One stroll through Woodbridge, and it’s impossible not to feel the deep history of this place. Hundred-year-old trees line the streets of the historic district creating a shaded canopy for 19th century Victorian era homes. Unique architectural details dating back to when this area was a turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb make for a surprise at every corner.
Cars line the narrow streets and bicycles appear to be the other choice mode of transportation. Residents of all ages tend to sit on their front porches for entertainment instead of watching television, and neighbors actually know one another on a first-name basis.
Woodbridge has managed to stay true to itself — even though these days it’s not uncommon for residents to find a Comedy Central production crew outside their home, filming the sitcom Detroiters.
More than anything, neighborhood residents want others to recognize the diverse nature of its people — from city leaders, employees from nearby hospitals, to students and teachers at Wayne State University and everyone in between. The unique people here are the core of Woodbridge.
Woodbridge sits on the west side of Midtown, adjacent to Wayne State University and near Henry Ford Hospital, with easy access to all freeways. Many people are familiar with the beautiful homes of Woodbridge’s Historical District, but just across Trumbull Avenue sits Woodbridge Estates, a newly constructed housing community with streets named after Motown musicians. This area was developed on the former site of the Jeffries Housing Project.
The housing project has since been demolished and redeveloped, and today Woodbridge Estates is a new and popular place for families and students to live. It also sits right next to the William Clay Ford Field, a well-kept baseball field where the Woodbridge community rallies together for youth baseball games.
The history and juxtaposition of new and old unites the Woodbridge neighborhood and has formed a very vocal, hands-on community that passes their historical homes down from one family generation to the next.
Take Eva Napier’s word for it. She’s lived here since 1967 and raised five kids in the home that cost her and her husband $8,000. When she’s not at church or on the Detroit RiverWalk, you can find Napier outside on her large porch talking with her children and grandchildren. She’s just one example of many in this neighborhood who plan to keep their historic home in the family.
“We moved here early before the riots started and there were a lot of stores on Trumbull back then,” Napier says. “My husband worked at Cadillac and I worked downtown at the time. I loved how close we were to everything and the neighbors were always nice.”
Napier says her neighborhood was never fully affected by the riots and that she’s never been burglarized. She feels safe here and knows all her neighbors.
Down the street from Napier lives Woodbridge Pub owner Jim Geary. When he opened the pub in September 2008, it was right as the economic crash and Kwame Kilpatrick indictment were underway. It was also the first bar and restaurant to open in the neighborhood in decades.
“The neighborhood needed a place to call home and to spark the walkable potential that has followed,” Geary says.
It’s the culmination of a long effort.
“Woodbridge is special for the passion of the people living here,” Geary adds. “Long before me there were people who cared deeply and sacrificed to preserve the homes and diversity here. The history here is remarkable and I can only hope the future reflects more of the same.”
Nevertheless, Geary currently has the Woodbridge Pub up for sale, including the land and green shop across the street. He wants to find a buyer who will continue running the pub.
“I am selling to spend more time with family and to continue to develop property in the area, hopefully to continue making this the greatest neighborhood in all of existence,” Geary says. “It’s a little-known fact that Woodbridge is historically one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the area and maybe the country. Long being the safe place for interracial couples, the gay community and everyone else. This diversity isn’t what drew me here, but is a significant factor in why I stayed. I believe this is the ideal America. The America I want to live in.”
Success like Woodbridge Pub has paved the way for more restaurants and bars to open here. Pie-Sci, a trendy pizza joint opened up shop right next door to the pub last year, and, according to the Detroit Free Press, it was recently announced that the partners behind Takoi, a popular Thai-influenced restaurant, are plotting a food and beverage development within Woodbridge inside an old Magnet Radiator Works building on Grand River Avenue.
Besides the tight-knit diverse community, the overall perception of feeling safe here draws new residents, largely due to the policing by the Wayne State University Police Department. In 2012, the WSU PD expanded their patrol boundary to include all of Woodbridge.
“The WSU president met with representatives from major local institutions, including Henry Ford Hospital, DMC, Wayne State, and Midtown leaders like Sue Mosey. The goal was to increase the population in Midtown by 15,000 people by the year 2015,” Wayne State University Police Chief Anthony Holt says. “They wanted people to move and work down here, but when they got off work, they didn’t want them to shoot off to the suburbs.”
Holt has made it his duty to patrol the entire Woodbridge neighborhood with a data-driven strategy and residents are full of praise for the service they receive.
“We adopted Woodbridge and took it under our wing,” Holt says. “The perception of crime was worse than the actual crimes happening here at the time, but if people don’t feel safe, they’re going to spread the word and that affects everything negatively.”
Kim Cockrel is a prime example of someone who feels at home. She started renting in this neighborhood as a Wayne State student where she met her husband, Kenneth Cockrel Jr, who served as the interim Detroit mayor in 2008 after Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and resigned. The couple purchased their 200-year-old home in 1991, and have raised their five kids here.
The Cockrel home has quadrupled in value since they originally purchased it, but that’s not the reason why they stay.
“We’ve got a lot of community-minded residents here that care about the community as a whole. This is probably one of the most economically diverse areas in the city,” Cockrel says. “You’ve got people in Section 8 Housing all the way to multimillionaires, and we all coexist.
Long-time Woodbridge resident Michael McDonald can attest to the rental market. He lives in the neighborhood full-time and manages rental properties in the area.
“They don’t stay available for long at all,” he says.
McDonald owns a Victorian home today, but started as a renter himself nearly 30 years ago.
“I moved down here in ‘89 when a lot of the houses were still vacant and the streets weren’t that nice, but it was a fun neighborhood because there were a lot of characters down here,” he says. “It was cheap rent and a much wilder neighborhood back then. Lots of artists, and it was here where I met the first person I’d ever met to have a sex change.”
One thing all Victorian homeowners acknowledge is the cost of upkeep to maintain their homes. Brian Ambrozy moved here five years ago, into a home that was built in 1899. Despite the cost to live in Woodbridge, he says his neighbors are what keep him here.
“They are massive old structures that were built for the very wealthy in the 19th century. People who aren’t very wealthy, like us and most of our neighbors, have to get creative and resourceful to maintain them,” Ambrozy says. “The architecture is second-to-none. The people who live here are all wonderful, creative, diverse, goofy, weird, resourceful and helpful. We don’t all see eye-to-eye, but we do all feel like neighbors who are very protective of our weird little corner of Detroit.”
So next time you’re in the area, take a stroll through this diverse neighborhood and soak up all its glorious weirdness.