Ferndale sets its own course

From the retro funk of Cinderella’s Attic to plans for more gay-owned businesses, Ferndale is establishing itself as one of metro Detroit’s more hip, open-minded and growing cities.

The recent announcement of plans to open two gay-owned businesses – a nightclub and a combined restaurant and entertainment center – in Ferndale was enough to prompt the alternative lifestyles publication Between the Lines to ponder comparisons between Ferndale’s West Nine Mile and San Francisco’s Castro District, home and workplace for much of that cosmopolitan city’s sizable gay and lesbian community. A local business owner was quoted in the paper calling Ferndale a "gay mecca."

However, folks randomly polled along the Nine Mile strip resisted the idea of defining the city as a gay hub, or as any one thing, for that matter. Ferndale is also a hangout for those who want to defy labels. So, the sentiment goes, why mess with a good thing?

"I think people put too many labels on things," says Shawn Farley, the owner of Gotham City Café, while making espresso and chatting with patrons who have been dubbed the young Gothic and industrial crowd. "They don’t call Birmingham the snobby mecca. They don’t call Royal Oak the preppy mecca. Why call Ferndale the gay mecca? Ferndale is Ferndale."

Whatever you call it, Ferndale is undergoing a rapid revival. The city of 25,000 spruced up Nine Mile last year with on-street parking, new lighting and landscaping from Woodward to Planavon, where the former Masonic Temple is to be converted to a restaurant and entertainment center. Several vacant storefronts on West Nine Mile have been snapped up for a specialty grocery, a Record Time store, a Mediterranean restaurant and other businesses.

"Ferndale is really, really gonna rock," says Heidi Lichtenstein, owner of Cinderella’s Attic, a funky clothing and art store that is to reopen in Ferndale after 13 years in Royal Oak. "It’s gonna rock more than Royal Oak, I think. It’s so young, so new, and so, so fresh."

Ferndale’s Downtown Development Authority recently announced plans for a music festival Aug. 7 on Nine Mile. DDA Manager Bethany Bain-Chamberlain says the festival, coinciding with Ferndale’s art fair, will add another incentive for people to check out the blossoming retail district.

The growth of Ferndale’s retail district is being attributed to factors including residents with open attitudes, aggressive recruitment by city officials, and the city’s willingness to learn from what many consider to be Royal Oak’s mistakes. Word on the street is that Ferndale is "officially cooler" than its more populous northern neighbor, where skyrocketing rents have put downtown out of the reach of many independent retailers while leaving the business district to fill up primarily with bar and restaurant chains.

Ferndale Mayor Chuck Goedert says Bain-Chamberlain is the first downtown development director to actively recruit and support diverse retailers. According to Lichtenstein, it was a call from Bain-Chamberlain that first planted her idea of moving to Ferndale.

"I make that initial phone call to let people know there is property in Ferndale," she says. Then she often ends up on the business’ doorstep with marketing materials, including statistics and graphs, on "why Ferndale is great." And she notes the calls aren’t going to Royal Oak businesses. Record Time, for instance, is relocating from Rochester.

The new Ferndale doesn’t stop downtown. The city is overhauling its charter and zoning code, and an appointed committee is hammering out a human rights ordinance for the November ballot. City officials say bond issues in recent years are facilitating tens of millions of dollars in improvements to the school district and city infrastructure.

"We’ve done a tremendous amount of revitalizing," says Goedert, who has pushed for such changes since taking a city council seat in 1992.

The revival cannot be considered separately from the city’s growing reputation as a place where many gays and lesbians find a sense of community.

A group of Detroit area investors calling itself The Body Shop Boys Llc. plans to open a gay-owned nightclub before Labor Day at what used to be Doug’s Body Shop, a restaurant and bar on Woodward. Investors include Tom Guiseppe, owner of Detroit’s gay nightclub Backstreet, and Sandy Berris; Berris is also the lead investor in Ferndale’s Community Pride Building at 401 Livernois, which provides office and meeting space geared toward gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, Jim Domanski, co-owner of Pronto in Royal Oak, says he and his business partner plus other investors plan to convert the Masonic Temple at Nine Mile and Planavon into a $1.6 million gay-owned restaurant and entertainment complex, with two bars and a dance floor

Gay- and lesbian-owned businesses already on Nine Mile include the gift shop Just 4 Us and the feminist bookstore A Woman’s Prerogative. Also on the block is Affirmations Lesbian/Gay Community Center.

While Ferndale doesn’t offer anything on the scale of districts in New York or San Francisco, Berris and others says it has the Detroit area’s highest ever concentration of gay and lesbian residents.

"As a community that has faced discrimination, it’s important to know you’re living, working and spending money in a neighborhood where you feel welcome," Berris says.

Even Ferndale businesses that are not gay-owned often reflect awareness of the gay and lesbian community. Lichtenstein, for instance, says that Cinderella’s Attic in Ferndale will cater to gay men by offering more stylish, upscale men’s clothing.

And there is a sense among the business people that customers are for sharing. Vince Lovasco, owner of Rogue’s Keep, a hobby and collectibles shop next to Cinderella’s Attic, says he is constantly trading customers with neighbors such as Nami Sushi Bar, Gotham City Café and Xhedos.

"Everybody is looking out for each other," he says.

Jeff Montgomery, executive director of the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation, says Ferndale still has occasional problems with anti-gay vandalism, hate literature, and police mistreatment of gays and lesbians. The planned November human rights ballot issue will be the real test of whether the community values its diversity, he notes.

For business patrons such as Kenneth Cannady, a 22-year-old electronics company employee who recently visited the Gotham City Café, the value of Ferndale is clear.

"I grew up in Rochester Hills, and people there are very judgmental," said Cannady. "Royal Oak is a fashion show. Birmingham is a fashion show. Down here, you don’t have to live up to anybody’s standards. You can be yourself."

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