It's '80s night at the Grosse Pointe Moms Club, and a mood of raucous escapism fills the room. The potluck gathering of well-heeled wives in the heart of the Pointes, a cluster of five exclusive suburbs northeast of Detroit, seems a galaxy away from the struggling city next door. Flashdance fashion and music by Boy George and Journey provide the background for lively conversation about long-ago high school antics and upcoming playdates.
Then, between the taco salad and the Rice Krispies treats, a stray remark cuts through the music: a club member mentions that she's putting her house on the market. Her modest three-bedroom colonial will likely list in the mid-$100,000s, she says about half what she and her husband put into it. The price, which might as well have been from the '80s, is met with a sigh of resignation before a sing-along to "Walk Like an Egyptian" provides a welcome distraction.
The financial upheavals of the past two years have brought a different life to the tony suburbs of Detroit. Botox parties and boutique shopping may fill the days of television's Real Housewives, but in the Grosse Pointe Moms Club, a support group for more than 100 at-home moms, reality means bargain hunting and budget consciousness. The challenges of the prolonged economic downturn job loss and retraining, business slowdowns, wallet tightening spill out in daily conversations at swing sets and kitchen counters.
"The immaculate lawns and beautiful homes are a sort of facade that covers a growing loss of certainty in the future," says Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. Indeed, on a sunny summer morning at Diane Huchingson's house in Grosse Pointe Park, the living seems easy. The 35-year-old mother of two is hosting a meeting of the Moms Club. About a dozen members have turned out with twice as many kids in tow, from 7 months to 7 years for coffee and a few carefree hours of play and conversation. As sunlight streams through the leaded windows of Huchingson's 1920s Tudor, older children dash between the front lawn and the basement while toddlers tumble over blocks on the living-room rug. Relaxed in T-shirts and shorts, the moms plan trips to the pool and compare mosquito bites from a nature-trail hike the previous day.
At an opportune moment, club member Gabrielle Deschaine corners her host in front of the antique buffet in the dining room with a pressing request. "Someone told me you've gotten your monthly grocery bill down to $315," she says. "You have to tell me how you did it!"
The thrift is inspired by the body blows of a changing economy. In March 2009, member Sandra Wiiki lost her work-from-home job as a designer with a company that supplies interior plastics to Ford. Joy Behringer lost her position as a manager for an auto-related company in 2008 at the end of her six-week maternity leave. Her husband Jeff was out of work for 15 months until he found a new management job in June. Pamela Anderson, who helps run a local flower shop that her husband has owned for 31 years, has been coping with a steep downturn in business since 2008, when they lost a lucrative corporate account with Chrysler. Deschaine is scrimping to cope with the slow growth of her husband's graphic-design business.
While the moms spend plenty of time on traditional subjects rambunctious kids, traveling husbands, visiting relatives their conversation also embraces a topic that an earlier generation of Grosse Pointe ladies would have carefully avoided: living with less money. "More than ever, part of your responsibility for your family is being aware of your budget," says club president Gabriela Boddy, a former industrial engineer who left her job by choice. "People don't want to waste the money that is so hard to make these days."
Only a decade old, the Grosse Pointe Moms Club has changed with the times. Open to women from the Pointes and the neighboring suburb of Harper Woods, it was founded as a chapter of an international support organization for at-home moms, and at first the members focused on book clubs, knitting circles and workshops about dealing with clutter. In 2004 the club separated from the umbrella group, and today it includes a number of newer transplants to Detroit. Many members are experienced professionals in formerly two-income marriages whose decision to stay at home with the kids means a financial sacrifice. Because the club is for at-home moms, its rules state that members cannot work full time, but many women in the group work part time and at home.
The changes in the club highlight a broader shift in the Pointes. Old automaking and manufacturing fortunes have dwindled, and collapsing home prices have lowered barriers to entry. The culture of the Moms Club symbolizes a new middle class, for whom privilege is less taken for granted and luxury is less flaunted. Yes, comfortably rich women can still be seen pushing $1,000 Bugaboo strollers past upscale stores in the Village, the downtown shopping district. But for these moms, there is more cachet in high-quality finds, like the secondhand Radio Flyer tricycle that Deschaine bought recently from another mom for $15.
The frugality in Grosse Pointe is but one example of the economic struggles in the Detroit suburbs, where the grip on middle-class life has, for some families, become tenuous. The loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs among families without any real nest egg has imposed painful and unfamiliar choices about which bills to stop paying, about going to a government office to sign up kids for Medicaid, about calling to register for food assistance.