Avenue of passion: Pedestrian scale Livernois strip reloads for the future

Many know Livernois Avenue as the street that harbors hundreds of businesses. But for those old enough to remember, think back to when part of its northern corridor was one of the most popular shopping districts in Detroit.

Between 7 and 8 Mile roads, the commercial district known as the Avenue of Fashion used to be the "go to" place for the best apparel in town. It included a multitude of local businesses including retail shops, art galleries, bookstores, medical offices, hair salons and barbershops.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the period when the district was thriving financially, tons of patrons could be seen strolling up and down the pavement of the Livernois strip, walking in and out of stores with bags in hand, investing money back into the community. Stores such as B. Siegel Company and historic venues like Baker's Keyboard Lounge were two of the most popular attractions in the area and kept the fashion district on its toes.

Fast-forward to 2011. The Avenue of Fashion is one of many commercial districts in the process of reshaping its image to appeal to a new generation of Detroiters who may not know about the quality shops that populate the area. Yet, unlike many other districts, the Avenue of Fashion has a rally of support that has never left its side -- the local champions of the community.

Reshaping Livernois

The Avenue of Fashion is surrounded by upscale Detroit neighborhoods the University District, Green Acres, Sherwood Forest, and Palmer Woods. The area also consists of two higher educational institutions – the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College. The universities and neighborhoods provide support to the local businesses on Livernois in their work with University Commons, a community organization in Northwest Detroit that works to improve the residential and business environment in the area. The organization is comprised of UDM, Marygrove, Northstar Community Development Corporation, Shoppers Coop, local business associations, and local community organizations.

University Commons has also collaborated with the Restore Detroit program, which works with local businesses and residents to improve neighborhood commercial districts. The University Commons Business District is one of the five districts within Detroit that are receiving grants and technical assistance from the city.

The partnership between the city and University Commons has resulted in new facades for 10 businesses through the Façade Improvement Grant, which is a program that offers 50/50 matching grant dollars to eligible property owners.

Kim Tandy, the Executive director and program manager for University Commons says that the organization is in the process of revitalizing an entire block, which will serve as an example of what the rest of the strip will look like in the next few years.

"We have a great housing stock, there are very strong communities, and those neighborhoods need to have commercial districts that reflect that same type of things," Tandy says.

University Commons is also working with the Urban Land Institute's Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use to revitalize the area. The purpose of the project is to create a walkable, social corridor that draws residents from the area and citizens from the city to come and want to shop, walk around and visit.

Some of the goals that the organizations have for the Avenue of Fashion include improving the lighting, putting in new sidewalks and trees, providing better parking options, and redoing the signage of businesses to attract more customers. The organizations also plan to incorporate a program with DTE Energy to put solar panels on all the buildings. The beta site is estimated to be finished by the end of the year and, within the next five years, the entire Avenue of Fashion is set to be redesigned.  

"We are hoping that through this process, we can help reinvigorate a strategy for 7 mile that can be a model for other commercial areas that we want to see throughout the city," says Olga Stella, Vice President for Business Development at Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and one of four Rose Center Fellows.

Older Businesses in the area

Lolita Haley, owner of Prime Financial Plus Realty located within the Avenue of Fashion, is one of the many business owners who has seen the commercial district thrive, decline and slowly rise up again. In addition to her real estate company, Haley also owned a beauty and nail salon in the area for many years, and serviced a diverse clientele from regular customers to prominent politicians.
"This whole strip was once a very sought after area and neighborhood to move in," says Haley.

Despite the loss in revenue and businesses, there are many shops within the area that are still successful have maintained a loyal clientele throughout the years.

Since its opening in 1994, Jo's Galley has continued to be a popular art venue and  was the first art gallery to open in the Avenue of Fashion. The owner JoAnn Griffin says that the gallery attracts clients from all over the metro area with its unique figurines, graphic art, custom framing, and full line art service.

Terry's Enchanted Garden is a boutique that has been around since 1980, when it started as a small floral shop. Some of the businesses corporate clients include Compuware, MGM Grand Casino and Chrysler.

New Businesses

Right in the mix with older establishments are new businesses adding diversity to the commercial strip.

Times Square Men's Clothing opened in 2010 and has clientele ranging from ages eight to 80. Times Square owner Algernon Bartell is part of a long list of clothing shops along the strip, along with his brother Rufus Bartell, who currently has two stores within the Avenue of Fashion -- Simply Casual and Shoehouse Boulevard.  

While clothing boutiques have always been at the heart of the Avenue of Fashion, food is another feature within the strip that is slowly gaining momentum, especially since 1917 American Bistro opened its doors in 2009. The upscale, yet affordable dining establishment has been receiving a ton of buzz for its elegant, intimate environment and  European-inspired menu. The restaurant has also had an impact on the district, attracting more people to the area. Tandy says that since American Bistro opened, she has been working with three business owners who are interested in putting restaurants in the area.

Among the restaurants, retail shops and art galleries, there are a ton of beauty salons and barbershops within the area. Happy to be Nappy is one salon on Livernois that has garnered much attention, and is run by master hair stylist and entrepreneur Ewanda Ferguson. The hair salon attracts clients from all over the world.

"The one thing I like about the Avenue of Fashion is that celebrities or athletes or just regular customers are welcome on this block," said Ferguson. "And even though people have said you can relocate to the suburbs, I think people still feel comfortable when they come here because it gives them a sense of roots."

The Future

The vibrancy that once swept the streets of the Avenue of Fashion all year round is revived in part during the summer with such events as the annual Jazz on the Ave and the Livernois Walk-a-Thon. Both events encourage citizens to walk the Livernois area and visit the local shops. A parade also takes place annually and for the past few years, it has attracted thousands of people to the Avenue of Fashion. 

"You can experience Livernois a little better with community events," says Tandy, who lives in the Sherwood Forest district and grew up in the area.

Tandy as well as other business owners in the area are working towards turning the Avenue of Fashion back into the thriving community it once was.

"I remember what it was and I know what it can be," Tandy says. "And I know it can be fabulous and we are going to make sure that it is going to be."

Veronica Grandison is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
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