Northeast Michigan diversifying, though not enough for some
ALPENA — Lauren Mixon moved to Alpena for an opportunity to anchor the evening news.
The move to Alpena, however, would take Mixon — who is one of a growing number of black Northeast Michiganders — about 250 miles away from the multicultural community she grew up in downstate.
Mixon’s move to the Sunrise Side came at a time when the region’s demographics are changing.
While the area’s total population has fallen since the last census in 2010, census-takers hitting the streets next year are likely to find a continually diversifying region: While the number of white residents in Northeast Michigan fell nearly 4% between 2010 and 2017, the number of black residents and the number of residents who identify with two or more races increased by 36%, according to a News analysis of Census estimates.
The trend is even more pronounced in area schools. The number of students of color in Alpena Public Schools has more than doubled since the 2002-03 school year.
While diversity overall is growing locally, Mixon said she has seen members of the black community come and go.
She described it as “a swap out” — they may come here for a job, but ultimately end up leaving. The area remains overwhelmingly white, with persons of color making up about 3% of the population.
Despite the positive experiences of living in Alpena, Mixon says there’s not enough to keep her here when her contract expires in seven months.
“That is simply because I feel like I’m a city girl at heart, and I didn’t really realize that until I got here,” she said. “As far as being able to have the multicultural experiences, like food and nightlife and just being able to see and interact with people from different backgrounds and take in what you would consider ‘city life,’ I think, at this point in my life, that’s something that I need to experience.”
‘PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE’
Although the minority population continues to grow throughout Northeast Michigan, there are still opportunities for communities in the region to be more inclusive, The News found.
Many representatives from city and county boards in the region are working to make their communities more attractive places to which people might want to relocate, but those boards have yet to undergo any formal equity training. While businesses have undergone some diversity training, few actively recruit employees of color and the kinds of services and products needed by persons of color are often lacking. Law enforcement agencies, too, sometimes lack the infrastructure to properly handle the region’s increasing diversity, which is changing not just ethnically but also along the lines of religion and sexual identity.
And there have been problems in the region. Two civil rights complaints based on race have been filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights from the area within the past four years — one in Alpena County and one in Presque Isle County, according to data provided by the state. The data did not specify the details of those complaints.
Demetrius Porter, who was raised in Onaway by his adoptive parents, moved to Alpena for a chance to have a fresh start.
Since moving here two years ago, Alpena has offered a stark contrast to Porter’s upbringing. Having grown up in a town where he and his siblings were the only black kids in school, Porter sees an abundance of diversity in Alpena.
“You see in a town what it is you expect,” he said, adding that, if you expect racism, that’s what you look for.
Erika Philipps, who is black, moved to Alpena two-and-a-half years ago from Richmond, Virgina, after accepting a job with MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena. Philipps said that, in the south, it’s more apparent that people of color are often not welcome, but, in Alpena, reactions are more subtle.
Philipps said she sees more curiosity about people of color in Alpena. More than one person has told her she looks like Oprah, which she thinks is meant as a compliment.
“I look nothing like her,” Phillipps said. “People don’t realize the things they say are … interesting.”
Coming home one night, Mixon said she heard her neighbor refer to her as a racial slur.
“That was disturbing for me,” Mixon said. “It’s not something I’m used to, because I come from a diverse community.”
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RECOGNIZING A CHANGING REGION
State Demographer Erik Guthrie could not pinpoint an exact reason why minorities are choosing to move to the region. He cited economic opportunity, quality of education, and the availability of natural resources as some of the possible reasons.
“It’s interesting that Alpena County’s population is expected to decline, but its international migration number is projected to increase,” he said. That “could lead to a wider, more broad diverse population.”
Guthrie said added diversity could continue to intensify if jobs remain available and the cost of living remains affordable in Northeast Michigan.
Many of the people The News interviewed for this series moved to the region because they had secured employment here, but people also moved to be closer to family, attend college, or to retire.
Alpena Mayor Matt Wallagora said he has noticed Alpena is becoming more diverse, and believes it’s because city officials are working to make Alpena an attractive place to live. He said that work includes investments made to the city’s infrastructure, such as the new splash pad at Starlite Beach, and economic development projects, such as the Holiday Inn Express and Meijer.
The number of Alpenans of color has grown steadily since 2000, when 246 minorities were counted in the census. That population increased to 336 in 2010 and an estimated 384 persons of color in 2017.
Black and Asian populations saw the most growth during that time frame.
Demographics in the surrounding counties are also changing. Since 2010, the number of residents of color increased 31% in Presque Isle County, 22% in Montmorency County, and 28% in Alcona County.
‘THE WAY THE COMMUNITY IS’
The people behind those numbers have had a vast array of experiences living here.
Mohamed Elkammash, who immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt in 1991 and eventually became a citizen, moved to Rogers City six years ago because he found it to be among some of the best places to retire.
“The place that I bought is just across from Seagull Point Park, so I see the lake every morning, every evening, and most of the time it’s quiet there,” he said. “It’s kind of relaxing for me.”
Elkammash said the city is clean and the people are friendly. He said it was easy for him to adjust to life in the U.S. because he had lived and worked in other countries such as Saudia Arabia, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark.
“I’m really happy this is the way the community is,” he said.
Connie Sysak, a first-generation American raised in Jackson, said she moved to Northeast Michigan in 2000 when she married her husband. Sysak’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.
The Greenbush resident says that, while her experience living here is overwhelmingly positive, she often worries “there may be some things going on underneath I’m not aware of.”
“It always shocks me to hear those real racist things, because a lot of it is from people I know (and) I like very much … because I don’t feel that way, and I feel sad that our country hasn’t come further,” she said.
News staff writers Julie Goldberg, Julie Riddle, and Steve Schulwitz contributed to this report. Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or email@example.com.
The Changing Face of Alpena
About this series
U.S. Census estimates and other data shows the face of Northeast Michigan is changing. While that face is still far more likely than not to be white, straight, and Christian, the 2020 Census next year is likely to find a far more diverse region than it did a decade ago. The News’ reporters spent weeks interviewing area residents, officials, and experts from outside the area to understand what those changes might mean for the region and for area residents of color.
Today: How is Northeast Michigan changing? A look at what the data tells us
Monday: While the region as a whole is diversifying, that’s especially true in area schools
Tuesday: Some Northeast Michigan groups are actively welcoming the region’s growing diversity
Wednesday: Northeast Michigan’s demographics are changing; is the region doing enough to keep up?
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