“No one is coming to help this area, not any time soon.”
As the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press,Stephen Henderson, BA ’92, seeks to confront the “really big problems” that plague Detroit.
He tries to be optimistic. But most days the issues feel insurmountable. He’s often left wondering how one person can make a difference.
The Tuxedo Project is the journalist’s very personal answer to that question. It is named after Henderson’s blighted childhood home at 7124 Tuxedo on Detroit’s west side. In partnership with the Knight Foundation and Marygrove College, the Tuxedo Project is transforming Henderson’s former home into a writer’s residence and literary center that will serve Marygrove’s English and Modern Languages department.
“I don’t have a solution to the ‘jobs problem’ in Detroit, to the ‘schools problem,’” Henderson says. “But I do know how to change one space. That’s within my grasp. That’s what I can reach for and hold and nurture.”
When he shared his plans with readers of the Detroit Free Pressin 2015, Henderson wrote, “I decided to stick to what I know. A writer’s residence celebrates the craft that gave me the opportunities that are so scarce for kids on Tuxedo today.”
More than just a house
This video, created and narrated by Henderson in 2013, walks viewers through Tuxedo. (Note: Some references may be dated.) Henderson associates his former home with vivid memories of his father, who died in 1985.
The Tuxedo Project came into focus soon after Henderson won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns chronicling Detroit’s historic bankruptcy. He’d returned to the city in 2007 after writing for the Lexington Herald-Leader,the Chicago Tribune,the Baltimore Sun,and, most recently, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain in Washington, D.C.
Though friends and colleagues seemed vexed by his decision to return to Detroit, Henderson could not deny his connection to the place. “I felt like, ‘It’s having a hard time, and I can use my voice to help,’” he says.
“I started to think about the improbability of a kid born in 1970 on that block in that house to get to the privileged space that I enjoy today,” Henderson says. “And it’s even more improbable for a kid born in 2016. I asked myself: ‘What are the things that mattered for me? Why did my life turn out the way it did? Where did those opportunities come from?’
“There are lots of answers to that of course,” he says “But when I think about all the sacrifices my parents made, it all comes back to learning.”
Henderson moved away from Tuxedo after his parents’ divorce, but his father remained in the duplex until he died in 1985. His mother, a nurse and nurse educator, chose to move into a housing project so she could finance private education for Henderson and his sister. Henderson attended the Quaker Friends School for elementary, the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, and, ultimately U-M, where he wrote for The Michigan Daily.
“She thought this would give us a better chance to make the choices we wanted to make about our lives,” he says. “So beginning with that decision, there’s this momentum of possibility that builds up for me, all backed by education.”
A sense of place
The visit to the old house in 2012 affected Henderson in a way he did not anticipate. He still saw 7124 Tuxedo through the eyes of a child. There was his mother scrubbing the stairs. There were the tattered Disney stickers still affixed to his door.
Today the place is a heartbreaking example of the limitations that come with emergence from bankruptcy. While some parts of the city are experiencing a resurgence, “no one is coming to help this area, not any time soon,” he told his readers.
So if rescue were an option, he would have to be the one to do it. But to what end? On this block of 30 homes, about half were abandoned. The surrounding area, classified on the Detroit Future City plan as “marginally primed for a comeback,” was not attracting investment or experiencing growth.
But Henderson couldn’t walk away. He saw Marygrove College making strides in community outreach, supporting neighborhoods and nurturing artistic and literary excellence. So he started to reimagine the home as an educational anchor point around which the community could rally.
He contemplated “the power of one” and asked himself: “If I created learning center there, would it make a difference?” And more importantly, he needed to know: “If I did it with my conviction, what would it inspire?”
He soon got an answer when a high school friend read his story and invited him to a meeting. When Henderson arrived, nine other former classmates were there as well.
“They told me they were forming a nonprofit called the Tuxedo Project to take ownership of this dream that I have,” he says. “To support me in it, they each donated $10,000 to the cause. It was amazing. I could not have predicted it in a million years.”
Power of one
In late 2015 Marygrove College announced the official launch of the Tuxedo Project, which coincided with a $150,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The grant is part of the Knight Arts Challenge and supports Marygrove’s efforts “to engage and enrich the community through the arts.”
In tandem with the Tuxedo Project, the college will appoint a fellow, who will move into the second-floor apartment of the restored duplex in fall 2017. The first floor will be a shared space open to students, faculty, and members of the community for classes, workshops, and social activities.
“I think it will lead to some surprising creativity,” Henderson says. “The people of Detroit are eager to tell their stories, to share their experiences. It’s part of our tradition. Capturing, collecting, and preserving those histories should be a big part of this effort.”
A sense of place
Henderson’s mission melds neatly with efforts by U-M in creating the Detroit City Study, a collaborative academic workspace housed in the University’s Detroit Center. The Detroit City Study is a kind of renovation project too – but one that looks to reimagine the social and spatial relations of urban research and education. It also serves as an incubator space for U-M students to explore three overarching areas: Learning in the City: Urban Education; Place-Making; and Sustainable Humanities.
“Detroit raises interesting questions about the relationship between dwelling in the city and learning in the city,” says project organizer Shira Schwartz, a U-M PhD candidate in comparative literature. This summer she invited Henderson to share his experience with students and community members co-working on projects about place-making.
“What’s fascinating about Stephen’s project is that it picks up a place of dwelling and turns it into a place of learning, writing, and sharing,” Schwartz says.
Adds Detroit blogger Marcia Music, who attended the Detroit City Study panel discussion: “I’m hoping this house becomes a place where a young person’s heart can open back up. I hope it will inspire them to witness.”
The power of many ‘ones’
It’s been about four years since Henderson first revisited the Tuxedo house and asked himself: “Could one person, who feels a strong connection with a place in this city, act on that connection in a way that changes that place from a desperate state to a more hopeful one?”
He is in the process of finding out. The Knight Foundation grant is distributed over a two-year period, and fundraising remains a priority. This is especially true in light of a recent and somewhat dramatic development: This summer the city handed over all the other abandoned properties on the block to the Tuxedo Project.
“So now we’re at the point where we’re talking about the power of many ‘ones’ and lots of different ideas that will come together in the next few years,” Henderson says. “The hope is to start by transforming the house, then the block. And then the question will be, ‘What is the power of that one block to transform many blocks?’”
Read more about the Detroit City Study co-learning project at Michigan’s World Class.