As half the city's residents have moved away over the years, long stretches of Detroit's main roads that were once packed with mom-and-pop businesses have become desolate and abandoned. What's left now between empty lots are hundreds of closed little buildings, boarded up or broken into, reminders of how dense the city really once was.
Here and there though, some small shops survive from the city's heyday, with shorter hours and fewer products than before, but enduring as a link to the variety and diversity that was Detroit at its peak.
Sisters Cakery, a little cake shop on Warren Avenue just west of Greenfield Road on the city's western border, is just such a place, persevering since the 1950s, when it was called Tysar's.
The store's run by two sisters, Susan Radovanovich, 59, and Kata Zlatich, 55, daughters of its late owners. Like many immigrant merchants, the family, from Yugoslavia, toiled to establish themselves.
"They were all night in the back there, all day up front," Susan says. "Even though it was so much work years ago, my mom never said once that it was hard for her. Day and night they were here, 16, 18 hours a day, and mother was always happy. She'd say 'I'm with my kids, the family's around me. Why would it be hard?'"
The store was in a Polish enclave, one of hundreds of businesses catering to the immigrants crammed into dense housing. The family sold such ethnic specialties as Polish rye bread, pumpernickel, angel wings and kolatchkies — little pastries with a sweet filling. "It was a Polish neighborhood, so that's what you make," Susan says. "The customers were Polish and that's what they were asking for.
Over the years they stopped making donuts, pastries and most breads as demand declined. "All the old customers are old Polish people," she says. "Now there's hardly anybody. The old people are dying, and the young ones are moving away. There's no demand for the stuff that we used to make."
Now their focus is cakes, baked by Susan's son Pero "Peter" Radovanovich, 37, and decorated by the sisters or by Kata's daughters when they're not at college. They also sell thick brownies, chocolate cake squares and marble pound cakes, all at prices frozen years ago.
The neighborhood's become one of the few in the city to see a real resurgence, with Middle Eastern immigrants now pouring in, as the Poles did a century ago. "They picked up Warren pretty good," Susan says. "They're building. Otherwise it would've been a ghost town," she says.
Still, staying on in the inner city has its pitfalls, like a recent break-in. "They stole all the brownies, all the pies and two boxes of diet cookies," Peter says, laughing. "But they were gentlemen about it; they didn't break anything. They just picked the lock. They only stole edibles because there's no money here. It does suck but it's kind of funny. Nobody ever heard of someone coming in and stealing baked goods." In an earlier burglary, someone took only a potted plant.
On a cold afternoon, 86-year-old Ted Sarr shuffled in, a longtime customer from the area who's seen the offerings dwindle over the years as his neighbors moved on. "I like the breads, the cakes are pretty decent, but I used to love their éclairs," he said. "But they don't make them anymore. I miss those éclairs."
In the back, by the ovens and shelves, family members — cousins, sisters, aunts — milled around a thick, wood table, baking pastries for themselves and hanging out, talking and gesturing with Old World mannerisms, as a TV sounded softly in the background. It's become a meeting place for extended family members living in far-flung corners of the city, and for old friends passing through.
"It just takes long for the yeast to rise," Peter said about the bread making, around which the family gathers. "You've got to wait for the dough to rise, you've got to cut the dough, you gotta let it cool, then you gotta bake it. So half the time when you're making bread you gotta just hang out because it's like six hours."
Places like these are like charming secrets, out of the way and mostly unknown.
"There's not that many left," Peter says. "I hate it when mom-and-pop shops go out of business. I prefer them. Meijer and stuff are all useful stores, but I like when they're like, 'My dad owned this' or 'My grandpa bought it when he came from Poland.' I like that."
Sisters Cakery is at 15730 W. Warren Ave., Detroit. For more information, call 313-846-4777.
Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]