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To understand change in Midtown Detroit, look to Alexandrine Street

Terrance Williams dances at the corner of Second and Selden

Sarah Cox and Mark Beard's Victorian at Second and West Alexandrine


Most days you can find Terrance Williams dancing for his life at Redmond Plaza. Neither rain, nor snow, nor even a polar vortex can interrupt his daily routine of getting down on the corner of Second Avenue and Selden Street.
 
"I'm dancing the weight off," Williams says. "I have been doing it for three years now. I do it right here because it's close to home. I don't have enough money to catch the bus."
 
Over those three years, Williams has seen a lot of change.
 
Williams grew up in the area, the eighth of 12 children. His mother lived in the nearby Jeffries Housing Projects before she passed away. Today Williams lives a couple blocks away from Redmond Plaza in a studio apartment in the same building as one of his sisters, a place he has called home since 2002. He pays $300 a month and lives on disability benefits.
 
When he started his workout routine, Williams could only dance for 20 minutes. These days he'll pull a full work day gyrating at Redmond Plaza, practically from sun up to sun down. He listens to a radio tuned to FM R&B stations like 92.3 or 105.9, and if Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album comes on, he'll really start moving.
 
"Anytime they play Michael it gets me moving. Or Prince," Williams says. "If it's a good song, I'll cry. I do a lot of crying out here sometimes."
 
The 54-year-old is not small, but he is in better shape now than he has been in years. He weighed 317 pounds when his brother made him a deal. "He said, 'You get down to 250 and I'll give you $100,'" Williams says. "I am at 251 right now...I took 14 inches off my waist."
 
The new goal is 230 pounds for double the money, and there's little doubt Williams, who proudly recites his cholesterol levels, will get there.
 
Williams has come a long way from when he first started dancing, and so has his neighborhood.
 
Williams chose Redmond Plaza because it's close to his home. And the trees: He is a fan of Bruce Lee books and the trees at the park resonated with him because Bruce Lee liked to work out in the woods. The park is currently fenced off so it can be upgraded with better lights and fixtures, part of a $250,000 effort. It's set to reopen in May.
 
Williams is looking forward to it. He's not afraid that all of the improvements will take away his dancing stage or gentrify him out of his home. He calls the improvements a "blessing" and says, "Detroit needs an uplift."
 
But Williams is aware that deeper change is afoot. He can point out the location of multiple surveillance cameras and knows people are watching.
 
"If the Caucasians didn't love you, you would be gone in two minutes," Williams says. "I am out here eight hours."
 
And while people talk about him and his eccentric behavior, no one gives him a hard time. In fact, Williams is enjoying his time in his self-made limelight.
 
"All he does is dance everyday all day," Wayne State University Police Department Chief Anthony Holt wrote in an email. "He has not done anything that is a violation. He salutes the officers as they drive by."
 
West Alexandrine
 
A block north of Redmond Plaza, the changing face of Midtown Detroit is most acutely visible. More than $40 million is being invested in the renovation of buildings -- big and small -- along the three blocks of West Alexandrine between Woodward Avenue and Third Street. It's here where some of the city's newest marquee business have set up shop.
 
Slows To Go opened at Cass and West Alexandrine in late 2010. Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co.'s Detroit location followed a year later at the corner of Woodward and West Alexandrine. Selden Standard, recently named the restaurant of the year by the Detroit Free Press, opened last fall on Second between Selden and West Alexandrine. The old Tom Boy Super Market (a small yet infamous grocery store) closed last year and is set to reopen as a yet-to-be-announced retail development later this year.

Selden Standard
Slows To Go

 
Work began on the multi-million dollar renovation of the Rainier Court Apartments at the corner of Third and West Alexandrine last fall. The folks behind the Green Garage are nearly done transforming the ornate El Moore building into apartments with "urban cabins" on the roof. Former Curbed Detroit editor Sarah F. Cox and her partner Mark R. Beard are on the brink of finishing the renovation of a Victorian mansion at Second and West Alexandrine, turning it into a small, mixed-use, multi-unit building. Condos are selling at 434 West Alexandrine for just under $200,000 and in Wayne State University's old Mortuary Science Building for well in excess of $300,000.
 
The largest project on the street, however, is the $28 million renovation of the old Strathmore Hotel just west of Woodward. Midtown Detroit Inc., the economic development organization for the neighborhood, spearheaded the redevelopment of the long-abandoned, eight-story building.
 
"We felt it was really important to acquire that and do something with it," says Susan Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc. "Having that looming all over the neighborhood would inhibit people from investing."

Strathmore Hotel
 
A Wave of Artists
 
These are the days Aaron Timlin has been waiting for. The executive director of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit has called the Cass Corridor home since early 1990s. He used to live in a two-bedroom apartment near the Majestic Theatre, paying $300 a month, and sat on the old citizen district council for the neighborhood.
 
At the time the then-Detroit Medical Center employee saw development plans calling for renovating nearby buildings and constructing infill housing. Afraid his rent would double, Timlin bought his current home at 487 West Alexandrine. It's the one with a multi-colored "radiator ranch" in the front yard.
 
"I just didn't want to get gentrified out of the neighborhood," Timlin says. "I also wanted to invest in the neighborhood."

Aaron Timlin
 
That was 1994, back when a church occupied what is now Slows To Go and a Burger King sat in what is now the adjacent parking lot. The old Strathmore Hotel was a cracktel with a reputation for drug dealing. Timlin was 23 years old and convinced the Cass Corridor was the next urban hot spot. He regularly lobbied friends to either move in or stick it out a little longer.
 
"I thought things would turn around a lot quicker," Timlin says. "I kept telling people to hold on and wait."
 
Twenty years later Timlin fell in love with everything that constituted his neighborhood. He found himself loving the old Cass Corridor more than the newly rebranded Midtown. Timlin isn't waiting for change anymore as much as he hopes several aspects of his hood stay the same, like Williams' dancing routine a block away.
 
"To me it's like a comfort," Timlin says. "It's fun. It's unique. It's what makes the Cass Corridor the Cass Corridor."
 
He is afraid his friends and neighbors who stuck out the hard times won't have a space in the neighborhood's future. Today Timlin's neighbors who liked to chill out in front of the iron cage entrance of Tom Boy have been replaced with suburban-raised 20 somethings showing parents their cool new homes. Timlin wants to see more compassionate development that makes as much room for longtime residents as new members of the community.
 
"There is a difference between development that is integration and development that is gentrification," Timlin says. "Gentrification replaces one whole group with another."
 
Gentrification
 
Fears of gentrification in Midtown have become palpable in the last couple of years. Longtime local journalists Bill McGraw and Tom Henderson have both written about gentrification in Midtown and illustrated scenes taking place on West Alexandrine. But that doesn't mean that gentrification is actually happening right now or that local leaders pushing forward change aren't cognizant of those issues.
 
For example, the Strathmore development had been an abandoned, vacant shell covered in dull graffiti and lacking windows for a decade before renovation work began. It's set to become 129 apartments, 40 percent of which will be affordable housing and the rest market-rate. While the project will almost certainly bring in more affluent inhabitants, it's not displacing anyone in the neighborhood. In fact, it's creating more than 50 new homes for working class people.
 
The Rainier Court Apartments development will feature 36 market-rate apartments. The building, which had fallen into deep disrepair before its sale to the current ownership, had previously been home to a number of longtime Cass Corridor residents. However, the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp is bringing 47 affordable housing units online this year a few blocks away at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Cass.
 
Between 2010 and 2014, 34 percent of the housing units that came online in Midtown were for affordable housing, according to Mosey. There are also large concentrations of established affordable housing stock throughout the neighborhood, including apartment towers near the Detroit Medical Center and garden apartment complexes next to the Lodge Freeway.
 
"The neighborhood needs mixed-income housing," Mosey says. "It needs affordable housing and market-rate housing. There is plenty of affordable housing in the neighborhood. We need more market-rate housing."
 
Scott Rutterbush and his partners were cognizant of those issues when they opened Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co.'s Detroit location. While the coffee shop and bar primarily caters to a clientele of means with exotic coffee drinks and beers, it does offer lower-priced and more familiar options. The ownership also made a concerted effort to hire local people, opening with a 15-person staff that consisted of 75 percent city residents. It also opens its space to local groups at no cost for events in an effort to make the establishment more inclusive for both newer and longtime neighborhood residents.
 
"We try to be that intersection," Rutterbush says. "If you have been here for 30-40 years or 30-40 days, we want to be a place where they can intersect. Both groups have a lot to offer the city."
 
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Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He owns a home a few blocks from where Terrance Williams dances, but he has not lived in the neighborhood as long and is not as entertaining as Williams. He is also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area who has benefited significantly from the recent uptick in property values. His thoughts on the current state of gentrification can be found in a feature story written by Bridge Magazine last summer, which can be found here.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

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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