Facade improvement grants aim to keep Detroit legacy businesses on West Grand Boulevard

Three years ago, business owner Harold Hackett was ready to call it quits.

“I was going to leave,” says the owner of Harold’s Place hair salon, which has been at 2663 W. Grand Boulevard for more than 30 years. “I was going to just walk away, pack up, and think about retirement.”

Then he found out about a program that would give businesses like his on the historic boulevard $25,000 grants to improve the front of their properties as part of an initiative to improve the streetscape. Hackett had an old awning that had been torn and ripped up over the years. Through the grant, he had a new one installed, as well as new gutters. The business, which is housed in a brown brick English Revival-style duplex, will also have a new sign.

“The neighborhood looks absolutely gorgeous. And so many [people] are moving back in so people are walking back and forth [on the boulevard] and they’re looking at [my] building,” he says.

The grant has helped because for mom-and-pop businesses like his, improvements like these can be out of reach, especially during the pandemic.

“We struggle hard just to keep it going,” he says.

But with the improvements on West Grand Boulevard, he says “business has picked up. I'm getting new clients because of the new people moving in the neighborhood.

“It’s basically given me a new lease on life,” says Hackett, who also lives in the duplex that houses his salon. “Because I live here I have a special affinity to my place.”

Harold's Place got a new awning.Keeping longtime businesses like Hackett’s is the goal of the West Grant Boulevard Legacy Business Façade Enhancement Program, says Elise Fields, chief operations officer of Midtown Detroit Inc., which facilitated the program in partnership with Henry Ford Health System and The Kresge Foundation, which funded the grants.

“There are a lot of changes happening in the city and we want the legacy businesses [on Grand Boulevard] to remain part of the overall development taking shape on the corridor,” Fields says.

Helping legacy businesses on Grand Boulevard evolved out of Midtown Detroit Inc.’s and Henry Ford Health System’s West Grand Boulevard and Holden Strategy.

In addition to Harold’s Place, there are five businesses that received a grant for a variety of exterior improvements including landscaping, tuckpointing, and more.

‘A prestigious place to be’
A tree-lined thoroughfare spanning 12 miles, West Grand Boulevard was originally built as a neighborhood for the middle to upper class, according to the city, with many homes built in popular early 19th century styles like Arts and Crafts, Prairie, and English Revival. The street and surrounding area were once home to a significant Jewish population but over the years as they moved northwest and out to the suburbs, Black residents moved in. At the time, the Jewish community was one of the only groups who would sell to Black Detroiters, who moved from the Black Bottom neighborhood to settle in on West Grand Boulevard and the surrounding community.

By the 1940s and ‘50s homes on the corridor had transitioned from single-family properties into duplexes. The homes also became businesses and other commercial and institutional uses, with most of them Black-owned businesses that evolved into anchors of the community that are still in operation today such as Brazelton Florist and James H. Cole Home for Funerals, the oldest Black-owned funeral home in the city.

The Motown Museum on West Grand BoulevardOne of the most famous of these businesses was the home of Motown Records. From 1959, when Berry Gordy bought the house, until 1968, Hitsville USA expanded on the boulevard by buying several buildings, including 2657 W. Grand Blvd for artist development and etiquette classes. That building eventually became the new home of Gamma Phi Delta’s national headquarters.

Gamma Phi Delta is a college-based sorority founded in 1943 out of what was Michigan’s only HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) known as Lewis College of Business, which was first located in Detroit on West Warren Avenue. The school was founded in 1929 with the goal of creating opportunities for unemployed African Americans during the Great Depression, a time when most colleges and universities discriminated against Black students.

The sorority bought the building in 1955 from Motown, says Shirley Longmire-Nelson, national trustee with Gamma Phi Delta, another recipient of the façade grant. Over the years, the sorority has worked to maintain and preserve the home’s original features and beauty inside, such as the hardwood floors, and had plans to work on the exterior improvements.

The property wasn’t in bad shape and the sorority was planning to make these improvements any way, but the grant helped them accelerate the timeline, Longmire-Nelson says.

Through the grant, the sorority has had new landscaping put in as well as a new sign. The sorority is also purchasing a custom-made door. The improvements, especially the sign, will make the sorority more recognizable to passers-by, especially during the summer when visitors come to the Motown Museum, Longmire-Nelson says.

Gamma Phi Delta had new landscaping and a new pole sign.“[It will improve] our visibility and hopefully that will bring in new members,” she says. “People didn't even know there was a sorority house here.

“I had one new prospective member tell me that, she has lived in the area for the last 16 years. She grew up in the area, and she never knew that that was a sorority house, even though she passed it 10,000 times.”

Growing up, Longmire-Nelson remembers the boulevard as a destination. “The fact that you're on the boulevard meant you were moving up in the world and it was a prestigious place to be.”

A space to serve Detroiters
Dr. LaCesha Brintley, a surgeon, started her practice on West Grand Boulevard in 2010. The building previously housed the office of Lewis and Thompson Agency, one of the first Black-owned businesses on the boulevard founded by Walton Lee Lewis. The company provided insurance for minority-owned businesses as well as nonprofits and other organizations. The business sold the property to Brintley and moved next door.

“Being a native Detroiter, I searched for a space that would allow for me to serve the Detroit patient population,” she says.

As a recipient of the grant, she says her property at 2617 W. Grand Boulevard will have new painting, lighting, and landscaping. The building is a four-square with Prairie-style overtones.

“The building was built in 1937 and needed a facelift with a refreshed exterior design,” she says.

“The improvements will create an inviting façade for my patients to see and to go along with the tremendous changes in the area,” she says.

Like her fellow West Grant Boulevard business owners, the improvements to her property will raise her business’ visibility.

“The improvements will make onlookers take a pause and ask, ‘Who is Dr. Brintley,’ and that is good for business. Integrity outside means integrity and great service inside,” she says.

“I love my location and can’t wait to see the continued changes and growth in the area.”

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Henry Ford Health System, where we explore neighborhood progress and impact of Henry Ford Health System and community partners. Stories illustrate growing an inclusive Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit.

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.
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