New businesses on West Vernor strive to integrate into culturally-rich southwest Detroit

According to George Azar, the only way he could continue to work in the food industry was if he started his own business. Why?

"Because I'm not employable," he says with a grin. 

Once he decided to open a restaurant, there was no question in which neighborhood he would open: Southwest Detroit, the neighborhood where he was born and raised. Making it even more personal, Azar managed to buy a building on West Vernor Highway that formerly housed a Coney Island restaurant he frequented as a youth. "We used to call it the cop shop," he says. "City, state, border control, D.E.A.—they all ate there right next to kids skipping school."

His restaurant, Flowers of Vietnam, which serves fairly traditional Vietnamese food with small tweaks to appease the American palette, has already garnered a lot of acclaim—GQ named it one of its Best New Restaurants of 2017. But place matters to Azar, and he's kept the neon "Vernor Coney Island" sign facing the street. 

Bar at Flowers of Vietnam

Vietnamese may seem like an surprising cuisine for a southwest-born chef working in a largely hispanic neighborhood. But beyond the bold flavors, he sees a lot of similarities with the food he grew up eating. "It's democratic, like Mexican food," he says. "Whether you're poor or rich, you eat tortillas. It's like that in Vietnam."

Flowers of Vietnam, which reopened after renovations late last year, is one of a number of new businesses and developments that have taken place on West Vernor near Clark Park in the last couple of years. And many of them are demonstrating a desire to be a part of the fabric of an already thriving, culturally-rich commercial corridor and community. 

Generating community wealth

Alessandra Carreon and Drew McUsic live across town in West Village. They both have day jobs—she works in sustainability at Ford Motor Company and he's a bio-engineer at a DNA-sequencing kit company. 

And yet, in September 2017, the couple opened PizzaPlex, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, just a couple doors down from Flowers of Vietnam. While its location is largely a matter of convenience—their friend owns the building and was looking for a tenant—they have every intent of being a community-based business. 

As a L3C social enterprise, the success of PizzaPlex encompasses more than profit. "How do we treat employees, how inclusive are we, how are we perceived by the neighborhood, and what measures are we taking to reduce our environmental impact?" Carreon says. "All are interconnected and we don't want to compromise on any one aspect."

[Check out our article from 2016 about Carreon and McUsic's house, which might be the greenest in the entire city]

Carreon and McUsic are taking care of the simpler matters, like recycling, composting all the restaurant's food scraps, and even using an eco-friendly pizza box

But they're also offering use of the pizzeria's event space—the "Plex" in PizzaPlex—to community groups free of charge. A "sospeso" system allows customers to buy coffee or pizza in advance for a needy future customer. Sometimes the pizzeria will use the sospeso to sponsor a local organization, which is as much about donations as it is promoting its work. And the pizza is affordable—the marinara pie is just $5, the rest are between $8 and $13. 

Eventually, PizzaPlex may become a worker-owned cooperative. Currently the business is not earning enough money to make the transition meaningful, but that is the long-term vision.

"It's not that we de-emphasize profit, but we very transparently did not start a business to earn a bunch of money," says Carreon. "The ultimate goal is to generate wealth that's distributed back to the community, not necessarily in hands of one or two people." 
Pizza and salads at PizzaPlex
All these noble goals aside, PizzaPlex didn't skimp on the quality of its food. Neapolitan pizza is made through a very specific cooking technique—00 flour, extremely high cooking temperature, and simple, fresh toppings. Carreon, whose mother is Italian and comes from a family of "pizzaiolo" (Italian for pizza-makers), spent some of her youth in Naples. Authenticity matters to her. 

So it was pretty significant when PizzaPlex was certified by the international association Vera Pizza Napoletana—one of only 98 pizzerias in the U.S. and two in Michigan to earn the designation. 

Another newer business nearby, the music venue El Club, which opened after extensive renovations in 2016, has also made strides to integrate into southwest Detroit. While a Metro Times article from April 2017 cited complaints that locals sometimes don't feel welcome there, the venue regularly books Latino music acts and throws benefits for local causes.

The owner, Graeme Flegenheimer, also plans to open a coffee shop next door, The Vernor Cafe. According to its successful $50,000 Kickstarter campaign, in addition to the coffee shop, the multi-level business will have a basement studio for local musicians to rent and an upstairs gallery for use as a community space and to showcase work from local artists.

What about gentrification

Because of its distinct culture and history, maintaining the integrity of southwest Detroit matters to locals. And the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) has worked to attract suitable businesses to the neighborhood. "We want to help match up the right property and property owners to the right business that's conducive to the overall neighborhood here," says Greg Mangan, a SDBA real estate advocate.

According to Mangan, that means maintaining the character of the building stock and avoiding suburban-style developments with large setbacks and parking lots. It also means encouraging a cohesive business relationship that doesn't hurt existing ones—businesses like Armando's Mexican Cuisine or Mexicantown Bakery, both owned by Omar Hernandez. Or Tamaleria Nuevo Leon, which has been cooking its handmade tamales on West Vernor since 1957. 

SDBA is also piloting a residential program to increase density along the corridor. Funded through a grant from the Kresge Foundation, SDBA is working with four property owners to renovate up to 12 apartment units among the many unused second-floor lofts along West Vernor. 

"We think there's a real need and want for different kinds of housing besides just single-family homes," says Mangan. "Hopefully these units will be attractive to 20-somethings, graduates, who might be transitioning outside their family home but want to stay close to their networks without assuming a mortgage." 

Given these developments, many wonder about the possible effects of gentrification. Could local residents be displaced? 

Many of the new businesses are doing their part to avoid this outcome. Flowers of Vietnam and PizzaPlex both strive to hire locally. And Azar isn't too concerned about gentrification because of high property-ownership rates. "A neighborhood that you own can't be gentrified," he says. 

Mangan says that while the area hasn't experienced much seen gentrification yet, with even more development on the horizon, it could put upward pressure on rents and real-estate values and that needs to be addressed. 

"We want to encourage new development and help fill in gaps where there's vacancy, but without disrupting what's already here and what's made the community what it is," he says. "It'd be a shame for people to not reap the rewards of a stronger economy and take part in the revitalization." 

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.