After a rather depressing month of hearing about killings, assaults, Detroit Public Schools wars and general economic mayhem (let alone the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico), I decided it was time to focus on some of the good things going on in Detroit. It wasn't that hard.
As I once lived south of Wayne State University in the Cass Corridor, any news about Midtown developments catches my attention. So when the University Cultural Center Association announced the groundbreaking for a greenway pedestrian-bike path through the area in April, I got excited. Walking and bicycling were my main modes of transportation when I lived there in the late '70s and early '80s. The general plan for the so-called Midtown Loop (apparently there are no corporate naming rights involved here) is to widen walkways, add bike lanes and separate them from traffic with trees and bushes. In addition there will be cultural and educational displays, landscapes, pocket parks, new lighting and more. My personal favorites are the cute little drinking fountains set near the ground for pets. Hey, anything to increase foot traffic, the holy grail of mom-and-pop business owners.
Feeling a little frisky, and fueled by a doctor's office visit that suggested I could do with a bit more exercise, I decided to walk the 1.8-mile route to see just what's to be transformed. The first section of the three-phase, $8 million project is along Kirby from Cass to John R on the north side of the Main Branch Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It doesn't seem difficult to create a greenway there, as both those institutions have extensive lawns. This is an amiable, pleasant, well-established strip that includes the Detroit Historical Museum and the International Institute.
At John R, the route turns south at the College for Creative Studies. I asked a couple of cyclists stopped at the light there if they were looking forward to the coming greenway. They weren't aware of it, but thought it was a good idea. I asked several people along the route what they thought of the coming greenway, including a WSU Public Safety officer. None of them were aware of the coming development.
Going south along John R is still pretty stable territory, with CCS, Barat House and the Scarab Club lined up across John R from the DIA. The postage stamp-sized Hudson's Art Park is an example of the pocket parks developers hope to have sprinkled along the way. It's not until you pass the Science Center and the Rackham Building and cross Warren that surroundings get a little tattered. On the east side are Medical Center facilities. On the west side are parking lots of the unpaved and weed-infested variety. There are some older buildings in need of sprucing up.
Near Canfield, where the route turns west back toward Cass, things look better. An intersection that I remember as a cluster of vacant buildings has come to life with a nicely appointed apartment building next to the Midtown Corner Café and the Quick Stop party store. Storeowner Chuck Beydoun seems remotely aware of the coming greenway. "They are going to plant some trees," he says. "There will be more people walking, more business."
The old Melrose Hotel on Canfield has been revamped into the Boulder Development Plaza. Powell Peabody, owner of the Sole Sister boutique in the building, is a little more excited about the path that will tie the neighborhoods together. "I'm excited, hoping and anticipating more people finding the small treasures that exist in the city," she says. "This will get more people out and about."
Peabody says the old Melrose had been intended for lofts but that changed when the real estate market crashed and the owners turned it into retail. The building houses another store called the Black Dress, an acupuncturist, a communications company and specialty pharmacy. All of this right across from a bustling Medical Center.
The bustling ends there. As I head west toward Cass, a nondescript passage with a couple of WSU-owned buildings, some parking lots, and a loft development begs for something to excite. The garden spot of the strip would be the Whitney, the well-known high-end restaurant at Woodward. But it's across the street from the now-vacant Agave restaurant.
It's the corner of Canfield and Cass that represents my field of dreams. Three of the four corners are parking lots (one for WSU's University Tower apartments); the other is occupied by the old Knickerbocker apartment building. This intersection could be a happening hub. One block south along Cass is the little strip of businesses bookended by the Spiral Collective and Avalon Bakery. Going west on Canfield there are a couple of small boutiques, a loft development with retail space at street level and the Traffic Jam restaurant. If the Canfield-Cass intersection develops, there could be humming spurs along both streets that feed off the foot traffic moving along a greenway. There's plenty of residential space in the area. Now people need someplace to come out and walk around.
Going north back up Cass it's only a half block before you run into the Cass Café and the Islamic Center of Detroit. Across Forest it's pretty much WSU-land and some of the small businesses that make their bread and butter selling to students. The big ugly along there is the now-empty Christian Science Reading Room. That space seems to be prime real estate directly across Cass from WSU's Old Main building. Marwil Bookstore on the corner of Warren is still hanging in there across from a Barnes and Noble. But Marwil still boasts the best newsstand in the neighborhood, easily beating the one at Barnes and Noble. After that, it's another pleasant block back to Kirby.
The Midtown Loop might seem imposing when you look at it on a map, but a purposeful walker could make the circuit in 30 minutes. Not bad. This isn't the same old Cass Corridor. The street people who once wandered the area seem to have moved elsewhere. My own nostalgia took on a glow of hope. Things don't remain the same, and this neighborhood could become a beacon of light.
Cultural kicks: I went to the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center on Saturday for the for the Kirk Lightsey homecoming-Marcus Belgrave 74th birthday concert. The show was great. Nearly as impressive was the youth trio that performed during the headliners' break, with Belgrave's son Kassan on clarinet, Kayvon Morgan on drums, and Endea Owens on bass. The kids take lessons at the Carr Center, and they showed that the jazz community is bringing along another generation to carry the torch. The art show that's up at the Carr Center also impresses.
The Carr Center, 311 E. Grand River Ave., in Harmonie Park, is the newest arts establishment in town. Director Oliver Ragsdale Jr. mentioned that, just one year ago, the organization got the keys and started renovating the building. It has hosted literary events, music concerts, art exhibits and educational programs. This summer's plans include art, theater and jazz camps for young people. Call 313-965-8430 or see artsleague.com for more information.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]