North End neighborhood rising

With Downtown and Midtown defining their place, many are looking to the North End as a new frontier for development. Once the northern edge of the Paradise Valley commercial and entertainment district of Detroit, North End has endured decades of decline, but is emerging as home to a diverse mix of race, culture, and entrepreneurial interests, as well as space where art and agriculture create a sense of place.

Depending on your definition, the North End is a district immediately north of Grand Boulevard, along Woodward and west of I-75. It is east of New Center, north of Midtown and west of Hamtramck. The Skillman Foundation gave it a more expansive identity, calling it part of the North Central Woodward neighborhood. 

Members of the arts community include the Russell Industrial Center to the east (and Tengent Gallery south of the district on Milwaukee Avenue) and Vanguard Community Development Corporation is in the industrial/warehouse corridor south of Grand Boulevard as is the new home base for micro-grant funding org Detroit Soup.

North End development has been organic, originating and fueled by the zeal of churches, small developers, and neighbors who want to make something happen. Among them is Delores Bennett, a longtime neighborhood activist who has a parked named for her at Beaubien and Bethune streets. 

Neighbors keep the park neatly mowed and it is funded and managed by longstanding nonprofit the North End Youth Improvement Council.

Vanguard CDC, established nearly 20 years ago by Bishop Edgar Vann of Second Ebenezer Church, has taken the lead in planning the long-term development of the district. The organization has developed four housing projects and a senior apartment building, along with community service programs and is collaborating on other development projects. A three-year plan announced by Vanguard CDC in January notes that 38 percent of the land is vacant and 50 percent of the households are occupied by younger singles and couples.

Steve Harris, an architect and developer, was raised in the North End with his grandmother, Lotti Harris, who sold candy and ice cream out of her house. In her honor, in the summer of 2012, Steve opened Miss Lotti’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream and Candy Factory in a small abandoned strip of stores on John R, near the affluent Arden Park neighborhood. In the same strip of empty storefronts, he opened Mario Monk, a hair salon for men and women; North End Art Studio, with a mural garden in back; and plans to open a coffee cafe in June in collaboration with Vanguard CDC.

"I'm very optimistic," he says, "but there's a lot of challenges. We’re going back to old school community development where you know the neighbors and the kids and get them working in the project." He has employed a few local laborers and is teaching young people construction skills.

Harris sees the North End as "a gateway to Downtown," via Midtown. A planned greenway along Brush provides the symbolic connection. "It’s already a path for bikes and roller-bladers." The North End, he says, provides an option to Midtown living and provides an extension for the city’s revitalization.

Jerry Ann Hebron, also raised in the area, returned to her childhood home in North End when her mother, Rev. Bertha Carter, pastor of St. John Evangelist Temple of Truth church on Oakland Avenue, asked her to establish a community ministry. That led to cultivation of a 10-lot urban farm that includes a converting small market into what is known as the Oakland Avenue Community Garden and Greenhouse Cooperative.

"When I lived in this community, I remember Oakland Avenue as viable and enriched and safe and really lovely. We had fruit trees. Houses had yards with flowers. We played everywhere," she says. Even though there was an "underworld" evident in the neighborhood, "we saw them as a subculture but were never afraid of them."

That changed, as crime and abandonment took its toll, yet many residents possess a "resiliency" that is "unbelievable and contagious," she says. "The ones who have stayed have no desire to leave. The North End is their home and they’re proud of it."

In fact, she and her husband have purchased a home near the church. “I’m definitely coming home. And I’m happy. It’s by choice. I can live anywhere. My friends thought I was a little crazy, saying: 'You’re going where?'"

There’s a lot of talk about what used to be and distaste for what folks have had to endure, but Hebron says there’s a real sense that something is happening. Perhaps the most remarkable moment that reflects the transition of the neighborhood came one day when Hebron returned to the church and found "three little blond kids" playing in the Cooperative garden, with parents -- new residents -- nearby. This was an odd site for the mostly African American neighborhood. "I was so happy. Some people probably looked at it differently, but I was so happy because it should be that way. My God, I got three little blond kids playing in my garden and they’re not afraid. They were ripping and running and pulling tomatoes. That’s what this is all about. This is about bringing people together."

The appearance of white children, their parents, and other young whites, reflects a trend in other Detroit neighborhoods, reflecting a trend that is welcomed by some, but uncomfortable for others who fear a loss of what have been longtime African American neighborhoods. For Hebron and Harris, however, diversity will rejuvenate the North End.

Henry Crissman, originally from Mid-Michigan, is among the newcomers. A graduate of the College for Creative Studies, Crissman moved into a building converted into lofts on Oakland. He rebuilt an old kiln for creating ceramics and, perhaps more importantly, as a medium for engaging the surrounding community. He's used his art to engage neighbors and teach kids.

Much of current Detroit art is about dealing with the dissolving boundary between art and people striving in the urban environment, he says. "While we were building (the kiln) we met members of the community who wanted to know what was going on." At the time, he was teaching a class on ceramics at Vanguard CDC, so he invited the kids for some hands-on learning. "When the kiln was finished and I fired it they all worked in the kiln as well."

Vanguard CDC’s plan, based on input from 70 organizations, envisions a convergence of the old and new, offering a fertile ground for community-based, ecologically sound, strategic development. "It’s not really about old versus new Detroit," says Khalilah Gaston, Vanguard Deputy Director. "It’s about old and new coming together for the good of the community. It takes both, willing to extend olive branches to work on projects large and small, to benefit the neighborhood."

Above all assets that makes this an attractive place may be an old one: location. "This is a very valuable area," Hebron says. "Not everyone can afford to live in Midtown. What’s your option? It’s the North End."

Dennis Archambault is a longtime freelance contributor to Model D. His last feature was on the bicycle and watch manufacturer Shinola.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.