Feeding growth 

We usually think of restaurants as places that feed and entertain us — but they often nourish and enliven the neighborhood they occupy. That point isn't lost on Edith Castillo, deputy director of the Southwest Detroit Business Association. This community development corporation's members are southwest Detroit businesses, including the many restaurants and grocers in the West Vernor corridor. The organization is involved in community development, helping local businesses improve and revitalize the commercial corridor. Castillo's group just formalized the first business improvement zone in the state, and, starting this year, they are going to have a new business improvement district in place to help market the area. We asked her about the dining scene's delicious contributions to the area's prosperity.

METRO TIMES: What are the goals of your organization?

EDITH CASTILLO: The goals are to help our business owners and to make southwest Detroit a regional destination, a vibrant corridor. What we try to do is to continue to revitalize the West Vernor business district to give property owners an opportunity to make investments in the community, and we find that so many of them do that, whether it's from renovating their property to improving their facades to approving and formalizing a BID.

MT: Are you succeeding?

CASTILLO: Yes, Southwest Detroit is one of the strongest commercial districts in the city of Detroit, with over 100,000 people living within four square miles. People shop here. They live here. We don't like to say, "Work, shop, live and play," but really this is a place where people are opening their eyes to and embracing a community that has a lot to offer. We have 1,700 businesses in this area. We are not a food desert. That's huge for us. We have an abundance of grocery stores that offer fresh produce and high-quality meats and other kinds of products that are ethnic, that are part of the Latino community. There are wonderful bakeries and specialty food stores. There's shopping here.

MT: Is this mostly a Latino initiative?

CASTILLO: No, it's not. Certainly there's a high number of Latinos who live in southwest Detroit, and we can say that it's been immigrants that have changed the nature of this neighborhood and in many ways improved the area. Whether they're Mexican immigrants or Arab immigrants, they've collectively invested a lot in southwest Detroit. It's an economic engine that stimulates the economy.

MT: What are some of the business that are drawing people from the suburbs into the city of Detroit?

CASTILLO: The big businesses are the grocery stores and the restaurants: Places like Slows Bar BQ and El Barzón. A lot of the restaurants in Mexicantown are drawing people into this area, but so are the grocery stores; E & L has tracked where they get their customers from, and about half are from the suburbs, as far Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Ohio. Some even come from Illinois, which has a large Latino population, but many of them say that the products in Detroit are much better than they can find there. Honeybee La Colmena is attracting many customers from outside southwest Detroit. We find that some of those stores are the anchors, and then people start discovering other things about the neighborhood, other places they can shop.

MT: Your website lists business categories that are nearly all focused on food: restaurants, bars, grocery stores and bakeries.

CASTILLO: Because we are trying to market southwest Detroit as a regional destination. This year is the first time that we've been able to accomplish that with our "Explore the Detour" campaign. It's as though the closing of I-75 has forced us to do that. The food is an anchor. We have Brown's Buns which is a supplier to Comerica Park and to most of the coney islands. We have Hacienda Foods, a manufacturer of tortillas and chips, and Aunt Mid's, the produce company. Plus, we have manufacturing giants as well, such as Vitec and Arvin Meritor and Renaissance Global Logistics, and there are numerous nonprofits. Some would say that we are right at the tipping point. But we feel the food is the entrance to southwest Detroit. By coming for the food, you might end up going to one of the other businesses.

MT: Describe your vision of the area over the next five or ten years.

CASTILLO: We hope to maintain the character, the authenticity of the area — clean and safe. We don't want to be filled with chain restaurants. We want to be hip and edgy. We have savvy business owners who have the vision. It's not our vision that's important. It's the vision of the business owners, the property owners, and the community. We're just here as faithful servants, helping to make that vision happen. We like the image of a woman pushing a baby carriage with a child eating an ice cream cone, part of a vibrant community.

The Southwest Detroit Business Association is located at 7752 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit. For more information, call 313-842-0986 or see southwestdetroit.com.

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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