You can pass it on Jefferson Avenue – thousands do every day. It’s when you turn off Jefferson, down into the narrow old streetscape and get a glimpse of the water that you know you’re at your destination — the East Riverfront.
You can’t, however, pass through the East Riverfront area. It’s a maze of Detroit manufacturing antiquity, though many of its 19th Century buildings have been demolished. There is enough of the old and the introduction of new, however, to suggest that the area poised to reach its potential.
The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s growing RiverWalk project will connect the East Riverfront, linking the communities from the Renaissance Center to Belle Isle to the new subdivisions under construction near St. Jean. The area also includes neighborhoods immediately north of Jefferson, including the mansions and historic homes of Indian Village and the West Village.
The riverfront has been a restaurant/entertainment destination for many years, spotlighted by the beautifully landscaped outdoor amphitheatre, Chene Park, the nearby warehouse district clubs and restaurants, and the historic Roostertail banquet facility, which remains the place to host a party in the city.
Chene Park has been a major attraction on the riverfront since it opened several years ago. The site for the annual Concert of Colors, the amphitheatre offers a fine venue – certainly a unique setting – to hear a musical performance. Within walking distance of restaurants on Jefferson and Joseph Campau, Chene Park patrons can make a night of it without moving their car.
Designer and entrepreneur Dominic Pangborn recently announced plans to bring more culture to the riverfront. Work has already started on his concept for an Asian Village, which will include a 160-seat restaurant, called Asian House, a gourmet grocery store and a catering company, as well as shops for Asian artisans.
For both residents and visitors to the East Riverfront, the Asian Village is an example of the type of development that will draw people from near and far. “It’s exciting because it’s bringing another piece to the cultural fabric,” says Matt Clayson, project manager with the Tourism Economic Development Council in Detroit and resident of Harbortown. “Cities are different people coming together, sharing experiences, sharing cultures, sharing traditions. That’s just one more opportunity to do that. It’s providing a destination business, something that the region doesn’t have. It’s not replicating something being done at Somerset Mall.”
Another of the city’s unique destinations sits on Jefferson north of Waterworks Park. Pewabic Pottery, with its gallery and workshop, is a national treasure that draws more than 63,000 visitors annually from all over the region. “We’re fortunate to be supported by many individuals who are interested in ceramic art in a completely authentic experience of coming to a national historic landmark building, buying a wedding present, or taking a class,” says Terese Ireland, executive director of the nonprofit. “Pewabic is a vibrant place, and I think that our visitors, shoppers, and students see that. There’s a real energy about the place.
Dining and nightlife
At the water’s edge, a strip of restaurants lines Jos. Campau. The Rattlesnake Club is a symbol of Detroit’s outstanding contemporary cuisine. Its open décor and outdoor café offer casual elegance. Atwater remains a vibrant microbrewery.
On far eastern edge, next to the Roostertail, is the classic marina bar/restaurant of Detroit, Sinbad’s, where a cup of chowder means something special. Of course, there’s a lot more to the menu, but dining on the waterfront, in a place with years of character, makes a difference.
Part of that East Riverfront character – and what gave the Roostertail its name – is the annual hydroplane races. Thousands of people jam the east riverfront for this annual summer tradition of the famed “roostertail” spray of roaring hydroplanes shooting by.
One can’t overlook the obvious attraction on the East Riverfront – Belle Isle. There is little one can add to the volumes written on this spectacular urban island park – Detroit’s Central Park. A few blocks east of Belle Isle, and its shoreline sister, Gabriel Richard Park, is Erma Henderson Park, featuring a public marina.
Small riverfront parks on the near East Riverfront, like St. Aubin and Mt. Elliott, represent the first generation of converting the waterfront from its old industrial use to recreational. The most recent addition has been the 31-acre Tri-Centennial State Park. The RiverWalk will eventually link the parks, cross East Grand Boulevard and complete its path in Gabriel Richard Park.
The planned Dequindre Cut greenway, running along a former rail line south from Eastern Market, under Jefferson, and into the East Riverfront, will link the Lafayette Park area with the riverfront with pedestrian and cycling trails. This is part of a greater GreenWays Initiative funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Model D. For more on the East Riverfront neighborhood see the investing and moving guides.
Directions to East Riverfront
From the East:
Take I-94 West to Exit 220B for Conner Ave toward the City Airport. Turn slight left onto Conner St and turn right onto Hern St. to St. Jean St. where you’ll turn left. Continue to Jefferson Ave E and turn right to arrive in East Riverfront.
From the North:
Take I-75 South and merge onto I-375 S/Chrysler Fwy via Exit 51C on the left toward the Civic Center. Take the exit toward Jefferson Ave East and stay straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn slight left onto Jefferson Ave E and arrive in East Riverfront.
From the West:
Take I-96 East and merge onto I-75 North via the exit on the left toward Flint. Merge onto I-375 South/Chrysler Fwy toward Downtown. Take the exit toward Jefferson Ave East and stay straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn slight left onto Jefferson Ave E and arrive in East Riverfront.
From the South:
Take I-94 East toward Detroit and merge onto I-96 E/Jefferies Fwy via Exit 213B toward Canada. Merge onto I-75 North via the exit on the left toward Flint and then merge onto I-375 South/Chrysler Fwy toward Downtown. Take the exit toward Jefferson Ave East and stay straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn slight left onto Jefferson Ave E and arrive in East Riverfront.
Take I-75 North toward Detroit and merge onto I-375 South/Chrysler Fwy toward Downtown. Take the exit toward Jefferson Ave East and stay straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn slight left onto Jefferson Ave E and arrive in East Riverfront.
Riverwalk in front of the Renaissance Center
The Rattlesnake Club
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger