Jefferson East Visiting Guide

Here's Model D's guide to visiting Jefferson East. Also check out our guides to moving to and investing in the riverfront neighborhood.

From this neighborhood on Detroit’s eastern edges you can turn toward downtown and see the glass towers of General Motors rising in the distance. You can turn the other way and see leafy Grosse Pointe Park. You are in Jefferson East, a neighborhood nestled in between rapidly-expanding downtown and one of the most established old suburbs in the nation.

It’s in Jefferson East where you can stand elbow to elbow with fishing rods dangled over the river at Mariners Park or Windmill Point, exercise in the sports fields at Maheras-Gentry Park, then jump up a few blocks to Ye Olde Tap Room on Charlevoix for a pint of English Ale.

This is not a cultural center or much of an entertainment mecca, though it has a rich history of hosting big band jazz and other ballroom events. Jefferson East is a village striving to define its place along one of Detroit’s main streets, with its linkage to Grosse Pointe to the east becoming increasingly more evident. In fact, despite years of division along the Detroit-Grosse Pointe Park border — an area known as “little Grosse Pointe” because of the similarity of its housing and retail architecture — some common ground is being scratched out. The riverside parks at the foot of Alter are still clearly divided municipal boundaries, yet the differences are becoming blurred by changes in the neighborhood. A little touch of Jefferson East might be in Grosse Pointe Park’s M’Dear’s Creole Cooking, a restaurant owned by Detroiters.

Street entertainment

Elders on both sides of the line will remember the Vanity and Monticello ballrooms. The Vanity, a celebrated art deco gem, sits empty at the corner of Newport and Jefferson, last used briefly as a rock venue in the 1980s. But new life is flickering at the Monticello Ballroom, at Marlborough and Jefferson, where the street level of the building has been reconditioned for retail use. There has also been rehab work on the second floor ballroom, where big band jazz performers and dancers began swinging over 75 years ago. There’s growing evidence that people will come for entertainment, when given the reason to come. Jazzin’ on Jefferson, a music festival produced by the Jefferson East Business Association (JEBA, and now in its third year, was created to draw attention to the area. The festival also showcases local restaurants and businesses.

“The whole backdrop (to the festival) is the street itself,” says Chris Garland, who manages the festival for JEBA. The Vanity and Monticello ballrooms, the storefronts, the churches “become the framework for the event. For a lot of people it’s not uncommon for them to tell me after the event, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize how fabulous the structures on East Jefferson really are.’ Even if they don’t make a leap like that and folks just have a nice day, that’s fine too.”

Held on the last weekend of June, the festival books national acts to draw a crowd, but it also features local talent. More importantly, thousands of new visitors come into the area, and neighbors get a chance to socialize on the Historic Jefferson East Business District.

Hope identified

When it comes to spiritual renewal, what more significant church could find its destination in Jefferson East than one called Hope? And not just on Sundays. The evangelical congregation is a destination throughout the week. When Hope Community Church recently moved into the former Jefferson Avenue Methodist Church it was a “massive investment not only in cash but a risk for the new and youthful growing church,” Garland says. The congregation was primarily suburban, coming from as far away as Northville and West Bloomfield. While the perception of a dangerous Detroit didn’t stop the congregation from moving in, the distance could have. But Hope identified with Jefferson East immediately. When members of the church’s congregation began researching the area “they became very excited about being in a community that’s active,” Garland says.

Out of respect for the church — and other churches — JEBA decided not to have the festival on Sunday. “We knew we wanted to do it on two days,” says Garland. “In a very real way it was related to the fact that we had a half-dozen churches in the area. Did we want to disrupt them on their one day of the week? Or, do you specifically host it on Sunday to benefit them?”

Jefferson East is a major destination on one weekend each year. However, every day, especially during the warm months, people come to the riverside parks – 100 acres of public access to the Detroit River. There is access to the water for fishermen, athletes and the disabled. During prime time on the water, Bayview Yacht Club and two other private marinas draw boaters to over 800 slips. There is also a public boat launch in the area.

Greenway project

Even before the weather turns warm, the basketball courts are occupied and softball players are practicing on the ball diamonds of Maheras-Gentry Park, on Clairpointe between Jefferson and the river. Come June, hundreds of walkers converge on Alfred Brush Ford Park on the riverfront for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life.” There are plans for the new Conner Creek Greenway to extend from 8 Mile Road south to Maheras-Gentry Park. The greenway is a project developed by members of the Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, a group of more than a dozen nonprofits working to improve the east side. When completed, the Conner Creek Greenway will stretch south from Eight Mile to the Detroit River and trace the original Conner Creek. The project will involve the construction of pedestrian and bike paths and will include plants, flowers and historical markers.

For grocery shoppers, one of the area’s largest Farmer Jack supermarkets is located in the Jefferson Village shopping center. It’s a destination for everyone from downtown and living in neighborhoods closer to I-94. In addition, the Jefferson Avenue Veterinary Hospital also treats animals brought in from the neighborhood and throughout Detroit.

If you build it, they will likely come to Jefferson East. Like the mystery of the chicken and the egg, one day it just happens, as in other more vibrant areas of the city. But it’s still early in the neighborhood’s redevelopment cycle. Jefferson East is a place to come for a moment of riverside tranquility and great fishing, to worship at a church called Hope, to play ball, and at least once a year, to hear great open-air music. It’s a real community, squarely placed between the past and the future.

For more information about Jefferson East visit the Model D
Investing Guide
Moving Guide

Directions to Jefferson East

From the East:
Take I-94 West to Outer Drive Exit 222A toward Chalmers Ave. Turn left onto Outer Dr. East and stay straight to go onto Alter Rd. Turn right onto Jefferson Ave East and arrive in Jefferson East.

From the North:
Take I-75 South and merge onto I-94 via Exit 53B toward Port Huron. Take the Conner Ave Exit 220B toward the City Airport. Keep right at the fork in the ramp and stay straight to go onto Conner St until you come up to Jefferson Ave E. Arrive in Jefferson East.

From the West:
Take I-96 East and merge onto I-94 via Exit 190A toward Port Huron. Take the Conner Ave Exit 220B toward the City Airport. Keep right at the fork in the ramp and stay straight to go onto Conner St until you come up to Jefferson Ave E. Arrive in Jefferson East.

From the South:
Take I-94 East toward Detroit. Take the Conner Ave Exit 220B toward the City Airport. Keep right at the fork in the ramp and stay straight to go onto Conner St until you come up to Jefferson Ave E. Arrive in Jefferson East.

Take I-75 North toward Detroit to I-96 West via Exit 48 on the left toward Lansing. Then merge onto I-94 East toward Port Huron. Take the Conner Ave Exit 220B toward the City Airport. Keep right at the fork in the ramp and stay straight to go onto Conner St until you come up to Jefferson Ave E. Arrive in Jefferson East.


Sailing on the Detroit River

Ye Old Tap Room

Fishing from a Bridge at Maheras-Gentry Park

Bayview Junior Sailors Racing on the Detroit River

Bayview Yacht Club

Fishing at Mariners Park

Govindas Restaurant at the Fisher Mansion

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.