DETROIT -- On a grassy lot on a quiet block on a graceful
boulevard stands the answer to a perplexing question: Why does
the typical house in Detroit sell for $7,100?
The brick-and-stucco home at 1626 W. Boston Blvd. has watched
almost a century of Detroit's ups and downs, through industrial
brilliance and racial discord, economic decline and financial
collapse. Its owners have played a part in it all. There was the
engineer whose innovation elevated auto makers into kings; the
teacher who watched fellow whites flee to the suburbs; the black
plumber who broke the color barrier; the cop driven out by crime.
The last individual owner was a subprime borrower, who lost the
house when investors foreclosed.
A city that began a slow slide 60 years ago has now entered a
free fall, pushed by the twin crises of housing and cars.
Detroit's population peaked at 1.85 million in the 1950 census.
It is now less than half that. In July, unemployment hit 28.9%,
almost triple the national average.
And the median selling price for a home stood at a paltry $7,100
as of July, according to First American CoreLogic Inc., a real-
estate research firm -- down from $73,000 three years earlier. A
typical house in Cleveland sells for $65,000. One in St. Louis
goes for $120,000.
But, battered and forlorn today, both Detroit and 1626 W. Boston
Blvd. were solid and optimistic 90 years ago.
Truman Newberry: Laying a Foundation
Early in the 20th century, Detroit was the place to make money,
and to Truman H. Newberry, the ground beneath the city's Boston-
Edison neighborhood was the way to make it.
Mr. Newberry, the son of a congressman, was a founding investor
in Packard Motor Car Co., a maker of luxury autos. A portly man
with a pince-nez and bushy moustache, he also dabbled in
politics: In the 1918 race for the U.S. Senate, he defeated
Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Co.
A campaign-spending scandal quickly brought Mr. Newberry's
political career to a halt. But Detroit was growing rapidly --
leaping from the country's 13th most populous city to its fourth
in the first two decades of the 1900s -- and Mr. Newberry and
his brother owned land in an up-and-coming area called Boston-
They subdivided it into roomy parcels to accommodate Detroit's
Clarence Avery: Industrial Innovator
In 1917, the Newberry brothers sold a lot on West Boston
Boulevard to Clarence and Lura Avery. The covenants required the
Averys to spend at least $5,000 on construction of the new
house, which had to sit 50 feet from the front lot line and be
built of brick, stone or stucco.
Mr. Avery, born in 1882, taught shop to Henry Ford's son, Edsel.
"You have an engineering mind," Edsel told Mr. Avery, according
to the latter's grandson, Avery Greene.
Soon, through his friendship with Edsel, Mr. Avery landed a job
at Ford. He started on a three-month internship at 25 cents an
hour. At the time, Mr. Ford was pushing his men to speed
production of the Model Ts, each of which then took 12� man-
hours to build. Today, historians credit Mr. Avery, more than
anyone else, for turning Mr. Ford's wishes into a breakthrough
that would change the nature of American industry: the moving
Mr. Avery wandered Ford's Highland Park plant, stop-watch in
hand, learning how the cars were built. He studied meat-packing
plants, where hog carcasses were disassembled on a conveyor. His
team tested its theories by dragging a car chassis across the
The moving assembly line -- on which workers repeated specific
tasks as the vehicles passed by -- cut assembly time for a Model
T by almost 80%, to 2.7 man-hours.
As Ford and Detroit prospered, so did the Averys. Their move
from a small house near the Ford plant to their freshly
constructed home on West Boston Boulevard was a steep climb up
the social ladder. Henry Ford's own starter mansion stood close
The Avery home had four bedrooms and a third-floor suite for the
German maid. There was a butler's pantry off of the kitchen and
a fireplace in the living room. Mrs. Avery set trellises against
the front of the house and hung frilled curtains in the upstairs
windows. Shortly after moving in, she gave birth to Anabel in a
bedroom facing the street.
"I loved that house," says Anabel Avery Baxley, now 91 and
living in Alabama. "I don't think I ever felt quite the same
about a house as I did about that house."
Autos made a number of Detroiters very rich and they yearned for
more exclusive housing. The Averys, too, built a grander home on
a wooded lot in ritzy Palmer Woods.
John Crawford: Pushed Out
In 1924, they rented out, and later sold, 1626 W. Boston Blvd.
to Edsel Ford's personal assistant, John Crawford, and his first
Edsel headed a design team trying to add style to Ford
functionality. As part of that, "I had to figure out how or if
the car could be built," Mr. Crawford was quoted as saying in a
1974 Special-Interest Auto magazine article. "Could we form a
sheet of steel to the desired shape? Was the chrome trim
Ford was a Machiavellian workplace, where members of one faction
drilled peepholes to spy on their bureaucratic opponents,
according to a book about the era by Thomas E. Bonsall. In this
environment, Mr. Crawford -- who retained the heavy brogue of
his native Scotland -- also served as Edsel's protector,
according to the reminiscences of Bob Gregorie, a Ford designer
at the time.
In the early 1940s as Edsel Ford was dying of cancer, his
enemies ousted Mr. Crawford. Mr. Crawford moved to Massachusetts
and put 1626 W. Boston Blvd. on the market.
By then, the street had slipped a notch in desirability.
Detroit's well-to-do moved to more grandiose housing in Grosse
Pointe and other suburbs, their commutes made possible by the
very automobiles that had made them rich.
Marie Ryan: From White to Black
That allowed people of more modest means, such as Marie E. Ryan,
a single schoolteacher, to aspire to West Boston Boulevard. She
was born in 1894 in Ypsilanti, Mich., a town of 7,000, where in
1900 the average farmer owned 48 sheep and 108 acres.
Ms. Ryan's father was a conductor on the Michigan Central
Railroad, her mother an immigrant from France. Graduating high
school in 1911, she was named "school prophetess" -- a position
she fulfilled by writing a whimsical essay predicting her
classmates' futures. One boy would build a "wireless telegraph
station" on the North Pole, she said; another would woo his love
from a "flying machine." The Rust sisters would end up lion
Miss Ryan herself went on to attend Michigan State Normal
College, then spent 35 years teaching music in the Detroit
public schools. She was 48 when she bought 1626 W. Boston Blvd.
in 1942, taking out a $5,000, 20-year mortgage at a fixed 4.5%
interest rate. Her monthly principal-and-interest payments came
When she moved in, the neighborhood was still fashionable for
whites. That changed during the 23 years she owned the house.
In 1910, blacks accounted for just 1.2% of the total population
of 465,766. By 1960, the percentage had grown to 29% of 1.7
Competition for jobs and homes became acute. The tensions
accelerated the use of real-estate covenants to prevent blacks,
Jews and other minorities from moving in. Between 1940 and 1947,
every new Detroit subdivision barred black residents, says
Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania historian.
Some deeds in the Boston-Edison neighborhood had such
restrictions, but not 1626 W. Boston. Early in the century, few
owners in white neighborhoods would have sold to a black family
in any case.
By the 1950s, however, the white exodus to the suburbs was in
full swing, and the neighborhood became a prestigious address
for black doctors and lawyers seeking the large houses, leafy
streets and social status.
In 1965, Miss Ryan, 71 and still single, sold 1626 W. Boston
Blvd. to its first black owners, Herman and Ida Adams.
Adams Family: Blue-Collar Elite
For Mr. and Mrs. Adams, buying the house was a social high-jump.
Mr. Adams had moved north from Georgia just before World War II.
He joined the Army as a cook, but ended up fighting at the
Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and earning a Bronze Star, according
to his son, Bob Adams. After the war, Mr. Adams landed a job
stamping out engine parts for Chrysler.
On the side, Mr. Adams and his two brothers-in-law ran a
plumbing business. One was American Indian and light-skinned
enough to pass for European white. So he wore a suit and
pretended to be the boss to win white customers, while the
darker men, posing as his employees, did the plumbing.
"They couldn't believe that people went for it, but they did,"
recalls Bob Adams.
Mrs. Adams was a prize-winning typist and graduate of all-black
Lewis Business College. She owned beauty shops and worked as a
state unemployment-claims examiner.
The family had been living in a Polish, working-class
neighborhood. Bob Adams recalls his mother getting a phone call
in the 1950s from a real-estate agent who, apparently thinking
the Adamses were white, urged them to sell by warning that
blacks were moving into the neighborhood. "They're coming," the
agent told Mrs. Adams, according to Bob Adams.
The old neighborhood did shift from Polish to black. But, in any
case, Mrs. Adams wanted to move up to Boston-Edison.
"My mother wanted to move over there because she desired to have
a bigger house -- plain and simple," says the couple's daughter,
Veronica Adams, now 49. Mr. and Mrs. Adams borrowed $14,500 to
pay for the home on West Boston.
Veronica loved peering out of her second-floor bedroom window at
the leaves of the American elm in the front yard. When Dutch elm
disease swept down Boston Boulevard, the city nailed a notice to
the tree, marking it for removal. Veronica used her father's
claw hammer to pull the sign down -- several times.
"They can take any other tree in the neighborhood, but they're
not taking my tree," she recalls thinking. Eventually, the city
did cut down the tree.
Ava Tinsley, a black neighbor, played jacks on the Adams' front
porch as a girl. She remembers scraping her hand when the jacks
snagged the rough edges of the red-brown tiles.
Veronica and Bob recall the black doctors on the block,
including one who owned a motor home, a stretch limo, a Corvette
and two Lincolns. Veronica recalls complaints about how the
doctors' families snubbed the auto workers' families.
Mrs. Adams died of lung cancer in 1966, leaving Mr. Adams to
raise the children alone just as manufacturing in Detroit began
its long slide. City factories shed about 130,000 jobs between
the mid-1950s and the late 1960s, according to Prof. Sugrue.
The economic unease contributed to a volatile atmosphere in
1967. On a hot night in July, police raided a "blind pig," an
unlicensed saloon in a black neighborhood, and arrested 85
people. The incident escalated into five days of rioting that
left 43 dead.
Across from the Adams house, young Michelle May, an African-
American, peeked through closed curtains at the looters running
in the street. "If there were any more white or Jewish people,
they got out of here after that," says Ms. May, 46, who still
For Mr. Adams, the riots presented a chance to leap the color
barrier at the auto plant where he worked. During the violence,
white workers stayed away from the factory. When a couple of
sinks broke, there was no union pipe-fitter to do the repairs.
"If you give me the wrenches, I'll fix it," Herman Adams told
the plant superintendent, according to Bob Adams.
Later, the boss made sure Mr. Adams made it onto the union
apprenticeship program -- a career path largely closed to blacks
at the time. In 1979, Mr. Adams retired from Chrysler a master
pipe-fitter, one of the blue-collar aristocracy.
But Detroit and the auto industry were declining in tandem. In
1980, Chrysler skated past bankruptcy only through the
intercession of the Carter administration. Struggling to adjust
to consumers' desire for reliable, fuel-efficient cars, car
makers shuttered Detroit factories.
After her father died in 1989, Veronica Adams, then a security
officer with the city water department, lived in the house. She
tired of poor services, high taxes and rising crime. The family
fell behind on property taxes, both Adams children say.
In 1999, an appraiser valued the home at $104,000 and said it
needed $12,000 in repairs to patch the plaster and fix plumbing
in three of the four bathrooms.
David Andrews: 'Such a Steal'
The idea of being urban pioneers appealed to David Andrews, a
young, black Detroit police officer, and his wife, Ruth.
Scouting Boston-Edison for a house in 1999, they spotted
Veronica Adams pounding a for-sale sign into the yard at 1626 W.
They closed the deal for $79,900. "It was in some disrepair,"
Mr. Andrews recalls. "But we thought, given the values in the
neighborhood, it was such a steal."
The Andrews turned a blind eye to the vacant house across the
street. They borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for
improvements and to buy a car. They refinished the oak floors.
They replaced the furnace and pipes.
Mr. Andrews, now 42, used the third-floor maid's quarters as his
hideaway. Soon after they moved in, Ms. Andrews, now 40, became
pregnant with their first child.
Starting in the 1990s, American car companies enjoyed a brief
interlude of optimism brought on by low gasoline prices and a
boom in sports-utility vehicles. Detroit, like the nation as a
whole, got caught up in the housing bubble.
The Andrews watched happily as their own house's value rose. But
crime drained their enthusiasm. Three times, thieves broke into
their cars. "When they come into my house, I'm out of here," Mr.
Andrews told a neighbor at the time, they both recall.
Not long afterwards, Mr. Andrews found his house pillaged. The
antique chairs were gone. A trail of his CDs crossed the front
lawn. The couple found a house they wanted on a golf course. But
it took them a year to sell 1626 W. Boston Blvd.
Kimberly Carpenter: Big, Risky Debt Pile
In 2005, they found a buyer, Kimberly Carpenter, willing to pay
their $189,000 asking price. They were too relieved to question
why Ms. Carpenter's closing documents recorded the sales price
"We were just praying and praying we could sell it so we could
move to the golf course," says Ms. Andrews.
County records show Ms. Carpenter took out simultaneous loans of
$200,000 and $50,000 from First NLC Financial Services, a unit
of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group, an Arlington, Va.,
investment bank. First NLC specialized in subprime mortgages --
loans for borrowers with damaged credit.
At the time, Detroit was swept up in the subprime-lending frenzy
that hit much of the country and eventually sparked the
financial crisis and deep recession. Lenders became quick to
loan to high-risk borrowers.
Ms. Carpenter, 37, says she was buying the house on behalf of
her father, Lewis Maxwell, whose own credit record was too
blemished. "My father handled all of that," she says of the
financial details. Her father, who worked on the Chrysler
assembly line, died of cancer in 2007.
David and Ruth Andrews say Ms. Carpenter paid them $189,000.
They say they don't know what happened to the other $61,000
entered into sales records.
"I have no idea about any of that," says Ms. Carpenter. "It's
over. It's out of my head."
Neighbors say nobody maintained or lived in 1626 W. Boston Blvd.
A lawyer for the neighborhood association wrote a letter to Ms.
Carpenter urging her to clean the property.
"Houses that are vacant and/or in obvious disrepair invite
vandalism, theft and stripping, which not only destroys your
property value, but impacts adversely on the neighborhood as a
whole," the letter stated.
American Residential Equities: Foreclosed
Ms. Carpenter quickly fell behind on her payments. In August,
2006, First NLC Financial bundled Ms. Carpenter's first loan
with a pool of other troubled mortgages and sold them to
American Residential Equities, or ARE, a Miami company that
specialized in buying bad loans.
First NLC Financial went into liquidation last January, dragged
down by mortgage losses. Its parent company, FBR Group, became
Arlington Asset Investment Corp. A spokesman for Arlington said
the company can't locate the original files on the Carpenter
loans or comment on the lending decision.
By November 2006, ARE's collection agents were after Ms.
Carpenter for $218,348.53 on the $200,000 mortgage, according to
A few months later, ARE foreclosed, and in February 2007 a
deputy sheriff auctioned the property at city hall. No outside
bidder was willing to pay the $170,000 minimum.
In early 2008, Ms. Carpenter filed for bankruptcy protection,
according to court records. ARE, meanwhile, sold the house to
Petra Finance LLC, a private, Miami-based investment firm. In
May 2008, Petra Finance put the house on the market for $75,000.
Unable to find a buyer for almost a year, the company ratcheted
down the asking price to $14,500.
Lisa Johanon: A New Beginning
This past April, the Central Detroit Christian Community
Development Corp., a nonprofit, bought Clarence Avery's house
One day this summer, Lisa Johanon, the group's executive
director, undid the padlock on John Crawford's boarded-up front
door. Sheets of peeling paint hung from Marie Ryan's kitchen
ceiling. Advertising fliers littered the porch where Veronica
Adams's neighbors played jacks. The glass was missing from the
window on the staircase to David Andrews's third-floor
sanctuary. Kimberly Carpenter's radiators had been stolen.
Usually, Ms. Johanon's charity provides subsidized housing in
the poorest neighborhoods -- where ice-cream cones are sold from
behind bullet-proof glass -- not high-end areas such as Boston-
Edison. But now some 100 out of the 900-odd houses in Boston-
Edison are vacant.
If you can't save 1626 W. Boston Blvd., Ms. Johanon wondered
aloud, what hope is there for the rest of Detroit? Walking
through, she noted the heavily stained carpet and the rickety
back steps, but also the rich woodwork and the clawfoot tub.
She hopes her group can revive the house and find a new family
willing to bet on Detroit. "A minimal spec, I'd say, would be
$30,000 to $35,000, and it would be in pretty good shape," she
�Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael....@wsj.com
Corrections & Amplifications:
John Crawford was married to Mary Crawford when they moved into
the house at 1626 W. Boston Blvd. in Detroit in 1924. Mr.
Crawford continued to live in the home with his second wife,
Minnetta Crawford, after his first wife's death. An earlier
version of this article stated that John and Minnetta Crawford
were already married at the time he took possession of the house.
In addition, in some editions this article was accompanied by
pictures of six of the property's owners: Truman Newberry,
Clarence Avery, Herman Adams, Veronica Adams, and David and Ruth
Andrews. The caption with the six photos incorrectly included
the names of John Crawford and Marie Ryan, who were also
property owners but who weren't pictured.