Jefferson Chalmers

Boating and public parks anchor Jefferson Chalmers to the Detroit River

"Someone once said to me, 'Yacht racing's kind of like watching NASCAR on valium.' But if you're aware of all the intricacies of it, it becomes quite thrilling," says Sandy Fullerton, Commodore of the Bayview Yacht Club, with the sliding vowels of a Scottish accent that's been tempered by several decades in the U.S. (Commodore, by the way, is both a naval rank and a designation used by yacht clubs that he says means, "If anything goes wrong it's my fault and if anything goes right somebody else takes the bow.") 

In the Commodore's estimation, sailing is "a well-timed, constructed, ballet" that demands much from its practitioners — both in terms of personal skill and teamwork. Whether you're a spectator or a participant, Bayview's site at the end of Clairpointe Street in Detroit's Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood is a perfect place for it. 

Commodore Sandy Fullerton
The water coming in from Lake St. Clair creates a current that Fullerton likens to an ocean tide. This makes the sailing more challenging and a number of other marinas and yacht clubs sail out of Jefferson Chalmers. 

Bayview is perhaps the pre-eminent one. It has sponsored the Port-Huron to Mackinac Boat Race since 1925, which is considered one of the most important freshwater boat races in North America. Along with a growing interest in kayaking and other paddle sports, and the lakeside parks that put visitors right across from Peche Isle and the hulls of 1,000 freighters, the history of sailing and motor-boating helps make Jefferson Chalmers a neighborhood that is unique in Detroit due to its orientation away from the road and towards the water.

"You can get in a boat behind my house and go anywhere in the world," say Mike Devine of his house on Harbor Island, a single street, hemmed in by canals. 

Like most people in this part of the neighborhood, sometimes referred to as "Little Venice," Devine owns a boat, or in his case several boats, including some that he built himself. "It's just silly to stay here if you don’t have a boat," he says.

When asked what he likes about boating, he responds, "Have you ever been on a boat?" 

But even in parts of the neighborhood that aren't on the canals, a lot of residents keep boats in their backyards. The presence of Moe's Bait Shop on East Jefferson and signs for "Walt's Crawlers" at gas stations speak to the area's attachment to the water. 

There's also a sense of community that Devine says he found in the neighborhood when he first moved here in the 1970s. "People just seem to be very close," he says. "I've lived in some other areas of the city and people didn't stick around as long. They moved in and out frequently and it didn't seem as coherent."

With the river comes a sense of wildness. The area formerly known as "Angel Park" — now considered part of Riverfront-Lakewood East Park — sits across the canal from Harbor Island. Neglected for years, the city of Detroit plans for improvements here that will make the space more functional for visitors while also expanding habitat for birds, fish, and animals like beaver and muskrats. 

Houses in the Canal District
According to Arianna Zanneti, a landscape designer for the General Services Department, this means removing seawalls and softening the shoreline, a process that creates habitat and helps filter out onshore pollution. Both the Riverfront-Lakewood East and Alfred Brush Ford parks will see these changes, creating seven acres of new wetlands in the process. The city will also establish an upland meadow in the Angel Park area and a kayak launch. 

This naturalizing approach to park improvements is good news for people like Mike Devine, who says, "I kind of like it wild." And the project could become a model for habitat restoration in the rest of the city. As it is, the large parks here — including nearby Maheras-Gentry — cover most of the shoreline in Jefferson Chalmers. 

Commodore Fullerton, however, praises the unique vantage provided by leaving the shore. "Mariners need to be aware of the environment," he says. "Sailors are constantly looking at the horizon. They're feeling the wind, they're looking at the sea or the water to see where the wind's blowing or not blowing."

He describes this as a uniquely empowering exercise in building self-awareness and character. He could perhaps point to the "Old Goats" and "Grand Rams" whose pictures adorn the walls of Bayview's clubhouse — sailors who sailed in 25 and 50 Port Huron to Mackinacs respectively — as evidence of the sport's enduring appeal. 

Model ship at the Bayview Yacht Club
To further this mission, he and others are doing what they can to get more people on the water. Bayview hosts an Adult Learn to Sail program for new sailors trying to get their sea legs, and a non-profit called Challenge the Wind is helping to engage younger Detroiters in the sport. 

Even if you don't get on a boat, the presence of the river and places like the Goat Yard, which once engaged in situationist-leaning protests against Mayor Coleman Young, provide the neighborhood with a vaguely piratical charm. This is something you might experience on a summer night in the backyard of Marshall's Bar when a party-barge full of revelers pulls up to the dock on Fox Creek. 

It's no wonder that many residents have decided to stick around for so long. "I'm pretty happy with living here," Devine says, "or else I would have moved."

This article is part of our "On the Ground" series, where a journalist reports from a dedicated neighborhood for weekly coverage. Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.
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