The Detroit Opportunity Project

social justice and the American Dream in Detroit, MI

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America’s Destiny Divide - Alter Road, Detroit

This afternoon, I’ve been watching the MSNBC Special on “Making the Grade” in Detroit.  Given the enriching discussion on the culture of schools, disadvantaged neighborhoods and the zip-code debate, I can’t help but submit some detail from my research on the nature of opportunity at Alter Road.  I asked plain questions regarding American Opportunity based on one’s residence.  Here’s an excerpt from my thesis to help add context, data, and scholarship on the issue of the difference between growing up in opportunity rich and opportunity poor neighborhoods:


Detroit’s geography—visibly blighted, with 26% of residential parcels abandoned—makes Thomas Sugrue’s thesis that “geography is destiny” both utterly compelling and profoundly troubling.[1] Cleaved by race and class as much or more than any large city in America, Detroit’s regional landscape paints the nation’s extraordinary diversity while illuminating the profound divergence of economic classes at every turn—from the ghetto poor, to the blue collar cul-de-sacs, to the estate class, and everything in between—you’ll find this brutal divergence throughout Detroit. 

And nowhere is this chasm more poetically displayed than Alter Road.

In contrasts almost worthy of fiction, the 2005-2009 American Community Survey revealed the Detroit side of Alter Road at over 85% African American, more than 50% of households earn less than $30,000 annually, and less than 10% of adults have a bachelors degree; Grosse Pointe’s census tracts directly across from Alter Road are nearly polar opposite: over 85% white, only 22% of households earn less than $30,000 per year and over 50% of adults have a bachelors degree.[2]  In one glaring example, median home values at this otherwise arbitrary political line are separated by over $150,000.  Detroit’s side of Alter Road is marred by large swaths of urban decay and blight, while the pristine streets of Grosse Pointe mark the separation with lush green medians and sail-boat embossed street signs.[3] Over the course of 6 blocks in either direction, a devastating physical landscape unfolds which powerfully reveals the stark contrasts of America’s poor and privileged classes. To call the divide at Alter Road anything less than jarring would be an understatement of fact. 

This divide is not new.  Writing a full generation removed in 1985, Kenneth Jackson described it this way in Crabgrass Frontier “The most conspicuous city-suburb contrast in the United States runs along Detroit’s Alter Road. Locals call the street the ‘Berlin Wall’ or the ‘barrier,’ or the ‘Mason Dixon Line.’ It divides suburban Grosse Point Communities, which are the most genteel in towns anywhere, from the east side of Detroit, which is poor and mostly black. The Detroit side is studded with abandoned cars, graffiti covered schools, and burned out buildings. Two blocks away, within view, are neatly clipped hedges and immaculate houses – a world of servants and charity balls, two-car garages     and expensive clothes.  On one side, says John Kelly, a Democratic state senator whose district awkwardly straddles both neighborhoods, is ‘West Beirut;’ on the other side, ‘Disneyland.’ [4]

Stark inequality between Detroit and Grosse Pointe at Alter Road illuminates core questions: can it be sincerely asserted that children living on both sides of this divide possess equal opportunity?  Is the American dream equally available to them? 

For anyone taking these issues seriously, the answer is plainly no. Indeed, a gnawing sensation of injustice that hovers over this great American chasm. That some people that live in Detroit along Alter Road, through sheer family will or ingenuity, attend Grosse Point Schools for the apparent advantages such an education conferred compared to Detroit Public Schools should be evidence enough for the complicating nature of family strategies to overcome disadvantage based on their home address.  That such practices are shunned or criminalized masks the fundamental problem of unequal access to high quality and learning rich school environments.  As one parent told me: “My kids will have my mom’s address, it’s the same cycle. DPS schools just aint it! I love Detroit, but it’s not it.” Although in practice an illegal act, such address switching based on zip code inequalities should reveal the depth of the challenge for disadvantaged parents.  

The absence of equal life opportunities at birth in America and across the world is widely discernable.[1]  Although no child chooses her parents, her nation or her opportunity structures, we are able with startling accuracy to predict the life outcomes of the vast majority of the world’s children based on a few arbitrary markers before their first days on Earth.  Family income, parental education, and national citizenship are foremost among these; such predictors chillingly calculate the likelihood of a child surviving his 5th birthday, becoming literate, and securing economic or social mobility almost exclusively from exogenous factors, speaking little if nothing to his potential abilities, personality, intelligence, and drive to achieve in the world. [2]  

The continued presence of such injustice in America, the world’s wealthiest nation, is striking. That persistent unequal life chances for any child isn’t more alarming given the national devotion to equal opportunity for all, raises questions for how to mobilize anew energy on behalf of the disadvantaged.  Indeed, while many humble efforts have been made to isolate the root causes of urban poverty, and although it may be naïve to think it is possible to avoid a causal debate entirely, I emphasize the importance of exploring an integrative analysis for how culture and social structure intersect in urban poverty. 

That intersection offers social policy pathways that could accelerate both the opportunity structures and the cultural mechanism for disadvantaged populations so that we may yet break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.


We can surmise that opportunity structures at Alter Road from 1960 to the present are largely the product of durable racial dichotomies and the cumulative effects of intergenerational poverty. The city’s suburban white flight, deindustrialization, and the low educational preparedness and family fragmentation patterns in low income black communities compound the challenge of fostering equal opportunity for these neighborhoods.

The polarized difference between Detroit and Grosse Pointe emerged over a relatively short period of time, and has truly deepened over the last 30 years. Such shifts in housing patterns matter because, as the Kirwin institute puts it, “due to geographic variation, not everyone has access to the critical opportunities needed to excel or advance in life. Many low-income communities, particularly communities of color, are often spatially isolated and segregated from critical opportunities. This spatial segregation from opportunity not only limits the development potential for individuals, but also reduces the development capacity of the entire region’s most important asset, its people.”[1]

 I conclude by noting that one’s environment drives the context for lifestyles and acceptable social behavior.  While values, beliefs and low individual and collective efficacy thwart renewal efforts, they are not the fundamental cause of the divide, but rather its consequence.  They are the consequence of hostile political, economic and social environments, including schools, which foreclosed opportunity for most low income blacks on Alter Road. This context can lose the most crucial fact: real families live in these circumstances, make decisions, frame worldviews, develop personal narratives, and make cumulatively consequential decisions about how to pursue the American Dream, including whether and if such a dream is genuinely possible for them in the first place. 

In order to “make the grade,” we must do better in our schools and as a nation to overcome the profound divides so palpably evident based on one’s home address.  Whether its in Detroit at places like Alter Road, or in your own hometown, it’s time we change the narrative by opening up opportunity for disadvantaged children to attend the best schools possible and begin curbing the other effects that forestall economic and social mobility for all.

Unless and until we can overcome the destiny divide for anyone born at any address in America, then the struggle for social justice in the United States—the struggle for America itself—will remain incomplete.

[1] For land parcel data, see Data Driven Detroit’s land parcel survey. It found that 26 percent of the city’s residential parcels – or 91,000 lots – were vacant.  See this page for more information:  An example map can be located here:

[2] Derived from averages of census tracts 5126, 5129, 5232 in Detroit with Alter Road as the eastern border and census tracts 5501 and 5502 on the Grosse Pointe Park side bordering Alter Road in “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block.” The New York Times, by Mathew Bloch, Shan Carter and Alan McLean which relied on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2005-2009

[3] Officially, Alter Road is situated entirely within the city of Detroit, but is the last line of housing stock on the city’s eastern border. Grosse Pointe Park is the first of “the Pointes” which run along the eastern border of Wayne County. Grosse Pointe is used here as short hand for the area overall, but it should be noted this town is slightly further east, and the census tracts used are in Grosse Pointe Park.

[4] Jackson, Kenneth Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, 1985, quoted in, The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of life in the Motor City, April 2006, p 86


[1] powel, john a. et al “The Geography of Opportunity: Review of Opportunity Mapping Research Initiatives,” p 2

[1] Most scholars on citizenship and human equality across nationalities readily concede the point: see global indicators on child mortality, educational achievement, healthcare access and economic stability, and others at

[2] See

Filed under Detroit Making the Grade MSNBC Innequality Zip-Code Debate A Stronger America Alter Road

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