If a neighborhood can be viewed as a brand, Southwest Detroit's Mexicantown might be one of its most successful. A dense and vibrant community, it attracts visitors from across the metropolitan region with its many dining and retail options, and its proximity to the bridge to Canada makes it a destination for international travelers as well.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Detroit's Mexican community used to refer to that business district as "La Bagley" after its main drag, where everyone knew you could watch Spanish-language films or buy tortillas and other Mexican groceries. The term "Mexicantown" didn't catch on until much later, bolstered by a PR effort in the '80s that was by and large embraced by the community and expanded organically.
Today, though, we're not here for the tamales. We're on the other side of the tracks, at the intersection of Springwells and Chamberlain streets, walking under a railroad viaduct that serves as a natural boundary between the heart of Mexicantown and the rest of Southwest Detroit. A viaduct like this is the perfect place for street artists to practice their craft, and, in fact, just about every square inch of it is covered in spray-paint.
"A lot of people say this is tearing the community up, but if they'd remember, a lot of this shit used to be gang graffiti," says our guide for the day, an artist, educator, and community organizer who goes by the name Sacramento Knoxx. "That used to be really problematic. This street art, it's a little bit less harsh than the gang stuff."
These days, the viaduct isn't the turf for territorial gang wars so much as a canvas for artists to hone their skills. But as we emerge from underneath the viaduct, Knoxx turns our attention to a hand-painted sign that isn't like the rest of the graffiti. It's more like a billboard, with a circular logo and the phrase "Southwest Detroit's Springwells Village" greeting passing cars as they cross through.
Knoxx, a longtime resident of the community, says he was perplexed when he first saw the sign appear — "Springwells Village" simply wasn't the name that the people he knew who lived here used to refer to the area. "To see that pop up — it wasn't on my radar, and I'm pretty tied in with people," Knoxx says. "So what's going on with this? Where's this coming from?"
A Google search for "Springwells Village" yields a website where you'll find the same circular logo from the viaduct as well as pages touting the neighborhood's restaurants, bars, and taco trucks, along with art attractions and community resources. The pages are brightly colored, warm and inviting, sometimes using a hand-drawn font. At the bottom is a note that the page is managed by the nonprofit Urban Neighborhoods Initiatives.
Knoxx is a member of Enclave, an ad-hoc committee he says supports development without displacement. Displacement, other members of Enclave will tell me, doesn't necessarily refer to physical displacement — it can be cultural too. And that's why the "Springwells Village" moniker has some Enclave members up in arms.
"My perspective is more broad than just the name change," Antonio Cosme, another member of Enclave, tells us later. "I think what we're seeing in Detroit is, I would call it a neocolonial moment, honestly."
In Cosme's view, post-bankruptcy Detroit is in the process of being "cantonized" by various entities, which will see investment in certain communities and divestment in others. Cosme sees it as all part of the think tank Detroit Future City's 50-year framework for restructuring the city by moving people from less-populated areas into denser ones.
"Springwells is slated to become one of those enclaves that gets the investment, whereas the other communities around it don't," he says. "In Detroit, where the most marginal communities are — where the most water shut-offs have been happening, where the most people are getting kicked out of their houses — they're getting divested in. The other neighborhoods that they want people to move in — they rebrand it."
Cosme says these neighborhood nonprofits act like fiefdoms. "These nonprofit fiefdoms, they're not interested in working in these areas and supporting the larger Southwest Detroit," he says. "They draw imaginary lines on a map and call it a neighborhood and say, 'This is where we're going to invest our time and energy,' and they soak up private foundation dollars."
Cosme calls it the "nonprofit-industrial complex."
"They're beholden to foundation dollars and to their funders," he says. "That's the pitfall of depending on nonprofits for the things that the government should be doing.
"Everybody's interested in Detroit as a thing, but not the people in it."
Mexicantown, along with what some call Springwells Village, aren't the only neighborhoods in Detroit to undergo rebranding campaigns, of course. And it's not the first time in Detroit that an area has been renamed by people who don't live in that area or recently moved in.
In recent years, we've seen the neighborhood north of Hamtramck called everything from "Banglatown" for its influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to, mockingly, "Honky Heidelberg" as white artists like Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert transformed some of its dirt-cheap houses into art installations à la Tyree Guyton's famous project.
We've also seen the same neighborhood referred to as "NoHam" — but only in press releases for the well-publicized Write a House campaign to move writers into the area, or on the real estate blog Curbed Detroit. Anecdotally, we haven't noticed the NoHam moniker stick — especially among the people who live there. In a 2012 post on Curbed, then-editor Sarah Cox implored readers to adopt the name. "Even people that live in it don't know what to call the neighborhood in Detroit north of the city of Hamtramck," she wrote. "It's either No Ham or BanglaTown or Hamtramck Heights or Davison. Can we just save us all some typing and go all out for the use of No Ham? It is the shortest. Maybe even NoHam. Aren't there enough vegetarian and vegan artists now to agree with us?"
An informal survey during a visit to the Bangladeshi restaurant Aladdin Sweets & Café in Hamtramck revealed most patrons knew of the name Banglatown but simply referred to their community as either Detroit or Hamtramck depending on which side of the border they lived. And while there is a Bangla Town Market nearby, one customer remarked that he didn't see the point in referring to his own community by the name of the ethnic group he belonged to. (Nobody we spoke with had heard of NoHam.)
Elsewhere, Green Dot Stables owner Jacques Driscoll caught flack in a WDET piece for jokingly referring to his restaurant as being located in "Corktown Shores" — a reference to the nearby hotspot Corktown that has seen resurgence in recent years — and not its historic Southwest Detroit neighborhood of Hubbard-Richard. They even sold T-shirts at Green Dot emblazoned with the fictitious name, and you can now see Corktown Shores marked on a map posted by Curbed.
Other developers are trying to cash in on the Corktown neighborhood's recent success by creating a buzz for an adjacent "West Corktown." In a Model D article titled "West Corktown: Creating Detroit's newest neighborhood," one commenter joked that the brand was such a hit that eventually every neighborhood in Detroit would one day be defined by its relationship to Corktown.
"My neighborhood will be Northeast Corktown," the commenter wrote. "Dearborn will be Extreme West Corktown. Seven Mile and Gratiot will be New Corktown Heights. In 2025, the city of Detroit will be renamed (excuse me, 'rebranded') Corktownville and Phil Cooley will be elected mayor for life on the slogan 'Every neighborhood has a Corktown.' The unicorns will begin arriving shortly thereafter."