that time that everyone left the community and the houses were burnt down and empty. My mom was like, ‘This is depressing – I hate it.’ She made me apply to Hawaii University. I visited the campus but I didn’t want to move there. Since I was 11, I’ve been volunteering and trying to be part of changing the city. I don’t know how I convinced her because she would have never left me – I think I threw Mother Teresa in there. She let me stay.

It was really hard. I was 19, had a house, had a dog, five part-time jobs that paid from $2 to $7 an hour and I was going to school full-time. I was doing all that to stay here. It was going okay but eventually my mom came back and it was only because I told her I was going to come home to a dead, depressed dog because I was never home. I was gone from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., I would come home to feed her and let her out but then I had to go.

There was a lot of crime, a lot of home break-ins, people getting mugged while shoveling their snow. When I was living alone, in one month every week I heard someone was getting murdered within one mile of my house. I’m totally against guns so I went and got some kickboxing classes and it made me feel better.

Right before I left, there were three houses where people were there who shouldn’t have been there, stealing electricity from their neighbors and water. It was so annoying and I hated it. You couldn’t say anything to them because they were dangerous people. It was bad.

That was why I wanted to leave the neighborhood. I didn’t want to leave the city but I wanted to go somewhere I would feel safer so I moved to Lafayette Park. Living there was awesome, I could run at ten o’clock at night from my apartment to downtown because you had ‘Big Daddy’ Dan Gilbert watching you.

The good thing is this whole “Detroit is coming back” is that it’s happening even in that pocket of the neighborhood. My dad said, ‘No, it’s really good right now there are a lot of Mexican families moving in’ and I’m like, ‘Good! They take care of their houses’.

Growing up it was a beautiful block. It was really diverse and full of families from all over the world. You could walk down and smell five different kinds of foods. It was awesome. I loved it. When I moved to Lafayette Park and the apartment complex it was different. You could still smell the food but you can’t see the people – I had no idea who they were. That was different because I’m used to seeing people and saying hi to them.

I was there [Lafayette Park] for a year but then I decided to move back to Southwest. It was nice to be in Lafayette Park – it was fun and convenient – but I really missed my porch, I missed going outside and seeing people I know, and my friends being up the street.

Right now I live on Clark and that’s a completely different Southwest from where I grew up. Where I’m at now has never really been hit by the crisis and it’s always been held up by the residents. Those businesses have always done their best to keep up Vernor. It’s nice, it’s different. It’s also a culture shock to me because I see so many white people that live on Hubbard and that has never happened. I grew up in Southwest, never seeing more than two or three white people and I knew where they lived. Now I see them all the time and am like, ‘Where are you coming from?’

Detroit Enclaves: Why Detroiters Don’t Leave Their Neighborhoods 
It’s not just Southwest but other pockets in the city – deep Westside, deep Eastside. And there’s a reason for that – it’s not a very good reason but people need to know. As I was going to school and meeting new people, I’d met people who would be like, ‘Meet us here [in Detroit]’, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know where that’s at.’ They’d be like, ‘How do you not know where that’s at? You’ve lived here your whole life’. I’d be like, ‘Look man, my mom never let me leave my neighborhood.’

Parents would not let their children leave their neighborhoods because it was too dangerous. In Southwest, parents don’t let their children leave because they are undocumented. We’re in our pockets of community for a reason, we’re basically stuck there. This isn’t a good thing because how can you venture out to jobs downtown? How can you venture to schools on the Westside like UDM? How can you go downtown to Wayne for school? I even learned it from another fellow, a black girl, who was like she never left the Westside because my mom never let us leave our porch. We both got really mad at people for asking why we never left our neighborhoods – we couldn’t. So please keep that in mind my friends.

The Strength of the Southwest Community
If you walk around Southwest, you see a lot of Southwest Pride shirts. Those are grassroots groups who will question you if they see you wearing it: Who’s your mom? What house did you grow up in? Residents care and there was no one else to take care of us, it had to be the residents to come together to make safety patrols and safety walks. Southwest is very visual – you can see it. Also we have more residents, we were left with more people than the other areas of Detroit. There people definitely left but here we couldn’t – that’s another thing I never really thought about – we didn’t leave because we were undocumented. We were stuck here.

Revitalization v. Gentrification
I am seeing it and it’s a beautiful curse. It’s great but the process is really important to me and I think that’s one thing that’s being missed. I woke up one day and there were parking meters all down Vernor and I wanted to scream. Why? We don’t even have insurance for our cars and you want us to pay for parking. And the parking is insane, they’re charging a dollar for an hour. What if you want to work at the Cafe Con Leche all afternoon? Come on. It’s things like that I’m worried about because they aren’t thinking about the community and how it would impact the people who live there.

Other things I’m worried about…I was on my porch yesterday and the house next to me is up for rent. I see these two people driving really, really fast down Clark, spin off and park the wrong direction on my side of the street and go to this house. These two [white] people don’t care about my street. There are children and you’re supposed to drive like a normal person. They didn’t care about where you are supposed to park. That’s disrespectful. That’s how I see it and that’s how I’m realizing people see it around me. I never would have seen it that way, I would have just thought, ‘Whatever, they want to see the house.’ But no. There is a woman down the street who is like, ‘If my son did that kind of thing he would be pulled over.’

They [the prospective renters] could have done a much better job. They could have driven normal. They looked scared to park in front of the house. Do you really want to move in here when you can’t park across the street? I would be your neighbor, why didn’t you say hi to me? They could have parked, walked up and said, ‘Hi we’re going to look at the house you live next to’. I would have been like, ‘Sweet, what’s up?’ When that process doesn’t happen, that when things get bad because the mentality is that you don’t care.

But when I was at Motor City Wine the other day, I was on a date and there was no where else to sit so these two girls came and asked if they could sit with us. We started to talk. They asked where I was from and one of the girls was just moving in. She’d graduated from college from somewhere in Phoenix and wanted to move to Detroit. She was like, ‘I understand gentrification, I understand race issues, I understand all of it – tell me more’. And I was like, ‘Perfect! I will.’ I told her to apply for my job and she did.

It’s one of those kind of things – if you are coming in here and know where you stand and what’s going on and are ready to be part of the solution and not part of the problem – I’m all for it. I know it can happen. I’ve seen it happen. We need people to move in. We can totally benefit from new residents, money, education – all of that is really important but so is being thoughtful. If you’re going into a community, it is to invest in it – in its people and not just yourself.

Hope For the Future
I’d like to see more of these conversations happening and more collaboration. Less pointing fingers and more interest in our history – and not just ours but other cities as well. You hear a lot of, ‘We’re the new Brooklyn’ and some people are okay with that but I feel like you may want to look into that because it’s not a really good thing. I think those things are important. Yes, development is great but is it really? For me, studying business made me hate business. I think we need to do it differently. It’s a very powerful tool, it can be used for good but it has been used for greed. That’s how I see development of the city. It could be awesome but it could also cause some people to leave who no longer feel welcomed or it can make people feel like they can come in and take over completely.

Other things I’d like to see is schools! I’m upset with how many schools have been closed in Southwest, so if that has anything to do with anything in the world than I need to throw that out there – we need more schools.

Get To Know Southwest 
There is more than just Mexicantown. Mexicantown is really just this street [Bagely]. As soon as you leave this you enter the Southwest community and there are so many things there to venture out in.

Alley Project: An outdoor art gallery in Southwest Detroit. It originally started as a place for youth to go and do graffiti without being criminalized for their work. It teaches a lot about street culture and gang culture and how it is being used as an asset instead of an issue, so they’ve created a space for all of those things can happen.

Urban Neighborhood Initiative: There is a park across the street from the Springwell Community Center and they run Southwest Rides. It’s a non-profit, they sell used bikes and they fix bikes. So if you ever need a bike go there.

Favorite Mexican Restaurants: Nuestra Familia and Mi Pueblo.

My grandpa owns La Michoacana, it was the first ice cream shop in Southwest to open. Since then there have been more candy shop and ice cream shops. Very typical Mexican ones come up on Vernor. Another one I like is Mangonadas Del Barrio, they sell the yummy stuff. Chopped up fruits with chili, yogurts, ice creams, chips with corn in them. Typical hispanic munchies -it’s really yummy.


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