The yin and yang of Detroit's fastest changing neighborhood

This is the first article in a series written by former Model D managing editor Walter Wasacz on walking as a means of neighborhood discovery. For each article, Wasacz will walk to a different neighborhood in Metro Detroit and write about his experiences. Look for future entries in both Model D and Metromode.

There is a lot going on at the corner of Cass and Peterboro. Until recently, that definitely wasn't the case.

This little section of the Cass Corridor was considered Detroit's Chinatown, though its name belies its diminutive size compared to Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco or New York. And for years, the neighborhood was marked by abandonment and little commercial activity.

But new developments have rapidly transformed the northwest corner of the block into a destination for high end food, drinks, bikes, and body art. Consider it a piece of a much larger, more curious animal that has tentacles growing in every direction. It's a complex mixture of developments—some conscientious, some corporate—and preservationist efforts to maintain the aesthetic and history of the neighborhood.

In some ways, it's a microcosm of Detroit.

Rapid growth in the Corridor

Chinatown kiosk at Peterborough and Cass

The pace of development taking place in the greater Cass Corridor makes downtown and other parts of midtown look sluggish by comparison.

A block up, just south of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, is Canine to Five, largely credited for planting the seeds for redevelopment in the area when the dog boarding and grooming business opened in 2005.

Two blocks to the south and a zig to the west is the still majestic Masonic Temple. Then zag south by southeast and come upon the site for District Detroit, which includes Woodward Square (home to the Little Caesar's hockey arena now under construction), Cass Park Village (a neighborhood development with shops, residential units and green spaces) and, on the opposite side of I-75, Columbia Park (a larger green space circled by office buildings, cafes and loft-style condos).

All of this will interface with the already existing Foxtown and stadium districts, the latter unfortunately being rebranded as "Wildcat Corner"—a none too subtle nod to the Tigers and Lions that play there.

A brief scan of the near-future reveals a contiguous cityscape extending from the riverfront to New Center, with the M1 rail (naming rights belonging to Quicken Loans, it was re-branded the QLINE earlier this year) as the centerpiece. It's expected to become operational in 2017.

Public-private partnerships, social innovation, and entrepreneurial energy are the driving forces behind this greater downtown revitalization.

Though let's be honest: the branding of the big projects is disappointing. The vision is pedestrian and the edges are blunt or non-existent.

An even bigger fear might be that the new will not only replace the old, but that the histories of multiple people and places will get lost in the rubble of redevelopment.

Pondering the past, engaged in the present

Economic potential is only part of this story about an evolving corner in Detroit. The intersection I'm most interested is a blended picture that brings the past, present, and future into focus. The block that was once the epicenter of the city's last Chinatown has a history that must be walked and dreamt through; its future pondered with a soft but critical eye.

So I walked to Chinatown, a meandering five-mile one-way urban hike from my doorstep in Hamtramck to Cass and Peterboro, a corner I discovered in the 1970s, when my glitter rock friends and I would go see Bowie or Roxy and find late night comfort food at Chung's or Shanghai Cafe. Those businesses are long gone, though the buildings remain—Chung's was on the southwest corner; Shanghai in the building directly to the south on the west side of Cass, now boarded up and painted brown.

Also gone (but still standing and also covered in brown paint) is the Gold Dollar, closed in 2001, where the White Stripes, Detroit Cobras, Dirtbombs and others led a rebirth of Detroit garage rock in the late 1990s. (See Jim Boyle's Model D piece on why we should care about "Detroit's chaotic history," including his take on the value of subcultural movements of the 1980-90s.)

Former Gold Dollar club, home to Detroit garage rock scene in late 1990s, closed in 2001

My walks are not about nostalgia for a time and place. I am fully engaged in the present, adrift in its physical landscapes, cognizant of pedestrian and motor traffic as I travel on foot. I don't listen to music or audio books, nor daydream about holidays in the sun.

No, finally, I simply love the social geography of Detroit, grew up exploring its streets and alleys, riding its buses beginning in the mid-1960s, and participating in its community life.

Social injustice memorialized

The two sides of Peterboro are vastly different, as if in separate universes. On the building that once contained Chung's is a mural that narrates a tale of social injustice: the beating death of Vincent Chin in 1982 by a pair of white former autoworkers who bludgeoned the Chinese-American Chin with a baseball bat because they thought he was Japanese.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Detroit auto industry began facing stiff competition from Japanese companies like Honda and Toyota, and Asian-Americans became scapegoats and targets for hate—though "hate crime" was not yet on the judicial books in the early 1980s. This case is one of the reasons why it is in the books today.

The two men who murdered Chin were found guilty of manslaughter, served no jail time, fined $3,000 plus court costs. In explaining his sentencing, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Charles Kauffman said, "these weren't the kind of men you send to jail. You don't make the punishment fit the crime, you make the punishment fit the criminal."

Part of that story was told to me by Soh Suzuki, a community activist who was part of a group of volunteers—including the Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup, Detroit Summer, and the University of Michigan, which provided financial support—that helped make the mural happen in the early 2000s.

Suzuki calls himself a critic of the changes to the character of the corner, though he says change is inevitable.

"I just hope people will remember what was here, and the tragedy of Vincent Chin," he says. "They just have to cross the street to have a look."

Mural on former Chung’s building, south side of Peterboro

Suzuki also reminded me that Detroit's original Chinatown, at Third Avenue south of Michigan Avenue, was condemned and demolished to make way for the John Lodge expressway in the late 1950s. Chinatown was moved to this neighborhood in the early 1960s—Chung's re-opened here in 1960, before the official neighborhood dedication in 1963, and closed in 2000.

"The original Chinatown was demolished to build freeways, just like Mexicantown and Paradise Valley," Suzuki says. "Whatever happens on this corner in the future, we wanted to show a pattern of displacing people of color. That's a fact that also must never be forgotten."

Glimpsing the future  

On the north side of Peterboro is where all the current action is. Crowds of neighborhood newcomers descend to eat and drink at The Peterboro beginning in the early evening until well past midnight on weekends. The contemporary cuisine is stellar, under the direction of Chinese-American chef Brion Wong.

Looking west toward Second Avenue, you see mostly vacant grassy lots; to the south, Masonic Temple rises, erasing bits of cloud and sky; to the east is the former Burton School, later a Montessori school.

I wandered into Eight Degrees Plato, where I'd been once before and bought a 750 ML bottle of Jolly Pumpkin Baudelaire beer, which contains these words on the label: "A breath of air from the wings of madness."
Tim Costello, co-owner of Plato Beer Company
Plato, which first opened a store in Ferndale, features a three-way collaboration beer that the romantic French poet perhaps would have loved. It's called Ménage Dé Troit, and is part of a liquid partnership that also includes Two James Distillery and Motor City Brewing Works.

I sought out and found co-owner Tim Costello. As we spoke, dozens of people emptied into the store from a tour bus.

Does this happen often, I asked. "Not often enough," he answered amid the mayhem.

What's the future look like for you here, in this neighborhood? "It's bright, I love the neighborhood. More is coming."

Yes, it's coming. No doubt about it. What we're bringing with us, and what we are leaving behind is the better question. I thought about that as I walked back home.

All photos by the author.
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Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.