Naoying Yang stands in front of his house in Detroit

Hmong residents fled northeast Detroit. Now they’d like to stage a comeback.

Why one community thinks a return back home could create a unified community

“I hate to see it like this,” Chiniaw Lee says on a recent Friday morning as he looks at his former mother-in-law’s home on Fairport Street in the Von Steuben area on the northeast side. The white bungalow is missing the front door and stairs, and many of the windows are broken. Grass and weeds are overgrown in front of the house. 

Lee has lots of great memories here, including his wedding celebration. Originally from Laos, he has a lot of fond memories of his former neighborhood, where he moved to from Pennsylvania in 1980.

As he drives me and The Neighborhoods photographer Cyrus Tetteh around this neighborhood on the northeast side of Detroit, he points out where there used to be Hmong stores and playgrounds that used to be full of kids. He shares a story of bad timing on how he missed out by mere minutes on buying a winning lottery ticket from the corner party store. His house used to be across the street from his wife’s family’s house, now just a grassy field. A few people here and there sit on their porches, and they pay no attention to us as we drive by in Lee’s SUV, lost in their own world in this neighborhood that feels somewhat empty.

As we drive around, there are more blighted houses than maintained ones; weeds gone wild; trash (and some tire art) lying in the streets. 

But Lee sees lots of possibilities. In open fields he envisions soccer games and night markets. He sees his fellow Hmong cleaning up the blocks and fixing up the homes. He shares this vision with other Hmong leaders who want to rebuild their community here.

Lee says it’s a good time to come back because some parts of the city are being revitalized, and the Hmong community would like to be a part of it, he says.

“A lot of us live in the suburbs, but we want to be part of Detroit,” says Lee, who moved out of the neighborhood in 1985 and now lives in Warren.

Lee and Naoying Yang, who lives in the neighborhood, are co-leaders of a group of Hmong activists who aim to build a community that would rival the large communities in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the Twin Cities metro area is home to 66,000 Hmong, the largest urban Hmong population in the United States. After English and Spanish, Hmong is the third most common language spoken. 

They’re envisioning transforming land near Seven Mile and Van Dyke to create their community. At the moment, many of the properties in this area are vacant and owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Closer to the airport, they’d also like to build amenities such as schools, a field for playing soccer, an auditorium and a community center that would offer educational opportunities such as language classes and after-school programs. And it wouldn’t be just for Hmong, says Tou Chieng Yang, project director who is also the son of Naoying Yang, but for everyone to learn about their culture.

“Everyone says (Detroit is) black and white, but there's so much diversity here,” Yang says. “(It won’t just be a) Hmong community center; it's for everybody. … We gotta show the beauty of our culture and expose it to (others) and that's what (this proposed project) is going to do.”

They’ve got a long way to go in bringing the Detroit Hmong Village of Michigan to life on the northeast side such as raising money and addressing schools and safety, but Yang says it’s time to do something for the Hmong people of Detroit and to keep them in Michigan.

The group, which formally formed as a nonprofit earlier this year, has been working with community leaders such as Quincy Jones of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance and the City of Detroit’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Yang says they are getting ready to submit their plan to the city for Hmong Village.

The Asian population, accounting for 2.1 percent of the neighborhood's population with mst of them Hmong, decreased in number from 1,700 to 560, a loss of two-thirds.

The Hmong are relatively new to this country, with the first wave of immigrants coming to the U.S. starting in 1975. 

They are an ethnic minority, tracing their roots to China’s mountainous regions. From there, they migrated to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. During the French Indochina and Vietnam wars, the C.I.A. recruited thousands of Hmong in Laos to fight against the communists in the conflict known as the “secret war” under the leadership of General Vang Pao. After the war, hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand to escape persecution. And from there, many headed to the United States. 

One of those people was Naoying Yang, one of the soldiers who helped the C.I.A. in Laos. After the war, Yang’s family, including five kids and his wife, fled. One of his sons, Tou Chieng Yang, was 2 years old. His mom carried him on her back. Many of the men in the family were in the military so they trailed behind to cover the group’s tracks as they ran. Not only did they have to flee from the Viet Cong, but also bandits looking to rob people as they tried to escape from Laos.

Their escape through the jungle was difficult and dangerous, Naoying Yang recalls, but “you had no choice” because hundreds of people were being killed. “You have to run away or get killed.”

The family went to Washington, then California.

The younger Yang says the Hmong have been here for only 40 years and “in a sense people are still trying to find each other.” Instead of going at it alone, many Hmong seek out their family. He followed his brother here 20 years ago from California after his older sibling told him to come to Detroit.

Hmong immigrants coming to the east side of Detroit banded together, like Cedric Lee’s family. (Hmong Americans are organized into 18 clans, whose names are also known as last names. Many will have the same last names, and members of a clan all believe they are related to a common ancestor.) His family moved to Osborn in 1989 from France, and they had lots of family in the neighborhood. He could walk to his uncle’s house and vice versa.

As a family-oriented people, Hmong residents in Osborn, like in other areas of the country, cultivated that strong sense of community.

“Hmong in general are tight-knit,” says Cedric Lee, who co-owns the Go! Sy Thai restaurants in Midtown and Capitol Park with his wife, Gowhnou, who is also Hmong.

“We don’t have a country of our own, so we bring community together wherever we go.”

At the time, the community was active and vibrant. Growing up in the late ’80s and ’90s in Osborn, Yue Pheng Lee recalls happy, carefree days riding his bike around the neighborhood, saying hello to his neighbors and going to the store to grab ice cream or a candy bar. 

Half of his classmates at school were Hmong. Summer weekends often meant picnics with family and friends. The gatherings sometimes grew quite large, especially if it was a soccer tournament (the sport plays a big role in Hmong culture, and is an integral part of the annual Hmong sports festival held during the Fourth of July in Minnesota, believed to be the largest gathering of Hmong in the U.S., if not the world). Residents tended to backyard gardens, and if they had extra produce they would bring it to the local Hmong store to sell. The same stores would offer staples such as Hmong sausages.

But over time things changed. As the neighborhood declined, hit hard by drugs and gang violence, many moved out to the suburbs in search of a safer place to call home for their families. 

“Every night you can't sleep because of the gunshots,” Yue Pheng Lee recalls. His family moved out to Macomb County, where their quality of life was better, but they felt a little isolated from their community.

For Hmong residents who moved out, safety and schools were primary concerns. Yang, along with his dad, is among the few Hmong who stayed in the neighborhood. The younger Yang stayed because he got into real estate and it was easier to be near his properties. He has nearly 10 houses that he rents out to a diverse tenant base including white, black and Hmong families, all in the neighborhood. He has put down roots here, and he grew accustomed to life in the neighborhood.

“Sometimes people come and visit (and ask) ‘Wow, how do you live here this is crazy, it’s beyond the movies.’ Once you stay here you get used to it. Knock on wood, in 20 years no one has broken into my cars, broken into my houses or anything like that.”

Another factor in the migration out of Detroit was the second-generation Hmong’s rising education level, helping them forge different career paths than their parents — and again, more comfortable lives in the suburbs. 

Like many Detroit neighborhoods, Osborn has seen an exodus of residents of all backgrounds, with families and young children moving out at a faster rate. According to a 2012 neighborhood profile by Data Driven Detroit, which is a nonprofit that conducts data analysis for organizations, the 2010 population of approximately 27,000 represented a 27.3 percent decrease over 2000's total of slightly over 37,000; the drop was slightly higher than the 25 percent loss that the City of Detroit saw. 

While Osborn has experienced population decreases across all race/ethnic groups over the past decade, the largest losses occurred among whites, Asians and multiracial groups, according to the Data Driven Detroit analysis. The Asian population, accounting for 2.1 percent of the neighborhood's population with most of them Hmong, decreased in number from 1,700 to 560, a loss of two-thirds. Many moved to Macomb County, joining other Hmong in Warren and Center Line. Others headed to Pontiac and other cities in Oakland County.

Kurt Metzger, the former executive director of Data Driven Detroit who now is mayor of Pleasant Ridge, says the recession also helped precipitate the migration out of the neighborhood as well as the desire to escape crime and find better community assets. But education is key, he says.

According to MI School Data, area schools Osborn College Preparatory Academy, Osborn Academy of Mathematics and Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy had a red overall school status, meaning they did not meet the target nor improvement target for areas such as proficiency in English language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. 

If they are going to rebuild community here, they would have to figure out what to do about education, Metzger says. He pointed to millennials coming into a neighborhood as an example. They'll stay until a certain point, but “in the end, it’s always about education” when it comes down to whether millennials — or anyone — stays in a community.

Immigrants have played an integral role in revitalized cities and revitalized neighborhoods, Metzger says, citing Bangladeshis in Banglatown as an example. Bangladeshis moved there from Queens, N.Y., when the cost of living got too high, he says.

With the Hmong in Metro Detroit scattered among the tri-county area, the lack of a central gathering point is an ongoing discussion in the community, several people told The Neighborhoods. There are churches such as the Warren Hmong Alliance Church and Pontiac Hmong Alliance Church. Also in Pontiac is Aaron Perry Park, where the United Hmong of Michigan Organization holds its sports tournament; the organization also hosts a New Year’s celebration. But as for a community center that’s separate from religion and gathering spaces in general, there isn’t one. That’s what the Hmong Village nonprofit hopes to build, along with a church, auditorium and school.

Quincy Jones, the executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, grew up in Osborn and after going to school and working elsewhere, he returned in 2006 to head up the community group that grew out of the Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods Initiative. He remembers not only the cultural events and soccer games that made the community active and vibrant, but also an infrastructure and resources that catered to the Hmong community such as English as a Second Language classes. “These things kept the community active and strong,” he says. He’s been working with the group to identify places to set up the Hmong community.

Bringing back the Hmong would be a boost for the neighborhood, not only in repopulating it, but bringing a “fabulous culture to the community.”