Monica Mills knew Craig Covey as "that gay guy across the street," from her Ferndale home. The two moved to the city in the 1980s looking for an affordable house in a good, walk-able community. They found what they were looking for, but they also found a dying downtown and neighbors fearful that blight from Detroit would creep north into Ferndale as a result of the new I-696 freeway under construction a mile north.
"It was boring, very boring," Mills recalls of 9 Mile, where she worked at F&M, a discount drug store and anchor retail business on the largely vacant 9 Mile strip.
Covey says Ferndale's downtown at the time was "empty; absolutely empty." Although he thought the city was "teetering," Covey told friends that "Ferndale could be the next cool place that gay people might want to move to. It wasn't a plan, but it just started to catch hold. The gay folks who were here talked it up."
And gradually they came. It's what didn't happen that may be one of the more remarkable moments in the region's history: The longtime residents didn't flee.
New and improved neighbors
Mills, a straight woman, observed that as more gays and lesbians moved into the community, Ferndale's neighborhoods began to blossom, along with development downtown. A lesbian bookstore opened on 9 Mile amid empty storefronts, followed by a gay-friendly coffee house. Soon, there was foot traffic on 9 mile – not only more gays, but young people of all kinds, as the city developed a coolness that was distinct from the city's neighbors to the north, Royal Oak and Birmingham.
"Fashionable Ferndale," somewhat of a joke at first, assumed panache. Straight couples discovered the city's affordable homes, many small working class cottages tightly situated along shaded streets. A streetscape improvement narrowed 9 mile to two lanes forcing traffic to slow down and witness the transformation in the downtown storefronts.
When Covey came to the Detroit area from Ohio, he was unable to find a gay community. The gay community, once centered in Detroit's Palmer Park area, spread throughout the region. As more gays moved to Ferndale, they began to organize. The city established the state's first gay residential association, according to Covey.
Gays and lesbians formed a civic booster club and held events to raise money for community causes and to combat hate crimes, Mills recalls. "They wanted to show folks that they had something to contribute, which they did, wholeheartedly. They planted flowers in front of the historical museum, made a donation to the library, and got involved politically. They sponsored debates, that's when I was introduced to the gay community." Soon, there was an art fair. And then the Motor City Pride Fest moved to Ferndale, formally anointing the city as the gay center of the metro area.
Mills finally met her neighbor from across the street in the mid '90s when Covey ran for city council. When he introduced himself to Monica and her husband Larry, they immediately liked him. "We got involved in his campaign," says Monica. "As a result, we got to know more gay people who were supporting him and made great friends. We enjoyed their company, they enjoyed ours. We had a lot to offer each other. It was the start of something great."
Mills, raised in Oak Park but attended Ferndale High School, recalls that some of her high school friends who moved out to newer suburbs were returning in the 1990s. "They moved somewhere else that didn't have that down-home feeling," she says. The city was stable and showing signs of new life. Gays moving into Ferndale "had a genuine interest in their neighborhoods, the downtown area," Mills says. Something was happening in Ferndale. It was a "changing community," but for the better.
She noticed a change in the community fabric. There was visible increase in minorities. "As I walk in the morning I see who's coming and going, you see all different types of people, all different nationalities, different races. The schools are more diverse than they have ever been, which is a good thing," Mills says. "I think it's important for children to grow up with someone from another race and realize from the beginning that there isn't that much of a difference."
The city would eventually elect Covey as its mayor, the first openly gay mayor in Michigan. In his 2008 state of the city address in May, Covey cited a city with a balanced budget, poised for continued growth, despite the housing slump and overall economic malaise of the state. Noting the organizing role Ferndale played in establishing the Michigan Ring Suburbs Alliance, a network of older suburbs surrounding Detroit, he proclaimed the end of urban sprawl: "As far as Urban Sprawl, we stick a fork in it, as it is done. Plowing up land miles from the cities with subdivisions and strip malls is impractical, wasteful, and unsustainable."
Building a 'Creative Community'
Referencing Richard Florida's book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," Covey cited Ferndale as having the affordability, urban lifestyle and cultural attractions that attract young, creative people, but noted a key attribute: "We must not just accept diversity, but embrace it, understand it and appreciate it." That diversity, he says, is evident in the city's population: "the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, the Gen Xers and Gen Ys, and now the New Millennials, all are stakeholders in this cool experiment."
Perhaps the best example of how the diversity works in Ferndale is the long friendship between Monica and Larry Mills and Covey, resulting in social and political collaboration, even a music festival. Attending the Chicago Blues Festival, several years ago, Craig recalls Larry saying, "This is so great. How come we had to go so far to do this?" The next year, they established the city's blues festival.
Ferndale's success, according to Covey, is due in large part to the emergence of the gay community. "To me, the gay community and Ferndale's renaissance are intimately tied together," says Covey.
Today, Affirmations, a gay and lesbian community center, occupies the former F&M space, and 9 Mile is vibrant. In his 2008 address, Covey notes: "We have been and still are among the movers and shakers in the renewal and reawakening of our city in all facets of the city and this great benefit is something that is valuable to our city."
Where else would a mayor, his State of the City Address, chide other elected officials caught in extramarital affairs, saying "the good people of Ferndale can rest easy at night knowing their mayor will not ever sleep with another man's wife."
For more information on Ferndale, visit www.ferndale-mi.com.
Dennis Archambault is a frequent contributor to Metromode. His last article was
Why No Respect For Rentals?
Ferndale's Mayor, Craig Covey
Tree lined Ferndale street
Gay and lesbian community center, AffirmationsPhotographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.