Pop goes the West Village

It's an exciting time in West Village. The cozy, dense, architecturally rich neighborhood just west of Indian Village is seeing a much-needed retail boom at the same time it's getting some attention as an urban gem, glittering with character, history, and potential.

Following the massively successful pop-up Tashmoo Biergarten, which opened last fall and continues to introduce the neighborhood's distinct charms to vast numbers of craft beer enthusiasts (and the people who love them), two more pop-ups made their mark last month: cafe and bakery Coffee and (______) and locally-designed clothing boutique PRAMU. Both opened in the Parkstone, a solid, 11-story brick building built in 1925 with apartments on top and (previously vacant) retail space on the ground floor. Next Spring, four new (permanent) establishments will be opening in the same building, and each offers a different reason to celebrate: Detroit Vegan SoulRed Hook, Tarot and Tea, and Craft Work. (Read all about them here, and take a look at the spaces they'll be occupying here.)

For residents, these new neighborhood destinations, made possible by a partnership between the Villages Community Development Corporation and the REVOLVE program of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, will be more than just places to eat, drink, or have your cards read. As PRAMU and Coffee and (______) demonstrated, they'll be valuable gathering places, places to get to know your neighbors, and reasons for friends from other parts of town to visit. They'll also be places to get to by foot, and in a neighborhood that residents commonly refer to as "walkable without anywhere to walk to," that's a big deal.

And more good news reached us this past week: Coffee and (____) will be continuing through the holiday season. It will be open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. The business is taking orders now for holiday pies, cookies and breads. 

PRAMU will also be joining the extension of hours into the holiday season. It will be open the weekend of Nov. 16-17, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 1, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the week of Dec. 4 through the Dec. 8 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Get updates on PRAMU's Facebook page.

Kathy Beltaire, who has lived in West Village for more than 40 years, remembers that even when she moved there in 1972, retail was disappearing as the economy waned. Options dwindled over the years until Harlequin Cafe, the last place residents could get dinner and a drink, closed in 2008. A neighboring natural hair salon, the last holdout in the otherwise-vacant retail strip that's currently being redeveloped, closed several months ago.

According to Brian Hurttienne, executive director of the Villages CDC, the goal of the retail development, both pop-up and permanent, is to "take an already stable neighborhood and make it better, make it a nucleus." Michael Forysth, program manager for REVOLVE, elaborates on the pop-up concept: "We want to re-familiarize residents and visitors with what it's like to have retail in West Village, to re-engage them with the street." The future of Detroit, he continues, is in "great, livable neighborhoods with great retail." The pop-up shops offer residents the opportunity to "walk past the windows and bring back memories of how wonderful it was to have retail in West Village."

If residents have not had many places to spend their money in recent years, they have at least had their homes and each other, two resources that have helped protect the neighborhood from large-scale decline. Beltaire, an active member of the neighborhood association since 1975, describes the many generations of families that grew up in the neighborhood and stayed, "helping keep West Village stable through a lot of turmoil: the first and second world wars, the Depression, and of course the recent economic troubles" (which definitely hit the neighborhood, but did not decimate it). "It's not unusual to have multiple generations living in the same household here, and that helps keep the neighborhood pretty calm. People spend all their lives here because there's no reason to leave: there's the architecture, the proximity to downtown and the water, and of course, Belle Isle, which we can easily walk or bike to."

The architecture, most from the early 20th century, is certainly the neighborhood's most striking feature. Hurttienne relates West Village's houses to the better-known mansions of Indian Village, in that they rhyme stylistically (lots of Colonial, Craftsman, Prairie, and Tudor-influences, with individual character and hand-crafted detail to spare) but are smaller and situated on smaller lots. "There are about the same number of houses in both neighborhoods," he says, "but West Village is half the size of Indian Village, so it's much more dense."

Another architectural feature that distinguishes West Village from just about anywhere else in the city is that in addition to the single family homes, there are numerous apartment buildings (about 30) and ten or twelve rowhouse developments. (Hurttienne estimates that the neighborhood's renter-owner ratio is about 50-50.) The rambling, ornate rowhouses stand out because there are so few like them in Detroit, and the apartment buildings offer some of West Village's most jaw-dropping details, including surprising Moorish influences and elaborate brickwork.

John Collins, a resident since the late 1990s, lives in a 2,000 square foot apartment in the Colonial, a massive, colonnaded scene-stealer from 1905 with just two units on each of its three floors. "I love my apartment, love the architecture, love the historical significance. I've always been drawn to buildings with historic character." Collins, a member of internationally known techno collective Underground Resistance, loves the neighborhood, too, citing the friendly neighbors, diverse population, and active village association as a few of the reasons he stays.

"The people here come from all income levels. They're people who really care about the city of Detroit and their neighborhood," Collins says. "Everybody just wants to see things get better."

Matthew Piper lives a hop and skip from the Villages in Lafayette Park. He is the author of the monthly Model D-Green Garage collaboration, Green City Diaries.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at matthewjpiper.com.