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DetroitA Walk in the Park

Sharon Dolente ’96 and her family—spouse Steve Tobocman, daughter Nia, and son Adiv—live in Southwest Detroit, also known as Mexicantown, one of Detroit’s most vibrant and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The first wave of Mexican immigrants moved to the area in the first half of the 20th century, drawn by jobs in the automobile industry. By mid-century, there was a thriving community of second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, augmented by successive waves of immigration in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. According to the 2010 Census, Mexicantown is today 57.2 percent Hispanic, 23.6 percent African American, 16.9 percent white, 1.5 percent multiracial, and 0.7 percent other races, which makes it Detroit’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood.

Dolente and her family live a couple of blocks from Clark Park—it has lovely grounds with sports fields, a regulation-size outdoor hockey rink, playgrounds, and a community center. Due to the city’s financial woes, in 1991 the park almost closed, but the citizens of Southwest Detroit (Tobocman among them) came together to form a nonprofit and worked with the city’s recreation department to keep the park open. Today, the city provides maintenance services, but the nonprofit coordinates the programming—everything from youth soccer to cultural festivals to after-school tutoring.

Dolente, who holds an MA in public policy as well as a JD from the University of Michigan, has lived in Southwest Detroit for 14 years, always within a few blocks of the park. “It is such a gem,” she says. “It’s one of the most wonderful things about living here.”

Q.  You are originally from Pennsylvania. How did you come to Detroit?

I am an attorney. I went to the University of Michigan, and that’s where I met my husband. Within a year of my coming to go to school here, we decided to move to Detroit.

Q. What do you like about Detroit?

Detroit has changed in the 14 years that I’ve lived here, but one of the things that hasn’t changed is that there is a lot of history here. So, for example, Hamtramck is a city that is actually entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit, and it has a large Polish community. And you can go there and find a little neighborhood tavern with great Polish food that’s been open for a hundred years, and the 90-year-old owner who is behind the bar can tell you all kinds of stories about what she’s seen and what’s happened in that neighborhood. That’s one of the things that I have always loved about Detroit, finding those places that are off the beaten path—or rather, off my beaten path.

Q. Tell us about the community here in Southwest Detroit.

We’re in a neighborhood that has a lot of Hispanic community members. The neighborhood has certainly had some decline, but not to the extent of the other neighborhoods in Detroit. It’s a really active community. I think one of the things that people don’t realize about Detroit is that people are living very wonderful lives here with lots of quality experiences like we have in this neighborhood. Here we are in Clark Park on a Thursday, and it’s just dense with kids playing softball and playing on the playground. On a Saturday, all of these soccer fields will be filled with children. And in the winter, we have a fantastic urban hockey program. In a lot of other cities, I get the sense that parents have to struggle to get access to something like this.

Q. What would you like people to know about Detroit?

The abandoned buildings, the neighborhood that looks very desolate—that’s just a portion of the city. And all the time the media have been taking pictures of that and highlighting that, people like me have been living here. I’ve had children here, I’ve walked my dog in this park, I’ve run in this park, I’ve biked, I’ve worked downtown, I’ve ridden the buses—I’ve done all the things that people do in cities. The idea that people get when they see those destroyed buildings is that the city doesn’t have the life that it actually has. It has a lot of life—literally, people living in it—but it also has a lot of character, history, and institutions and culture.