Block profile: Historic West Canfield in Midtown

You saw it when you drove down Second. The cobblestone flashed in the corner of your eye. The ornate rooflines caught your attention. You may have thought that this lone block looked out of place but for years, Historic West Canfield has existed as a polished anachronism while Detroit expanded and contracted on all sides. Today, the block triumphs as an oasis of preserved Victorian splendor, and one of the city's most desired addresses.

Midtown attractions and attractors

Historic West Canfield is nestled between Detroit's Second and Third avenues, to the south of Wayne State University and only blocks from Woodward. Located in the heart of Midtown, the street benefits from its proximity to WSU, the cultural center, College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System.

The ability to achieve a degree of density there has made the area attractive for investors to target Midtown for infilling projects. Today redevelopments, new apartments and loft spaces surround historic West Canfield. Complexes like 55 Canfield, the Beethoven and the Auburn continue to feed the area.

"I wanted a yard and trees, and this is one of the few areas in Detroit where I can get that, along with walkable shopping, restaurants and bars," says Peter Van Dyke, a West Canfield resident and a rising star in the Detroit public relations world. "There's no other place in the city that gives you this perfect urban and suburban mix," he says.

West Canfield residents don't have to travel far for amenities. The street is within one block of Midtown anchors like Traffic Jam & Snug, Mario's Restaurant, Motor City Brewing Works and the Bureau of Urban Living.

"Our best customers live in this neighborhood," says Bureau owner, Claire Nelson. "I grew up in a small town, and there's a village like atmosphere here even though we're in the heart of the city. Everyone knows each other," she says. And then, as if to illustrate her point, she names more than a dozen West Canfield residents off the top of her head.  

"That street is a particularly magical place," she says. "Its cobblestone road and beautiful green canopy of trees make it unlike any other street in the city."

Getting lucky on West Canfield

"People come here to see the houses, but when they drive down the street, they don't speed," says Canfield resident Matthew Naimi, referring to the ad hoc speed bumps created by the cobblestone.  

Many Historic West Canfield residents have lived in their homes for several years and for prospective owners, finding their own sale sign can be a little tricky. Most homes are sold by word of mouth to patient and watchful buyers. There are a few rental units directly on the block, but there are seldom vacancies. Tenants and residents caution prospective buyers/renters to be watchful and seize any opportunity to get a place on the street.

Matthew Naimi -- head honcho for Detroit's Recycle Here! -- and wife Kristen live in the oldest home on the block. It was built in 1871. "This is our dream house," says Kristen Naimi. "We got lucky. It's rare that property is available for very long on Canfield. We took a drive down the street and actually saw the real estate agent put up the 'for sale' sign."

Visitors can quickly see why these addresses are so coveted. The homes are audacious structures exemplary of Victorian Queen Ann and Eastlake designs.  Their wraparound porches, spires, carvings and ornate details give you a glimpse of 19th-century Detroit decadence.

"We take pride in, not only the work we've put into our home, but in all that our neighbors have done for theirs," says Kristen Naimi. "We're a very strong and connected group and that instills the pride. We want to see that this neighborhood does more than survive," she says. "We want to see it return to its full former glory."

The couple credits the neighborhood's recent improvements to the resurgence of Midtown but they also note that it works both ways. "Look at a place like the Bronx Bar or Motor City Brewery," Kristen Naimi says. "Theses are business that have recently invested money and made improvements. That wouldn't happen if there wasn't a growing community here."

The residents, however, aren't taking their street for granted. Although the street benefits from WSU police patrols as well as Detroit police, the homeowners have hired additional security to patrol the neighborhood.

"Everybody works together. We're trying to influence change here," says Matthew Naimi. "We utilize local government and channels throughout the city to get things done."

A hero on every block

"West Canfield is the parent of all historic preservation in Detroit. It provides the beauty and the strength of what Detroit represented architecturally in the 1870's, the 1880's and up to the 1900's. West Canfield has maintained a consistent history and today we look upon it as a museum without walls."  - Beulah Groehn Croxford

"She was a tiger," says current resident Kim Schroeder of former Historic West Canfield resident and champion Beulah Croxford.

In the 1970s, when developers set their sights on Canfield, many of the historic homes were slated for demolition; but through Croxford's efforts, the homes were saved. "She helped establish Canfield as the first designated historic block in the state," says Schroeder.

Croxford is credited with everything from coordinating Canfield's listing on the National Register of Historic Places to orchestrating the installation of its signature cobblestone. The pavers, taken from Atwater Street during the construction of the Renaissance Center, were in storage at Fort Wayne until she found a use for them. Croxford is even rumored to have earned an FBI award for crime fighting for uncovering a prostitution ring.

Schroeder, who recorded several oral histories with Croxford before her passing in 2001, credits the woman for the survival and current success of Historic West Canfield. "When developers tried to destroy this street, it was Beulah who fought for it," says Schroeder.

"She wrote historic preservation into Detroit's charter, and, by doing so, may have affected our city more than any mayor. Without her efforts I would never be able to accomplish what I have with my home," she says. "It's city groups and activists like her who have always held this city together. There's a hero on every block."

Michael Gentile is a freelance writer who has been writing about cool blocks to live on in Detroit for Model D.  Previous streets he's covered include Service Street in Eastern Market and Parker Street in the Villages.

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All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Kim Shroeder's home

Canfield group shot

Peter Van Dyke sitting on his third story patio

Oldest home on Canfield St.

Shroeder's interior

Naimi's interior

Van Dyke's interior
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