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Stateside Podcast: A Detroit daughter on generational wealth

Comer - Author Photo -  Julianne Lindsey.jpg
Photo by Julianne Lindsey
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Nandi Comer is an award-winning poet, writer and Detroiter. She reflects on her family’s fight to hold onto a home as well as legacy wealth in Black families.

When we talk about how families build generational wealth, homeownership is at the top of the list. But for Black Michiganders, holding onto a family home is not a straightforward proposition. In Detroit especially, the gains Black families made over generations have been eroded by foreclosures, scams, and limited access to credit.

On today's podcast, Detroit poet Nandi Comer reflects on her family’s fight to hold onto a home and legacy wealth in Black families. Comer is an award-winning writer, and directs the Allied Media Projects’ Seeds Program. She’s also the co-director of Detroit Lit.

She recently wrote an essay for Detour Detroit about her efforts to hang onto her family’s home — and its financial legacy — on Mendota Street, on the west side of Detroit.

The Mendota House. I am standing in the living room. The spot where my great-grandmother’s oversized sofa used to be is surrounded by discarded magazines, stained mail and trash left by the former tenants. This is all supposed to be mine. It’s been five years since the heirs — my father and two brothers — died, and I stand to inherit it all. 

Like many Black Detroiters, people in my family dream of creating wealth and passing it down through the generations. I grew up with uncles who had secure jobs that afforded them opportunities of homeownership and financial stability. They were not wealthy nor did they spend a lot of time on financial management. Growing up we seldom talked about wills or probate, or of the waiting and heavy duties involved in fulfilling a family legacy. 

The Mendota House is on Detroit’s west side. My great-grandmother, my grandmother and my great-grandfather saved the funds to buy the home in 1967 for $17,300. After years of working various jobs, they’d saved enough to place a down payment on a house that could hold their entire family. Including my father and his brothers, three generations of my family live in that house. 

The house was on a street in a promising neighborhood where many professionals pursued middle-class dreams of big cars and sending their children to college. I imagined my great-grandparents and grandmother thought the neighborhood of well-kept lawns and multicolored flowerbeds would be the foundation for the generations to come. My father and his brothers would be bused to desegregated schools, becoming high school football stars and finding classroom sweethearts. They would join the military and become beneficiaries of the GI Bill. 

The Mendota House, the house of their childhood, was the family gathering space. It was where they returned to visit and to celebrate Easter, other holidays and major family events. It would even become the place to stay when they had no home. 

For my generation, the Mendota House was a magical place of shiny crystal candy bowls, pristine carpet. There was a china cabinet encasing a glass punchbowl set with 12 small matching goblets. The elders never left that house wearing jeans. The women wore pressed suits and white gloves to Sunday service and unwrapped ankle-length furs for Christmas dinner. 

On weekend visits with my father, I remember the tidy home for its quiet, elderly rigidity. The back of great-grandmother’s closet was stacked with dozens of shoeboxes, each with small shoes still stuffed with tissue paper in the toes. She covered the walls with elaborately framed family photos. Outside, the neighbors greeted each other from their porches. Some stopped my father to get updates on his brothers who’d long moved away. Some shared memories from growing up on the block. 

Today, many of those homes are filled with the children and grandchildren of those neighbors. Some of the flowerbeds even show signs of the aged perennials planted years ago. 

The Mendota House, however, is empty. My grandmother, great-grandmother and great-grandfather have joined the ancestors. Before their passage, they seemed to have taken care of all of their details. The burial sites, even the caskets, had been meticulously selected and purchased in full. But the matters of the Mendota House were left undone. There were no wills, nor any directions of succession. My father and his brothers didn’t know who owned the property or how to acquire a new deed. 

While they settled the details of the house, it was decided in 2009 that my father should move into the Mendota House. Of the brothers, he was the one who visited the elders most often. He was the pseudo-family historian, having all of their stories and phone numbers locked in his memory. Above all, he had been the one who cared for my great-grandmother through her last days. 

That arrangement worked for a while, until it didn’t. Unfortunately, my father was not good with finances. The magical place of trinkets and family heirlooms became a burden of transactions. Family members contributed when they could. I would take care of the small repairs — a broken window, cleaning the furnace. One uncle took care of the taxes and repairing the roof. Another uncle checked on the lawn. The family that had filled the house with their deep laughter rarely came to visit and my father barely kept the house from disrepair. 

Then, within 18 months, my father and his two brothers died one after the other. At each passing the new dilemma of settling an estate emerged. By 2017 the Mendota House became a shadow of unresolvable fees and court documents. I thought I might lose my family’s legacy. I was overwhelmed with the grief of losing the men in my family and even more with the paperwork. 

Over the years I’ve reached out to distant relatives, gone into probate court and — when I could afford it — hired lawyers to get the house placed under single ownership. What could my family’s generational wealth be today if my ancestors had considered what would happen to their home? How many Black families might be losing their families’ legacy when navigating Wayne County governmental bureaucracy? How has this process become more difficult in the midst of a pandemic? I doubt that we’re the only family facing this dilemma.

Meanwhile, the Mendota House with its leaking roof sits on the west side of Detroit, empty. My younger brother recently expressed interest in making the house his home. My hope is that we will fulfill our elders’ dreams — that one day the Mendota House will become a foundation of dreams and joys to our family again.

Post script: The Author’s brother has recently moved into the Mendota House. They await one final estate settlement.

Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.