Lost in Paradise

Aug 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Harmonie Park seems like the perfect place to do ... something. Entrepreneurs have salivated over the potential of the intimate, almost hidden little enclave between Ford Field and Greektown for decades. Who couldn't love the area with a small park and fountain at its center that could be the hub of a real downtown neighborhood?

"It's a warm and vibrant area, you feel good there," says Cledie Collins Taylor, director of the Arts Extended Gallery. "You walk around and it's just a wonderful, warm feeling."

Taylor has been teaching weekly classes at the G.R. N'Namdi Gallery that temporarily located in Harmonie Park while its permanent digs on Forest in the Medical Center area are expanded into the soon-to-open East Forest Arts Project.

As N'Namdi and Taylor exit Harmonie Park, the city is trying to create an arts and entertainment district there. In July, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick broke ground for the new Paradise Valley district of offices, lofts, boutiques and entertainment venues. It sounds good, but that's what folks have been trying to do there for the past three or four decades.

Since at least the 1970s various enterprises have struggled to create an artsy village in the urban oasis. The Detroit Artists Market was in there for a while, as well as the Paradigm Dance Theatre, the Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy, the Harmonie Park Playhouse, the New World Stage jazz loft, the Dell Pryor Gallery, Café Mahogany and the Intermezzo Restaurant. It's not for lack of trying that things aren't bustling over there.

"It's always sort of been on the edge," says Frank Rashid, who teaches Detroit studies at Marygrove College. "A number of schemes and institutions have gone in there because it has a kind of small community feel, but nothing has ever taken hold there."

When Ford Field and Comerica Park were built, there was some buzz about a sports bar district in Harmonie Park, about spillover from the stadiums supporting cafés and clubs. Well, there is one sports bar there. But Ford Field and Comerica Park were built, like the casinos, to capture the patrons' dollars and not to encourage them to go walking around elsewhere.

Now, thanks to a rash of foreclosures, the city owns most of the buildings in Harmonie Park and plans to create a Paradise Valley district there. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation contributed $10 million to the effort and the Kresge Foundation chipped in $600,000. The rest of the money for the estimated $17 million project will come from the mayor's proposed economic stimulus plan.

It's hard to see where the city is going with this project, although improvements to the streetscape have already begun. At the July 24 groundbreaking, bigwigs mostly spoke about the symbolic and historical significance of Paradise Valley, which was once the epicenter of Detroit's black cultural and entertainment world. However, no one mentioned any specific entities, only vague references to jazz and blues clubs. No developer has come out publicly with a plan for the district.

"The city has not shared that," says Brian Pastoria, who with his brother Mark and partners, owns the building at 1407 Randolph St., where their Harmonie Park Music studio is located above Lola's restaurant. "We don't know anything about what restaurants would go here. There was some talk about stars on the sidewalk for some of the city's music legends. ... I think it would be great to have artists here and creative people and make it a creative center with lofts, residential and business combined. Business owners need to work in concert with each other to accomplish a mission, not just open your business and hope for the best."

I think the city is just hoping for the best. Harmonie Park has long been known as a hip little enclave that just could not seem to take off. What's going to make it take off this time? I don't think calling it Paradise Valley changes much. What Harmonie Park lacked in the past and still lacks now is people living around there. The only way to make the area work is to make it a neighborhood where locals shop and eat and do all the things they need to do. People lived in and around Paradise Valley, that's what made the place so vibrant.

Judging from the lack of residential space around Harmonie Park — and I don't mean the few spaces that could become lofts — that's not going to happen. The area needs an apartment building on the scope of the nearby Milner Hotel. However, with Ford Field to the north, I-75 to the east, Greektown across Gratiot to the south and the Broadway business district to the west there is little option for residential development. The new Paradise Valley has to become a destination (you're probably not going to find it by accident) and just because you build it doesn't mean people will come.

"We don't do coherent planning in Detroit," says Rashid. "We do things piece by piece instead of having an overall vision. [Mayor Dennis] Archer had a master plan that was never implemented. There are still too many powerful interests rather than planners and community people interested in how to live here and work here. ... We certainly should honor the history that the Paradise Valley area held, although Harmonie Park is a little off the west corner of it."

The plan, if indeed it is a plan, sounds half-baked to me. I called the DEGC, whose $10 million seems to be the linchpin of the idea, to get some details. Maybe they could convince me the plan was going to work. I was told that whomever I needed to talk to was in a meeting, and nobody returned my voicemail.

Well, I'm sure somebody will feel the vitality of developing the area. After all, there are 17 million reasons to love the idea. What it says to me is that Detroit still hasn't redefined itself. Yes, we should honor our past, but the rhetoric around creating this entertainment district used the city's heritage as a crutch and gave no clue as to what really is planned.

To borrow a phrase from a source I'll not identify, "There's no harmony here so we may as well be in paradise."

Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins used the Paradise Valley groundbreaking to carp about not being able to call the area Africa Town. "It used to be African Town, but HUD said we can't call it that because it would be racist," Collins said. Actually, the big problem with the Africa Town concept was that the plan involved race-based business funding. Yes, there are Greektown and Mexicantown areas, but those developed because there were people in those communities that supported those businesses. They weren't created by some developer who thought it was a cute idea.

This is your legacy: When it all comes down, Gov. Jennifer Granholm will be remembered most for what she does with Kwame Kilpatrick in next week's hearings. I mean, like, what other warm memories do we have of her governorship?

Larry Gabriel is a Detroit writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]