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Near East Side Story

It's fitting that perhaps the most striking and significant attraction on the Near East Side is the Heidelberg Project, a vibrant art project begun on a blighted street 20 years ago that has received local and international acclaim. Tyree Guyton's creative statement of collecting and positioning discarded toys and other common objects to create a colorful covering for abandoned houses has taken on a life of its own. 

"Obstruction of Justice" is the name given to the original house art. Another piece, "The House that Makes Sense," is a collaboration with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. Among the elements of the project, children are collecting 800,000 pennies to create an exterior for the house. Inside, the house will feature a studio for visiting artists, a library and general office space.

Victor Pytko, a Birmingham artist, spent the summer of 2004 painting outdoors at the Heidelberg Project, "using Tyree Guyton’s expansive 'canvas' as my subject." Pytko now has a studio at the Pioneer Building on East Grand Blvd. at Russell.

A few blocks away on Mt. Elliott, a different grassroots effort is evolving at the Capuchin Monastery. Known since the Great Depression for its soup kitchen, the monastery has celebrated one of its own, Father Solanus Casey, whom many hope will be designated a saint. The Capuchins have created an ecumenical conference center adjacent to St. Bonaventure Church with a "Creation" sculpture garden, all open to the public. The center includes sculptures of Mother Theresa, Monsignor Clement Kern, of Detroit; Jean Donovan; Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Takasi Nagai, survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb during World War II.

"There's a spirit of hope in this place," says Fr. Dan Fox, who manages the Solanus Casey Center center. "It is a spiritual oasis, a place where people come for peace."

Peace is ever-present at the historic Elmwood Cemetery, across from the Capuchin monastery, where many of Detroit’s most notable citizens are buried. The cemetery represents the only rolling landscape on the Near East Side. It's worth a drive-through to read the names often attached to Detroit buildings.

The Capuchins literally took their tradition of feeding the hungry to the source and created Earth Works Garden on three vacant lots near the Meldrum Street Soup Kitchen. In 2006, the farm raised more than 6,000 pounds of produce. Over 1,000 pounds of honey, 500 jars of jam, and 1,700 hand balms were produced. Farming is a means to an end – beyond produce. It's a way of returning city folks to agriculture, and specifically to educate children.

Begun in 1999 as a partnership between the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Gleaners Community Food Bank, the garden's primary goal is to educate school children in science, nutrition, and biodiversity in organic agriculture. In addition to farm plots, Earth Works has a compost site that accepts refuse from Starbucks Coffee, Avalon Bakery, the soup kitchen and the food bank.

Old Poletown

Poles populated much of the northeastern section of the Near East Side. Most are gone, but there remains a cultural icon – the Polish Yacht Club (a.k.a. Ivanhoe Café). Founded in 1906 by Stanislaus Grendzinksi and in the family since, the yacht club is far from water or any evidence of boats. However, it has its "commodores" pictured in photos on the wall.

Several celebrities, including comedienne Phyllis Diller, and media personalities Dick Puritan and Ray Lane, have patronized the Ivanhoe. The real celebrities, though, are the relatives of those who once lived in the Near East Side who venture back for Friday night dinners of wholesome Polish food and perch dinners. The club is open for lunch daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (It stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays.) It’s not much to look at from the outside, but once you step in, you know you're in a warm, happy place that is one of Detroit's real jewels.

Membership in the club is not limited to people of Polish heritage. In fact, the club is even allowing "cyber membership." Visit the Polish Yacht Club's site for more information or call 313-925-5335. You’ll find the club at 5249 Joseph Campau.

Other Near East Side highlights include The Raven Lounge, a blues and soul music haunt on Chene St., and the 100-year old Faygo beverage factory on Gratiot. Faygo not only gave the world "pop," when the beverage was known as "soda," it gave us "red pop." Among its endorsements is one by Eminem, who mentioned the beverage in his song, "As the World Turns." In the rap, he offers the line, "I’d like to treat you to a Faygo and a slice of pizza." That's definitely Detroit East Side talking.


Dennis Archambault is a frequent contributor to Model D.


Photos:

Heidelberg Project

Creation Sculpture Garden at St. Bonaventure Church and Father Solanus Casey Center

Father Solanus Casey

The greenhouse at Earth Works Garden

The Polish Yacht Club

The Raven Lounge, a blues club where singer Jackie Wilson and Motown originator Barry Gordy got their start



All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger




Directions to the Near East Side

From the North:
Take I-75 S toward DETROIT. Take the I-75 exit- EXIT 51B- toward TOLEDO. Take the GRATIOT AVE / M-3 exit- EXIT 51B- on the LEFT. Take the GRATIOT AVE NORTH / M-3 ramp. Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto GRATIOT AVE / MI-3. End at Mack Ave & Gratiot Ave and arrive in the Near East Side.

From the East:
Take I-94 W toward DETROIT. Take the GRATIOT AVE / M-3 exit- EXIT 219. Turn RIGHT onto MI-3 / GRATIOT AVE. End at Mack Ave & Gratiot Ave and arrive in the Near East Side.

From the South:
Take I-75 N toward DETROIT. Take the GRATIOT AVE / M-3 exit- EXIT 51B- on the LEFT. Take the GRATIOT AVE NORTH / M-3 ramp. Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto GRATIOT AVE / MI-3. End at Mack Ave & Gratiot Ave and arrive in the Near East Side.

From the West:
Take I-94 E toward DETROIT. Merge onto I-96 E / JEFFRIES FWY via EXIT 213B toward CANADA. Merge onto I-75 N via the exit on the LEFT toward FLINT. Take the GRATIOT AVE / M-3 exit- EXIT 51B- on the LEFT. Take the GRATIOT AVE NORTH / M-3 ramp. Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto GRATIOT AVE / MI-3. End at Mack Ave & Gratiot Ave and arrive in the Near East Side.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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