Arts & Culture » Culture

'The first step is here'


Gazing at the speeding cars traveling south down John R, Marilyn Chu, 54, chuckles as she describes life in Madison Heights. The reflection of the sunny day shows in the glasses that frame her excited eyes as she recalls more than 30 years in metro Detroit.

Chu immigrated here in 1971 from Taipei, Taiwan, with her seven siblings and her parents. Assimilating to life in Detroit was hard for her family, Chu says, and they struggled to fit into the working class. Chu became a hairdresser; after years of persistent hard work she now owns Marilyn’s Salon at 30755 John R. It’s one of more than 15 Asian-owned businesses along the strip of John R between 12 Mile Road and 14 Mile Road.

Sitting in the parlor of her salon, Chu raises her arm and points to the northeast where the Vietnamese community resides, listing the different locations of Asian groups. She says while there are many different ethnic communities — most of them Asian — within the city limits, the population is becoming even more diverse as different nationalities immigrate to the area.

“Lots of Asian people live here,” she said. “But not only Asian people. There are some from Europe come to this area. The first step is here, Madison Heights, then make good money, get good job, then move to Detroit, Birmingham, West Bloomfield. But the first step is Madison Heights.”

In 1990 the population of Madison Heights was 32,200. The 2000 census showed the population down slightly to 31,100. The Asian population of the city, however, doubled within those 10 years from 788 to 1,547.

Jim Schafer, community development director for Madison Heights, says the city is popular with immigrants because there are good locations for mom-and-pop businesses.

“The John R corridor tends to be populated by smaller businesses,” he said. “A lot of the Asian markets tend to be of a smaller size, so there’s a readily available tenant base for that type of use. The concentration of the stores is just a reflection of the continuing diversification of the city.”

To accompany the fast growth of the Asian population, more shops and restaurants have popped up along the strip. Chu says that when she first set up her business in 1992, she was the only salon within a mile radius; there are now more than a dozen in the area.

Chu points down the street to a popular Chinese market. People come from all over metro Detroit to shop at that market, she says. She knew of the market and other Asian businesses in the area before she opened her salon, so she decided to set up shop there.

Despite the neighborhood’s huge Asian influence, it’s not seen as such outside the area. In fact, it’s hardly known beyond the Asian community. More than three-quarters of the customers in this area are of Asian descent.

Down the street from Marilyn’s Salon, tiny businesses are snuggled between large trees and expanded parking lots. The corridor is sprinkled with patriotic banners atop the lampposts. Driving north along John R more strip malls appear, offering everything from Vietnamese videos to Chinese vegetables.

The quiet neighborhoods off John R add an appealing flavor to Madison Heights. Homes are neatly situated close to one another behind trees lining the streets. A few people work in their gardens on this bright afternoon; one peers upward at the sky. A child rides her red tricycle down the street with a balloon tied to the back. Doors are open, sprinklers are on and flowers are blooming.

These tranquil homes and the bustling small businesses radiate spirit in a 40-year-old city that Chu and others have come to love.

“It just keep growing,” she says with a smile. “Just like a flower, growing, growing. It is very peaceful here.”

Return to the introduction of this special Metro Times Summerguide 2002 neighborhood profile. Andrea Leptinsky is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail


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