A common first reaction that newcomers have upon entering Southwest Detroit is, “Wow. There are a lot of people here.”
And it’s true. Especially in the Vernor/Clark/Springwells stretch, there are traffic jams and pedestrians, charming storefronts, several grocery stores, excellent restaurants and the regular hustle and bustle of what is, for the most part, an economically vibrant community. The area has maintained its vitality more so than other sections of the city, and continues to grow, a phenomenon most often attributed to a steady influx of immigrants.
Historically, the Ford Rouge plant lured Hungarian, Romanian, Irish, Italian, German and other European immigrants, along with American job seekers from the East Coast and down South. More recently, the area has attracted Latino families, adding to the diversity of the area, which prides itself on a rich culture heritage.
Southwest Detroit has had its share of struggles, however. Holy Redeemer High School was one of 18 Catholic schools to close last June because of declining enrollment. Many residents consider the huge Holy Redeemer Church complex to be the neighborhood’s centerpiece, and the school closing was a direct hit. Also, there’s been a proposal for the Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal, which could lead to the demolition of many housing units and businesses in the neighborhood.
The loud and organized community outcry against such events, however, is a testament to Southwest Detroit’s tight-knit neighborhood pride, politics and dedication to making the area a desirable place to live and a delightful place to visit.
Several festivals and parades take place throughout the year, including Shop Your Block, Unity in the Community and Cinco de Mayo celebrations. In October, there are lots of events scheduled in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month. Next month, activities abound which commemorate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The area boasts a strong business association, several nonprofit agencies devoted to Southwest Detroit and a new Campbell branch library, which is set to open next month at 8733 W. Vernor in a rehabbed storefront space. Southwest Detroit even received a Cool Cities grant from the state.
Model D decided to spend a recent sunny, early autumn day soaking in all that Southwest had to offer.
10:15 a.m.: One of my favorite things about Southwest Detroit is getting there. My route of choice includes turning onto 16th St. from Michigan Ave., next to Michigan Central Station, one of the city’s most famous “ruins.” Even though I pass by this hulking, majestic, beautiful mess of a building nearly every day, and used to live kiddie-corner to it, it never ceases to inspire. Said route will take you up close and personal to the train station, in a completely legal, non-trespassing kind of way, and then lead you under an overpass, which makes you feel like you’re tunneling to Oz. When you arrive on the other side a few seconds later, poof! You’re on Vernor, and a bright blue geodesic home welcomes you to the unique and wonderful land of Southwest Detroit.
10:20 a.m.: I make a quick detour onto Bagley to check out the Bagley Housing Association Community Art Gallery. It’s hard to miss with its large white flower bouquet sculpture affixed to the side of the bright yellow building. While there, I chat with gallery curator Cheryl Phillips about the current exhibition, Pinturas, the Paintings of Jorge Torres Maurique. The artist lives in Clarkston, but he makes frequent trips to his native Peru, where he stays in the countryside and small villages and paints, she said. On display through Nov. 5 are some of his graceful watercolor portraits and landscapes in watercolor and oils. The next exhibition will be a holiday group show of paintings, jewelry and sculpture, with all items priced at $100 or less. The Bagley Housing Association is a nonprofit specializing in community development. Its goals are to improve housing stock for low- and moderate-income families, attract commercial development and maintain a sustainable neighborhood. The BHA Gallery, 2715 Bagley Ave., is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. If the door is locked during those hours, ring the bell and someone will let you in.
Across the street from BHA is the Matrix Theatre Company. The two cheerful, colorful buildings make for a charming alcove. Starting Oct. 14, the theater is showing Harpers Ferry and Mother Tongue, two one-act plays about the lives of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Sojourner Truth and Mother Jones.
10:45 a.m.: Next, I head over to Mexicantown Bakery. The sweet and savory smells of rolls and croissants were tempting, but my appetite hadn’t fully kicked in yet, so I bought a coffee and walked over to Clark Park to solidify my plan of action for the day. Clark Park is one of the most beautiful green spaces in the city with plenty of large trees to relax underneath with a good book. It also features a hockey rink complete with scoreboard, plenty of room for a pick-up soccer game and softball diamonds that host a spring and summer league that is practically legendary. After setting up an agenda for the day, I sit for a minute to take in the aroma of warm tortillas, which does a decent job of enveloping the city’s omnipresent industrial sludge and exhaust funk, as the mixed sounds of pop and traditional Mexican music wafted over from the restaurants and other businesses on Vernor and Clark.
11 a.m.: Soon enough, it’s time to get in the car. I head toward Jefferson Ave. and then Historic Fort Wayne, a site that features the original 1848 limestone barracks building of Detroit’s third and only remaining fort. Unfortunately, I have to keep driving because the fort is only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. I then make a quick stop at the Edward W. Duffy pipe and valve fitting supply company, an industrial warehouse that serves as a cultural landmark because it also used to house a large collection of Cass Corridor art. The building’s former owner, Duffy, was a prominent supporter of the 1970s movement’s artists, and still visible on the building’s exterior is a mural and sculpture that pay testament to his commitment.
11:30 a.m.: Suddenly, I arrive at Riverside Park, a peaceful spot that offers magnificent views of the Detroit River and Ambassador Bridge. The expansive bridge is visible throughout most of Southwest, and it’s a constant reminder of the neighborhood’s proximity to Canada, and also a quirky piece of trivia — Detroit is one of the few places where, from downtown, you have to head south to get enter our “northern” neighbor. As I pull up, a Diamond Jack River Tour boat coasts by. (FYI, the Detroit Princess Riverboat also cruises by the bridge.) At Riverside Park I meet Larry Carey, a Southwest resident who fishes at the park from about 7 a.m. to noon most Saturdays, he says. So far, he’s caught three suckers and a green bass.
Noon: Continuing on, I travel through the Delray neighborhood, whose boundaries are roughly Fort Street to the river, and Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue. Although it’s seen better days, Delray plays a definitive role in Detroit’s industrial identity, and this collision of past and present fosters its current somewhat surreal yet beautiful state of hope. And then, to the left, I see the dramatic and ominous furnace and chimney spires of the Zug Island steel mill, and oops, there I was in River Rouge.
12:30 p.m.: Well, while I am there, I figure I might as well check out the Boblo Boat. The Ste. Claire, one of two steamers that used to transport people to the now-closed amusement park on Boblo Island, is docked riverside at Belanger Park. I took a tour of the boat for $5. The century-plus-some-year-old boat is midway through an extensive restoration process, and if you were lucky enough to have taken a ride on it in its operational glory, once you step onto the boat for the tour, a severe wave of nostalgia will set in. Currently, the Ste. Claire also hosts “Nautical Nightmare,” a haunted tour of the boat complete with ghouls and gore, from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, and from 7:30 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets for the Nautical Nightmare are $14.
1:30 p.m.: By now, my appetite has set in, and I am in the mood for enchiladas, so I head back toward Mexican Town. Driving down Dix, I notice Taqueria Mi Pueblo, which is a little off the beaten path, but nonetheless, hopping — a good sign. The lunch crowd was sizable, but I get seated quickly, and settled in to enjoy margaritas and some authentic fare (the menu includes pig stomach).
3 p.m.: It is time for a little shopping. I stroll around the Vernor/Junction commercial area and stop in a few of the shops, some of which feature quirky home decor, such as angel statues with fiber optic wings, large blankets and rugs with wildlife scenes and those waterfall moving pictures. The area also boasts a neat little bakery and grocery store called Luna’s and several clothing and shoe shops, and wedding and baptism clothing stores. Thrift shoppers’ eyes will light up at the flea markets in the area, and a number of yard sales pop up on sunny days. One of my favorite markets, Honeybee, is close by, and sells things like delicious fresh salsa and edible cactus in addition to standard grocery store staples. Also worthy of noting: If you’re into the kind of antiquing where you have to crawl around and dig a little bit, the west section of Michigan Avenue has some of the best finds — and bargains — to be had in the city.
4 p.m.: After shopping, I decide to wander around the grounds of Holy Redeemer at Vernor and Junction. Detroit has countless beautiful old Catholic churches, but there’s something special about this collection of tall, imposing, red brick buildings. It could be their positioning; you have to strain your neck to see the entirety of the church’s soaring domed tower, watching over all the surrounding two-level storefronts and houses.
5 p.m.: At this point, I am exhausted, so I head over to Duly’s Place on Vernor for a jolt of caffeine. Duly’s is a coney island joint that plays host to late-night fun times that some might argue rival those of Lafayette Coney Island on Michigan and Lafayette, downtown.
5:30 p.m.: While waiting for the caffeine to kick in, I take a quiet tour through the neighborhoods. Some of my favorite houses and apartment buildings in Detroit can be found in Southwest Detroit in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood (bounded by Clark, West Lafayette, West Grand Boulevard and West Vernor) and along West Grand Boulevard, but pretty much every street in the area has its own charm. There is some variety to the housing stock, which goes back as far as the late 1800s, but most are wood frame houses from the early 1900s.
6:30 p.m.: Touring the old neighborhoods for some reason puts me in the mood to visit a cemetery, so I decide to grab another cup of coffee and a donut at Donut Villa and take a stroll through the sprawling Woodmere Cemetery. I am drawn into Donut Villa by a sign promoting it as the “home of the original nickelnut,” thinking I might get a donut for 5 cents. No such luck, Donut Villa donuts go for the typical market rate of about 50 cents. The nickel nut is a sort of donut hole. You can get 20 of them for a dollar. The cemetery is packed with large, grand, very old tombstones and has a peaceful pond in the center.
7:30 p.m.: I am getting hungry again. I have no shortage of dining options. If I were dressed a little nicer, I would drive down Dix to Oakwood to eat at Giovanni’s Ristorante, an elegant Italian restaurant, but I am in jeans, so I head east down Vernor to Eddys, a great little pizza place that also has calzones, ribs, salads, chicken, etc. And they deliver. I got some pizza and eat it on a picnic bench at Patton Park.
8:30 p.m.: It’s getting dark. I stop in at Los Galanes, 3362 Bagley, and take a seat at the seafood bar. I am not too hungry after dinner, so I just order a drink and snack on some chips and salsa. The restaurant/club hosts music on weekend nights. My server tells me that they usually move some of the tables to the side to make room for a dance floor. From time to time, they’ll have a touring act perform upstairs in the nightclub. For those shows, there’s usually a cover price, she says. I decided to come back then.
9:30 p.m.: It’s been a long day, and I’m getting sleepy. I go to Movie Mania, at Clark and West Grand Boulevard, rent a DVD and turn in for the night.
On the Web:
Bagley Housing Association
Matrix Theatre Co.
All Photographs copyright Dave Krieger