Karen Batchelor’s family moved into Palmer Woods in 1967, part of the first cadre of African Americans to integrate the affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit. They moved in December, after the long-simmering city had burst into racial violence that summer. Batchelor’s father, an internist, had witnessed Detroit’s previous race riots in 1943. Out on a date at Belle Isle—the flash point of the ’43 riots—he was injured in the melee. He had no interest in reliving the experience, so he and his wife decided to move their family out.
Their 16-year-old daughter liked her old home, and was leery of being on the vanguard of integration. But her new house helped. “I remember seeing my bedroom, and it was pink, and it had a chandelier in it,” she told me. “We came from a very lovely home. But this one had seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, a swimming pool, a cabana, and three kitchens.” By her memory, the Batchelors were the ninth black family to move into Palmer Woods, a neighborhood of nearly 300 homes. The following year, several families from her old neighborhood followed—including Karen’s best friend—and the path was set.
Slideshow: Touring Detroit's Architectural Splendor
Batchelor’s parents eventually moved from Palmer Woods, but many of her friends and neighbors did not. Indeed, Palmer Woods now sits on a census block group that, according to the most-recent available data, is 81 percent black, and it is arguably the American black elite’s most majestic enclave. When I first visited, in the fall of 2009, I was awestruck. I had seen well-heeled black neighborhoods before—the prosperous suburbs ringing Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Chatham in Chicago, Baldwin Hills in L.A. But the gates of Palmer Woods are a wormhole out of the angry city and into an opulent idyll. Sleepy curvilinear streets with names like “Strathcona Drive” and “Argyle Crescent” snake through the 188-acre hamlet and its sprawling, irregular lots. Across Seven Mile Road sits the venerable, members-only Detroit Golf Club, which remained all-white until 1986.
Even as Detroit groaned under the weight of crime, failing schools, and high taxes, Palmer Woods held steady. But the country’s financial straits, particularly the collapse of the real-estate bubble and the struggles of the Big Three automakers, were a direct assault on the region’s twin pillars: houses and cars. The neighborhood association considers approximately 15 out of its 292 homes to be in jeopardy. Problems that were once rare—crime, for instance—are cropping up, as Palmer Woods at last succumbs to the gravity of the city. As a result, those who were once excluded from the neighborhood’s vision of the American dream are now in the position of defending it.
I took my first tour of Palmer Woods on a chilly fall evening with Barbara and Spencer Barefield and their Saint Bernard, Devo. Barbara is Jewish and a native New Yorker, edits the Palmer Woods Post, and helps organize neighborhood events—block picnics, classical concerts, and home tours. Spencer is African American, a jazz guitarist and composer; like Karen Batchelor, he moved to Palmer Woods as a teenager, in the wake of the riots. Spencer’s mother still lives around the corner in the home he grew up in.
We walked outside, bundled in scarves and gloves, under a final blast of sunlight shooting across the cobalt sky. The streets were quiet, and I could have counted on one hand the cars that drove by. We passed a two-story house designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who designed the World Trade Center. Then we stopped next door, in front of an earthy Arts and Crafts house, set at a right angle to the street, with the front entrance positioned deep into the lot. This was Clarence Darrow’s temporary home when he was summoned to the city in 1925 to defend Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who had taken up arms against white rioters who didn’t want him to move into their neighborhood. The owner was a regional bank that had foreclosed on the house after the elderly woman who lived there fell behind on her mortgage.
We walked up the driveway past a parked car to the front door, where we stopped and admired the intricate tile work on the porch. The car, Spencer explained, had been placed there by a neighbor—a scarecrow against thieves, squatters, and scrappers.
“That’s one thing about this neighborhood,” he said. “We really look out for each other.”
“We do have private security, but they’re not 24 hours,” Barbara said as we walked back to the street. “It was really bad for a while because when the bubble first burst, there were people coming in here because the price of metals has skyrocketed.”
“Copper was like the new gold,” Spencer interjected. “All these people had copper gutters. And [thieves] would come and start ripping copper off people’s houses.”
“They were pulling off copper gutters in broad daylight,” said Barbara.
“While people were in their homes,” Spencer said. “You’d hear a noise and say, ‘What is that?’ and walk outside and somebody’s pulling your gutter off. By the time the cops got there, what could they do? They’d be long gone. We’d have neighbors follow and catch the guys.”
Established in 1915, Palmer Woods was envisioned as a primeval retreat from a teeming, industrial metropolis. The developer, Charles Burton, advertised it as “a safeguard from the encroachments of commercialism,” a paradise nestled in the city’s hinterlands.
Its homes were built after the fashion of European aristocrats—châteaus with large libraries and secret passages; cottages of ashlar masonry, brick, and stucco; servants’ quarters with separate stairwells. The lords of Palmer Woods vacationed in Europe, golfed at the Detroit Golf Club, and, excepting the live-in help, excluded blacks: “Said lots shall not be sold or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race,” read the Palmer Woods housing covenant, “but this shall not be interpreted to exclude occupancy by persons other than of the Caucasian race when such occupancy is incidental to their employment on the premises.”
When restrictive covenants were ruled unconstitutional in 1948, black families began moving in, infusing the customs of black America’s ancien régime into the ethos of old Detroit money. They pledged their children to Jack and Jill of America, joined the neighborhood association, and held potlucks and barbecues to raise money for local charities and black artists. Many had or went on to illustrious careers: Lamont Dozier was part of the popular Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland. Keith Ellison became the first Muslim congressman.
One afternoon, I visited Lorna Thomas in her English Tudor, a short walk from Seven Mile Road. Thomas’s great-great-great-uncle was the first African American in the Michigan state legislature. She proudly showed me the April 2, 1959, issue of Jet, with her on the cover clutching a test tube. “Lorna Lacen,” the caption read, using her maiden name, “Detroiter, 16, has A’s in prep subjects, takes special college courses.”
Now a dermatologist, Thomas went to Wellesley with Cokie Roberts and Nora Ephron. We sat at her kitchen bar for a spread of cranberry juice, coffee, and tea cakes. Then we took a 45-minute tour of her home. Her guest bathroom had a waterfall literally tumbling over the mirror, and an original Richard Yarde watercolor of Paul Robeson as Emperor Jones. “I did an interview for Crain’sDetroit Business about five years ago,” she told me. “The reporter came in and I said, ‘I want you to print something and I want you to print it just the way I say it: I live here because I chose to be in Detroit. I am not stuck. I could be anywhere I want.’”
Upper-middle-class survivalists such as Thomas consider residency in Palmer Woods a political act. As Elliott Hall, another resident I spoke with, put it, “Every advantage I received in my life came out of the city of Detroit.” Hall’s family had originally come up from Alabama and Arkansas to live in Black Bottom, the childhood home of Joe Louis and storied epicenter of black Detroit, lost to urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s. His family migrated westward with the years, following the retreat of white Detroiters. Now Hall stays with his son on Palmer Woods’ Lucerne Drive. “I got my grade-school and law-school education in Detroit. I sat on every nonprofit board in the city. And there are a number of other folks who feel the same way. And they’re willing to deal with crime and everything that goes along with it. It’s not like we’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough, we’re out of here.’ … We always have to believe things are going to turn around in a city that we love so much.”