Detroit by District: Gold Coast and the Villages

Three miles east of downtown out Jefferson Avenue is an eclectic group of neighborhoods falling entirely within the boundaries of City Council District 5: known collectively as the Villages. These communities are diverse in many ways -- from the racial and economic composition of their residents to the variety of housing available within them.

There's the "Gold Coast" apartment district along Jefferson and the riverfront, which is home to some of the city's larger apartment buildings found outside the downtown core, such as the high modernist Jeffersonian, the art deco Kean Building, and the newly renovated tudor revival Alden Towers complex, to name a few.

There's West Village, a small neighborhood with an incredibly diverse housing stock of historic single family homes, small apartment buildings, and row houses, as well as a budding node of commercial activity along Agnes St.

There's also stately Indian Village and Berry Subdivision, which are composed of an array of varying styles of large homes that once housed some of Detroit's most prominent industrial magnates and continue to house some of the city's political elite (the Berry Sub is the location of the Manoogian Mansion, which is owned by the city and serves as a residence for the current mayor).

Supporting these neighborhoods is an economic development nonprofit known as the Villages Community Development Corporation and its one-man staff, Executive Director Brian Hurtienne.

"I don't think of the Villages as representing neighborhoods," says Hurtienne. "I want the neighborhoods to represent themselves. I'm here to facilitate the bigger picture items that affect all of the villages. I see us as helping make existing villages stronger."

The Villages CDC was formed a few years ago when people in the various constituent neighborhoods got together and decided they wanted to bring businesses into the community. Since then, Hurtienne has been pushing for economic development at the neighborhood level through greenway and business development.

"When you open a business or greenway, it reaches beyond a neighborhood," says Hurtienne.

A simple event jump started the current momentum around business development in the Villages. The Tashmoo Biergarten, a seasonal pop-up event in West Village that launched in the fall of 2011, drawing people from both within and beyond the neighborhood to hang out and socialize over brews.

"The Tashmoo Biergarten was the start of getting business to come in," says Hurtienne. "It changed a lot of people's minds about the city. If you could get together with friends to drink beer in a vacant lot in a neighborhood, why couldn't you do similar things at formal businesses?" Last weekend, West Village hosted its third annual biergarten at the corner of Agnes and Van Dyke.

This year, the neighborhood began to add permanent businesses to the storefronts around the corner on Agnes St. Detroit Vegan Soul and Tarot and Tea were the first businesses to open in September. Craftwork, a restaurant serving dinner and brunch, is the next business slated to open -- hopefully sometime in mid- to late-November. After that will come The Red Hook cafe, a Ferndale coffee shop that is opening its second location in Detroit.

By the end of the year, West Village will have its own sort of neighborhood downtown, anchored by the businesses along Agnes as well the Villages CDC's new office on the corner of Agnes and Van Dyke. Located in a corner storefront that used to house a party store, the Villages office will also serve as a community shared space that residents can easily walk into.

Now that businesses are opening in the Villages, Hurtienne and his organization are making a foray into placemaking. He wants to add to the neighborhoods' sense of place through public art projects and green thoroughfare development. Green thoroughfares, as defined by the Community Development Advocates of Detroit typology, are corridors that are comprised of complete streets "flush with trees and other low-maintenance foliage" that "convey a sense of beauty, safety, and spaciousness."

Kercheval, a street that extends through four village neighborhoods (Islandview, West Village, Indian Village, and East Village) is where the Villages CDC is looking to develop a green thoroughfare. The city recently added bike lanes to this street, giving the Villages a baseline infrastructure on which to build.

Hurtienne sees his main job as conveying the Villages as great places to live and visit. With a growing list of amenities like neighborhood restaurants and retail stores, green thoroughfares, eclectic architecture, and proximity to great public spaces like Belle Isle (essentially the neighborhood park of these communities), his job might be getting a little easier.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for the Detroit byy Districts series, which wraps up next week with an election day special report.
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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.