The 1920s live large in America's nostalgic memory. Images of big bands, flappers, and swing dancing come to mind when one thinks about the decade. It was the time of Prohibition, and in the historic neighborhood of Jefferson Chalmers, the infamous Purple Gang ruled the streets. Affiliated with Al Capone, the gang of bootleggers smuggled whiskey from Canada to Detroit via the neighborhood's beautiful canals and waterways. The notoriety of the Purple Gang is only one of the many historic distinctions of the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.
It's the site of bloody tribal wars among Native Americans. It is where ballrooms thrived. The Jefferson Chalmers Historic Business District remains one of the oldest in Detroit where building facades in the Classical Revival style remain intact.
For these reasons and more, Jefferson Chalmers remains a place where neighborhood tourism is thriving.
One of our favorite tour hosts is Nick Sinacori who kicked off this On the Ground Jefferson Chalmers series
. But there are several other fascinating tours where homegrown or visiting tourists can learn more about this unique Detroit gem.
Black Scroll Tours
Established in 2013, Black Scroll Tours is for those who want to have an interactive experience with the history of Detroit. The tour company focuses primarily on African American history that varies from a legacy landmark location on the Underground Railroad to the popular culture of Motown Records.
In Jefferson Chalmers, Jordan takes visitors down the commercial corridor where African American businesses thrived as early as the 1940s. "Jefferson Chalmers was also a neighborhood with a rich history of jazz and big band music," Jordan says, "The Vanity and Monticello ballrooms made Jefferson Chalmers a destination for popular music."
Jordan's tours explore Jefferson Chalmers throughout its evolution from ribbon farms that originated among the French and British to present day where community farms like Feedom Freedom are utilizing the location near the water for innovation.
A former humanities professor and historian, Stewart McMillan has been leading tours in and around downtown Detroit, Hamtramck, and even Canada since 1968. McMillan also uses his longtime knowledge of the city to lead a popular Black History Tour, as well as tours that highlight historic economic sites.
McMillan is also known for his cemetery tours which offer a fascinating view of history from the site of the final resting place of some of Detroit's most luminary residents. McMillian's tours of historic Elmwood and Mt. Elliott Cemeteries are aptly scheduled right around Halloween.
Riverside Kayak Tours
Detroit Historical Canal Tour
Tours are $50 and paddlers must be at least 14 years old
This unique tour is a way to strap into a life jacket and hop in a kayak and see Detroit like you have never seen it before.
Since 2008, the Riverside Kayak Tour company started working with the Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative to bring a brand new tour experience to Jefferson Chalmers. One of the most popular tours on their roster, the Detroit Historical Canal Tour, takes paddlers past the historic Fisher Mansion and along routes that were used by the infamous Purple Gang in a two-and-a-half hour tour from the Grayhaven Mooring Facility up a short distance through Fox Creek Canals which is nicknamed "The Venice of Detroit."
"In 2017, we did maybe 10 to 12 tours in this area in a season. Last year, we did probably six to eight tours a week," says Riverside Kayak Tours owner Tiffany VanDeHey.
"Detroit is becoming more popular. Kayaking is becoming more popular. It was kind of a boom for us at one time. We get tourists from all over the world, but it's really cool to be able to share it with people who have also lived in Detroit their whole life and who never even knew that the canals were there."
This article is part of our "On the Ground" series, where a journalist reports from a dedicated neighborhood for weekly coverage. Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation.