The line at Qahwa House is long on a (worryingly) warm Friday night in December—but that’s normal basically any night of the week, even amid a COVID-19 surge.

The coffeehouse in West Dearborn was thrumming with life, dozens of people laughing over plates of sabayah and kids sneaking sips of lattes. There is an unmistakable scent of espresso and of the cinnamon and cardamom in glass kettles of Adeni tea. Whenever friends or family visit, I bring them here.

At Qahwa House, you get a taste of life in Dearborn: diverse, hospitable and warm. Warm in that small-town, carefree-summers-as-a-kid way. Dearborn is warm in a way that pierced my heart more than a decade ago and took hold.

West Dearborn looks nothing like it did when my family first moved here in 2008 from New York. The transformation comes with a host of complicated feelings. But I’m focusing on the positives, for now. 

When I was a teenager, our idea of fun was rollerblading to the Starbucks on Michigan Avenue across the street from the library—a semi-affordable option that fit our two-figure budgets. Along with the Starbucks, the main downtown area back then spanned one block and consisted of a Men’s Wearhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, Buddy’s and, at one point, one of  only a handful of Panera Cares in the nation. Beside these spots, the rest of downtown was either empty buildings or slow retailers.  

The Great Recession had impacted Dearborn across the board, including downtown businesses. Property owners fell into bankruptcy and vacancy rates climbed, reaching its worst at 38% in 2015, according to the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce and Dearborn Downtown Development Authorities.

Michigan Avenue, between Monroe and Mason streets, is a succession  of restaurants and retailers as part of the Wagner Place development. Photo credit: Miriam Marini

The downtown now stretches down multiple blocks of Michigan Avenue. Vacancy is down to 4%. You can get a 34-ounce Wagyu tomahawk steak in that stretch for $165 or two chicken tenders and fries for about $12 somewhere else. You have at least four spots to get a croissant, including Qahwa House, which opened in 2019. 

As a resident, it feels like downtown West Dearborn transformed overnight into a family-friendly, walkable sophisticated and yet still homey space—complete with twinkly lights hanging across a green space. As a reporter, I know better that this redevelopment has been years in the making.

Integration as a goal

One of the most significant infusions of people and investment came in May 2017 when Ford broke ground on Wagner Place after years of community forums and brainstorming. Wagner Place is a 150,000-square-foot, mixed-use development with retail and restaurant space on street-level and offices on the second and third floors.

The center of Wagner Place features a Green space with outdoor seating for restaurants and community events, like family movie nights and farmers markets, in the warmer months. Photo credit: Miriam Marini

“We didn’t want to be Ford Motor Company that’s placed in the city of Dearborn, we really wanted to integrate it,” said Jackie Shuk, global director of Ford Land, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Co. that controls its commercial and office real estate. “Our vision was to really integrate within that community, with our consumers, and be a part of that community and that ecosystem.”

The partnership with Ford has positioned downtown West Dearborn to be on par with other suburban downtowns like Royal Oak or Birmingham.

“It was definitely a drive and intent to work together to create a vibrant downtown experience for everybody,” said Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive manager of the Dearborn Downtown Development Authorities. “And knowing that it should be based on dining and entertainment because that’s what people have come to know Dearborn for.”

Dearborn restaurants, like Al Ameer or Shatila Bakery, have been a draw for decades. But positioning a diverse array of dining options within such a short distance in downtown West Dearborn has contributed to the liveliness of Michigan Avenue. 

“If you just look around, it has become just such a linchpin of someplace you can walk and really have cuisine from almost any place from the world inside of four or five blocks,” said Jackie Lovejoy, president and CEO of the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the largest small town you’ll ever be a part of.”

Many grand openings took place during the last two years, not slowing down much for the coronavirus pandemic. More than 30 businesses opened during the pandemic, and customers braved the virus to support, which could partially explain why Dearborn has occupied the No. 2 spot for coronavirus cases in Wayne County during much of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sheppard-Decius said business owners took pandemic conditions in stride. 

“They just went forward and took advantage and really kind of seeing it as an opportunity to jump in when there was a little bit of downtime to get something up and going,” she said. 

Conflicting feelings

As amazing as a thriving downtown is for residents, some of those residents resent development for fueling a highly competitive housing market and question whether these efforts will be replicated on the city’s east side and south end, where store signs are in Arabic and homes are cast under the smog of factories. Sometimes, I feel a twinge of bitterness when I see suburbanites who have previously talked down on Dearborn now frolicing in my downtown. 

I worry that the twinkling lights may be blinding us with the shiny and new, leaving the old behind—and with it, some of our charm. If I was planning to stay in Dearborn, I’d fear that I will never be able to afford a home. This house I’ve driven past countless times and always dreamed about sold in 2020 for $300,000.

But even with conflicting feelings, I can’t deny the warmth I felt in Qahwa House that night, and I pray for that warmth to radiate—never to be stamped out by capitalist greed.

Miriam Marini is a breaking news reporter at the Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media. When she’s not writing on her laptop, she’s usually at Target. Her idea of bliss is drinking an iced latte with a Trader Joe’s dark chocolate date bar while reading at a cafe. Get in touch at miriam@outliermedia.org or mmarini@freepress.com.