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Publisher's notebook: The Avenue, a love story












I'm sitting in the new Livernois Community Storefront on Detroit's legendary Avenue of Fashion in Northwest Detroit, and the front door is wide open. There is nothing for sale here -- not yet, anyway -- but neighbors on foot or bicycle stop by to say hello. 
 
There are City of Detroit workers outside planting bushes, and University of Detroit Mercy students inside taking measurements. The Detroit Lions and Hatch Detroit were just here rolling up their sleeves, with fresh flowers and mulch delivered from Eastern Market and Detroit Farm & Garden. Virginia and Ceara from Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) are overseeing finishing touches to the space, with a little help from their friends at Revolve Detroit and Challenge Detroit.
 
All of this activity is coming just in time for the Avenue's "Light Up Livernois" event on May 31 and June 1, when Detroit's newest summertime pop-up will make its debut.
 
Just up the block, two women are reminiscing at a sidewalk cafe table outside of a flower shop. It's very "Paris of the Midwest," the way they are gracefully lingering there on a weekday afternoon. 
 
I eavesdrop, not so subtly. They are talking about the Avenue's heyday when their mothers shopped here for hats and shoes. Their happy memories evoke Edgar A. Guest's famous poem: "In Detroit, life's worth living."
 
At first glance, it might appear to be an ordinary scene on an ordinary day in the life of a city. But when you start piecing together the many people, projects and plans that have come together on this lovely, tree-lined stretch of Livernois, it is really nothing short of extraordinary. 
 
The secret? Layers. Layers upon layers of partnerships and investment, all pointed towards the same, shared, audacious idea -- that the Avenue's best days are not bygone, but ahead.
 
What's Going On
 
Perched on the storefront window sill, I can see Marvin Gaye's old house just a couple blocks away. It reminds me that this kind of neighborhood work is much more than mere economic revitalization. It's about love and healing. 
 
And there's a lot of heart here. You can feel it in conversations with anyone who is working on their small part of a larger whole. Everyone credits someone else. Everyone uses the word "together."
 
Thanks to this team spirit, what Livernois is experiencing right now is a pile-on -- in the best possible way. The current wave of improvements is no matter of luck, but years of planning guided by an Urban Land Institute study and a Livernois Working Group. This helps everyone work from the same playbook, so that any new projects -- from public art to landscaping to retail signage and staging -- begin with the question "How can we plug in?" rather than operating unilaterally or in competition with one another.
 
And with a formidable cast of characters, including leaders from the Detroit Economic Growth CorporationUD Mercy and Marygrove College, as well as pioneering entrepreneurs like Rufus Bartell of Simply Casual and Don Studvent of 1917 American Bistro, the Avenue's got a solid starting team.
 
Leading the charge is Kim Tandy of University Commons and the Sherwood Forest Association. The daughter of an architect, who herself grew up to become an architect, Tandy was raised in this neighborhood, in a striking home her father built on the course of the Detroit Golf Club.
 
It's not surprising, then, that she rhapsodizes about the neighborhood's architectural assets -- which are undeniable, from Sherwood Forest to Green Acres to the University District and Palmer Woods.
 
Make no mistake: this is not a "struggling" neighborhood. This is one of the premier residential districts of the city, with some of the finest historic homes and green spaces in the region. The diversity of housing is impressive, offering a wide range of options for everyone from young professionals to empty-nesters, with dozens of apartment buildings currently being restored to further widen the mix.
 
The residents here are notoriously passionate and engaged. The volunteer-led group, People for Palmer Park, has been hard at work to beautify and re-activate the park with everything from yoga to tennis to bike rides. There is also the Palmer Woods Music in Homes series organized by cultural mavens, Barbara and A. Spencer Barefield, and festivals like Hotter than July presented by K.I.C.K., and the annual "Jazz on the Ave" event in August. In between these events, you can hang out at the world's oldest jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge.
 
This is a special place
 
I came to appreciate just how special a few years back when realtor Austin Black II of City Living Detroit started talking about this area like a broken record. He wouldn't stop gushing -- great potential for young families, he would say. Then one day I made him drive me around. We looped for hours, everywhere. And he was right. It's not hard to fall in love with this area of town.
 
"We have incredible housing stock," says Tandy. "People are moving back here because they see potential and want to be a part of the solution. A lot of new home sales are younger families moving back from the suburbs. They see the future."
 
But as Tandy is first to admit, creating the walkable urban lifestyle that city dwellers crave has been a bit slower to materialize -- which is why the Avenue of Fashion is such a prime and important spot. It's got all the "great bones" of a dense, vibrant neighborhood -- contiguous storefronts, nice shady trees, and loads of historic character.
 
"We have many really stable neighborhoods, but what we've been missing is the retail district," says Tandy. "We need to make it pedestrian-friendly. Everyone wants to walk."
 
When I ask Tandy what she'd like to see there, she speaks of quality, specialty, locally-owned businesses -- with an emphasis on more sit-down dining, something the residents have been requesting for years.
 
With some recent turnover of landlords, many of whom are now willing to work creatively and collaboratively to help entice tenants (as evidenced by the short-term lease arrangement for the temporary Livernois Community Storefront), now is a great opportunity to attract new restaurants and boutiques. 
 
"Our community will support it once it's here," Tandy says confidently, and I believe her. There is buying power all around. Currently, many residents drive to neighboring Ferndale and Royal Oak for that walkable shopping and dining experience, contributing to the well-known retail leakage that has plagued Detroit for years.
 
It doesn't have to be that way. And the Avenue is poised to be at the heart of it all.
 
Let's Get it On
 
This opportunity to bolster the Avenue as a retail destination is the impetus for Hatch Detroit, Revolve Detroit and DCDC's greater involvement here -- to raise the visibility of existing shops and set the stage for future ones with pop-up activity and other streetscape improvements.
 
It is the first district selected by Hatch Detroit for their new citywide neighborhood retail initiative, supported by the Detroit Lions' "Living for the City" program -- and for very good reason. 
 
"There's a lot of rich history with the Lions in this area," explains Hatch Executive Director Vittoria Katanski. "Several players used to live in the Bagley community, so it's like a return back to the neighborhood." 
 
(In case you missed it, we caught some of the Lions' memories in this episode of Model D TV.)
 
To reinforce the Lions' commitment to the area, yesterday they hosted their annual fundraiser at the nearby Detroit Golf Club -- the first year this event is being held in the city -- with local food from past Hatch contestants, including Detroit Institute of Bagels and Treats by Angelique.
 
Future Hatch plans include retail signage and a public sculpture, with a call for entries from local artists coming this summer. Stay tuned for details here.
 
In the meantime, DCDC is activating their temporary storefront space as a retail catalyst and community hub, with the goal of promoting the unique character and culture of the Livernois Corridor.
 
The space will open to the public Friday, May 31, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday, June 1, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Click here for details.
 
"We want to show off how vacant storefronts can be used," explains Ceara O'Leary, an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow in the midst of her three-year stint at DCDC. "We want it to be a hub for local information." 
 
It's a slightly new twist on the Detroit pop-up -- there is no cash register in sight. It's a community space, where visitors will find a giant wall map of the neighborhood, local food and art, and a host of activities, including a "shop local" passport game and a fashion show featuring local designers. The Extra Mile Playwrights Group will present an oral history showcase called "Voices from the Neighborhood," and Detroit SOUP will host one of their popular community micro-funding dinners on Thursday, June 6 at 6:30 p.m. 
 
"It can take a long time to make anything evident or visible, but this is one small manifestation, one small catalyst," says Virginia Stanard of DCDC. "There is a lot of new energy around this area, and University of Detroit Mercy is really committed to re-engaging the Corridor. We're excited for the space to bring more students off campus to discover the area and make it healthier."
 
The DCDC is doing this work thanks to support from the Surdna Foundation, which funds programs that promote thriving, sustainable communities.

Revolve Detroit, the neighborhood retail initiative of the DEGC, enters the picture in June to build on this momentum and invite more entrepreneurs and artists to participate. Thanks to a new $200,000 grant from ArtPlace, a national creative placemaking consortium, as well as support from the MEDC, Revolve will roll-out a call for entries for pop-up retail and art to fill 10 vacant storefronts and two public spaces.

"The ArtPlace grant is going to be very strong for activating spaces," says Michael Forsyth of Revolve. "It gives us enough resources to be able to do it right. There is already so much going on there, and by teaming with the community we can bring the Avenue of Fashion back as one of the premier destinations in the region. I'm really excited."

Their pop-up strategy is similar to the model they're piloting in West Village, but at a much larger scale, with art playing a more prominent role, says Forsyth.
 
Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing
 
There is something terribly romantic about neighborhood storefronts. It's where the big city meets the small town, where private micro-enterprise meets the public realm, and where neighbors meet each other.
 
It is also a small enough unit -- just a slice of square footage and frontage in the context of a great big city -- that is totally possible to wrap your arms and imagination around. Not to diminish the serious planning and dollars that go into activating a vacant space, but it's doable. 
 
It is also enormously powerful, especially when you can line up dozens in a row.
 
In Detroit, we are in the midst of an era we might one day remember as the Revival of the Storefront. This movement is nostalgic -- a yearning for an earlier time when merchants made an honest living serving their neighbors, and customers could stroll down to the corner store. But it is also futuristic -- a recognition that mass-consumption and auto-dependent living is not sustainable, nor pleasurable. 
 
It might not be as radical as flying rocket ships, but in some ways it is just as daring.
 
The speed of Detroit's transition back to walkable districts is a little bit slower than most of us might like. Every vacant space comes with its own set of challenges, and things like financing and permitting and lighting and safety can be tricky to navigate.
 
But the more we do it, the more we can improve the process and start seeing the benefits. It might take creative partnerships, or temporary pop-ups, or retail grants, or a combination of all of the above to get the momentum going. But once it starts, there can be a multiplying effect, as we've seen in other cities, and increasingly right here in our own.
 
Let's keep at it -- layer by layer, block by block -- until avenues like Livernois are not just the heart of their own neighborhood, but the envy of the entire region, standing shoulder to shoulder with any downtown district anywhere.
 
What can you do to help accelerate this movement? Plug-in and pile-on to places with good bones, strong anchors and passionate leaders.
 
As with all matters of the heart, it takes a little imagination, a lot of cooperation, and that delicate combination of urgency and patience. But true love is worth it.
 
Claire Nelson is the publisher of Model D and has a mild obsession with storefronts.
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