Reel activism 

Geoff Gowman longs for the days when Detroit neighborhoods thrived. He sips iced tea on his back porch and recalls a time when families seldom ventured far from home to shop or see a movie.

“In the ’30s and ’40s, neighborhoods were self-contained, strong, viable,” says Gowman. “They had corner drug stores and grocers.”

They also had movie houses. “Neighborhood theaters were paramount,” he says.

Gowman hopes to help rejuvenate his eastside neighborhood by restoring the Alger Theater. It closed in 1981, after showing its final flick, Friday the 13th. The dilapidated brick building has since sat vacant on the corner of East Warren and East Outer Drive. Its adjacent shopping strip is better than most in the city, with hardware stores, restaurants and a dry cleaners. But unkempt storefronts and littered parking lots make the area uninviting.

It is not like the days when people window-shopped and packed movie houses. Back then, Detroit had 150 neighborhood theaters. Today, only a handful of those buildings survive — and most of them are closed, says Gowman.

In 1983, he and others took an interest in the Alger after a nearby theater on Harper was torn down and replaced by a McDonald’s.

“When that happened, people got nervous that it would happen to the Alger,” he says.

That’s when Gowman and a few pals formed Friends of the Alger Theater. (The nonprofit has since grown to about 175 members.) The group intends to restore the 825-seat movie house and transform it into both a film theater and performing-arts center. Four rows of seats will be removed for dressing rooms and an extended stage so that concerts, graduation ceremonies and other community events can be held there.

Films would be “good, wholesome quality,” not contemporary cineplex fare. And a ticket would cost $3.50.

“Our goal is quality entertainment and profits are secondary,” says Gowman. “We are in it to serve the community.”

Realizing the dream has been slow, with money the biggest barrier. In 19 years, the group has raised about $200,000, mostly from small, individual donors. A portion of the funds was used to purchase the theater in 1986 from two Bloomfield Hills doctors for $12,000. After the sale was final, the group learned that $33,000 in back taxes was owed the city, which attempted to foreclose in 1987. To prevent this, the friends had to pay half the tax debt. Gowman says that a judge overseeing the foreclosure case delayed her ruling about two years, allowing the group to raise the $16,500, which they paid in 1989.

“We are still paying the interest,” he says.

Another $13,000 was used to patch the roof. The remaining cash was spent on other repairs and general maintenance.

The nonprofit needs about $2 million to complete the renovation, says Gowman. But about $400,000 will get the theater in shape to show movies and have concerts. Plays will come later, when special lighting, dressing rooms and other amenities are financially feasible.

The group plans to approach major businesses for donations, says Gowman. It recently received a $5,000 grant from a community organization. But getting grants is not easy since most are for theater programs, not repairs.

A festival is planned for Sunday, Sept. 8, in the alley behind the theater to draw attention to their project.

“We may be rather naive and may not know all that we should, but we had the guts to put forth the effort to save and restore our neighborhood theater,” says Gowman.

His passion for the building, and the city, is immense. Except for five years, starting in 1990, when he rented out his East English Village home and moved to Grosse Pointe — so his two daughters could take advantage of a high school art program there — the 64-year-old Gowman has lived in Detroit. The social worker spent three decades serving the city’s elderly before he retired in 1997. He traveled the neighborhoods and watched vibrant ones crumble.

Gowman drew attention to the decay when he ran for mayor in 1985. He knew he didn’t stand a chance against the incumbent Coleman A. Young. But he hoped to raise issues that he felt Young had neglected, including the blighted neighborhoods. Out of 13 candidates, Gowman came in a very distant fourth.

His chances of reviving the Alger Theater, which had its 67th birthday last month, may be just as slim. But Gowman has no intention of giving up.

“I can’t,” he says. “Because it’s a labor of love, a love of Detroit, for the community and love for our children.”

Gowman’s eyes fill with tears. He may be a quixotic dreamer. But he believes that if neighborhoods thrive, so will the kids who inhabit them.

“Through strong neighborhoods, you have strong kids,” he says. “We don’t have the amenities for kids we used to. They get bored and involved in crime or drugs. And why shouldn’t they when we don’t offer them more?”

Will the Alger help rejuvenate the neighborhood? And can a single theater serve as a beacon for kids and help bolster neighborhood pride? Gowman is counting on it.

For more information about the Sept. 8 festival or the theater call 313-882-1699 or check out the Web site next month at

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. E-mail

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