Tucked away near burned factory shells and the fluorescent glare of strip-mall convenience lies one of Detroit’s richest sources of history.
The Boston-Edison district is one of the most appealing neighborhoods in Detroit, and remains a sort of residential oasis in a city that is far too often concrete and gray.
Although many Detroiters might have peeked into the neighborhood for a brief glimpse of the striking mansions, many underestimate its expanse. Boston-Edison is an elongated rectangle, a 30-block district containing more than 900 homes, and is bounded by Boston, Edison, Linwood and Woodward. Another well-kept secret? It’s the largest residential historic district in the nation.
The neighborhood was founded at the turn of the century, with the majority of the homes built by the Roaring ’20s. It was originally designed as a sedate residential area, complete with wide boulevards and a variety of homes, ranging from palatial to modest. The neighborhood was once home to Detroit automotive tycoons including Henry and Edsel B. Ford, and wealthy businessmen such as Sebastian Kresge, founder of the S.S. Kresge Company, which became Kmart.
Darrell Stewart is the president of the Historic Boston-Edison Association, a neighborhood organization dedicated to maintaining the historic integrity of the district, as well as encouraging a sense of community. As he emerges from his door under the regal wood-stained canopy porch of his home, he wears both a baseball cap and T-shirt that bear the logo of the association.
He’s lived in Boston-Edison with his wife and four children for more than 15 years, and says the neighborhood is like no other.
“We fell in love with the look of historical homes,” says Stewart. “You don’t find homes like these anymore, with the new subdivisions that are being built. They don’t build like they used to; with these homes, there is such uniqueness, and the quality of the building material is better.
“There is so much architectural beauty here. When you look at a home, you really see its history.”
The residents have banded together to create a nonprofit development firm, Boston-Edison Development Inc. (BEDI), which buys and renovates the few vacant homes in the area, then resells them to individuals or families.
Although Boston-Edison is one of Detroit’s wealthiest historic neighborhoods, there is still a great deal of economic diversity within it. While you can easily find a sprawling mansion for $1 million, there are plenty of smaller, more modest homes ensconced in the center of Boston-Edison.
Stewart claims the average household income in the neighborhood ranges from $40,000 to $80,000.
Although it may seem difficult to nurture a cohesive sense of community in such a large area, residents insist there is a distinct sense of neighborhood spirit.
“I can name everybody on my block,” says Jerald Mitchell, the archivist for the neighborhood association. “We’re very diverse in terms of occupation, race and ethnicity. It’s very harmonious, and people take a lot of pride in their historical homes.”
Mitchell has resided in Boston-Edison for more than 30 years. Since 1985, he has lived in one of the neighborhood’s most spectacular homes, Henry Ford’s breathtaking 15-room mansion, built in 1908.
“I was initially attracted to the architecture and history,” says Mitchell of the neighborhood, “but since living here, I think the best part about Boston-Edison is the neighbors. They’re just a great mix of diverse and interesting people.”
The district itself is fairly insular — it’s strictly residential with no businesses or stores within — but the residents are not. During a brief stroll near Voigt Park on a brilliant sunny day, there is little activity on the streets, other than the occasional meandering dog walker or peppy jogger.
Each resident who passes you on the street actually looks you in the eye (gasp!) and smiles or nods in acknowledgment. They will gladly fill you in on the history of their homes.
So, the next time you find yourself with a bored and lazy Saturday afternoon, hop into your car and head down to Boston-Edison and devote a few hours to wandering aimlessly. Savor the individuality of each house and each block as you gape at the enormous, elegant abodes and daydream about which one could be yours someday.
And talk to the residents who are knee deep in their flower gardens or waxing their cars to a brilliant shine. You’re sure to find a friendly and willing tour guide on every block.