Model D-troiter: Jerry Belanger

Walk down Park Avenue on a weekend night and you'll find one of Detroit's liveliest corridors.

Restored buildings occupied by a variety of eclectic bars, offices and residences tower over the few blighted structures left on a thoroughfare that was a few years ago crime ridden, desolate and forbidding. Playing key roles in this avenue's reversal of fortunes are some of the biggest names in downtown Detroit's revival – Harrington, Forbes and Ilitch.

Another name high on that list is Jerry Belanger. The 47-year-old just finished restoring the ground floor of the two-story Albert Khan building on the corner of Park and Elizabeth Street, which houses Cliff Bells and The Park Bar. Cliff Bells, a jazz bar in a restored speakeasy, opened during Super Bowl week.

Next door, Belanger's new establishment, The Park Bar, is, put simply, a Detroit bar made by Detroiters for Detroiters. Both draw crowds large enough to rival the Centaur and Town Pump bars, two downtown favorites owned by Sean Harrington, on the other end of Park.

"The future of Park Avenue wasn't assured until Jerry's building came into place," says Scott Martin, managing partner of the Vinton Building LLC, which is restoring the 12-story skyscraper at Woodward and Congress elsewhere downtown. "Sean is one bookend, with the Town Pump and Centaur on one end. Jerry, with The Park Bar and Cliff Bells, is the other."

Belanger's bookend came at quite the price. It cost him nearly three years of hard labor, a couple broken ribs, a chipped elbow, a hole in his foot and $1.6 million out of his pocket. By the time he opened The Park Bar in December he had to borrow liquor from Cliff Bells because he had only $86 left in his bank account. But Belanger, an ardent believer in the "if you build it they will come" philosophy, couldn't have been happier in taking such an active role in the city's rebirth.

"I don't know anyone more stoked about the revitalization of Detroit," says Patrick Trainor, a carpenter who worked on the restoration. "I never met anybody more fired up."

'All in this together'

To understand why Belanger makes these sacrifices, you need to first understand his love for the city and its people.

"He's always willing to help other people," Martin says. "He understands that we're all in this together. He understands that helping other people helps everyone. Not everyone in Detroit understands that."

Belanger grew up an Air Force brat, moving from city to city before his family settled in Detroit. The self-described nomad and corporate dropout worked in management at a car wash equipment manufacturer before giving it up to put down roots in Detroit.

"I really love the city," Belanger says. "I fricking love the people who inhabit this city. I have traveled all over the country and I have never been to a city where I love the people as much as I love those who live in Detroit."

Vision for the Park

He started with restoring a house near the intersection of West Grand Boulevard and Porter Street in Southwest Detroit in 2001. After finishing that and some other restoration work, Belanger started looking for something bigger. He fell in love with the Park building the moment he saw it, even though the building and area weren't easy on the eyes.

Trainor describes the neighborhood at the time as filled with a variety of negative urban stereotypes, including petty crime, drug dealing, prostitution and blown-out buildings. The Park building itself showed every bit of wear and tear that came from 20 years of abandonment. "It was so blighted," Trainor says. "The whole block was just filled with blight."

Belanger looked past that. "In the flash of a second, I saw it complete," Belanger says. "I saw it done."

Fulfilling that vision took a little bit longer. Belanger and his crew of about a dozen craftsmen spent two years worth of 16-hour days and seven-day weeks gutting, updating and securing critical aspects of the building's infrastructure.

Belanger used historical records and photographs to preserve and restore as much of the building's historical integrity as possible. Today Cliff Bells, 4,500 square feet of Art Deco craftsmanship, largely resembles what it looked like at the height of its 1930s heyday.

The Park Bar has a minimalist, loft-like appearance, showing off the structure's bones with exposed concrete columns, brick walls and air ducts. Belanger wanted it to have a decidedly Detroit flavor without the cliché automobile and sports memorabilia, so he hired Detroit craftsmen and artisans to build it.

"They're all local, on-the-scene people," Belanger says. "You can find them at (Detroit bars) The Bronx and Slows. They're well-known in the community and highly skilled tradesmen."

Belanger provided the overall vision for the building's restoration, which he calls one giant creative expression comparable to a sculpture, but gave his crew the artistic freedom on the details. For instance, he wanted a switchback staircase in The Park Bar but he let his iron workers design and build it. Also, the concrete column nearest the Park Avenue entrance was originally a round column similar to the one in the middle of the circular bar. Belanger wanted it to match the other octagonal columns in the bar's walls so he had one of his workers put concrete around it. The man used specifically placed boards to mimic the concrete form lines that mark the other columns.

Belanger designed and built the main round wood bar. Even though a handful of 42-inch flat-screen TVs surround the central column that serves as the bar's axis, they are usually turned off. Belanger keeps them off because patrons are more likely to mingle without the distraction. He also designed the round bar so patrons look at each other and start conversations.

"For me Detroit is more than the building. It's a concept of community," Belanger says. "When I built this I wanted the community integrated into the brick and mortar so people could see it built into the building. This really has Detroit written all over it because it was born out of the concepts and creativity of the artisans who worked on it."

There is definitely a method to Belanger's madness. He built The Park Bar as a refuge for city residents. Many of the bars in the Grand Circus Park area cater to the suburban crowds patronizing the theater district and sports stadium, so "it's almost like when locals come to Grand Circus Park – it's like they're aliens," he says.

Visitors are, of course, welcome at The Park Bar, but Belanger wanted his place to be something different, a place with a character not found in places like Novi or Taylor. He stocks his bar with Detroit beers, such as Stroh's and the entire line of Motor City Brewing Works beers. And he makes a point to play Detroit-made music, like The Fondas and The Detroit Cobras. "I wanted a place for Detroiters in a place that has been made for outsiders," Belanger says.

Belanger's plans to bring back the building, opened first by Joseph Campau in 1924, include expanding The Park Bar into the basement and the second floor so it can host music. He also wants to install a green roof tough enough for patrons to walk on.

"He's got a lot of drive, a lot of drive for an old guy," John Linardos, owner of the Motor City Brewing Works, says of Belanger. "He took on a project and did it guerrilla-style. He did it all himself. It's not recommended, but it's commendable."

Belanger admits that he is a little crazy for taking on such a huge endeavor. It's a gift and a curse that sometimes drives him to smoke Marlboro Reds at a Jim Leyland pace and to talk about the building with fatherly pride.

And what would he tell someone thinking of doing the same thing? "It would probably be my responsibility to tell them they are crazy," Belanger says. "Everybody told me I was crazy. And only the person who is crazy will see it through. … I would have to tell him not to do it and hope that he does."


Jerry Belanger at The Park Bar

Jerry Belanger

The Park Bar

Inside Cliff Bells

Park Bar's bar

Jerry enjoying a Detroit brew

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.
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