DETROIT: Building Stuff…

19 Aug

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Good things are happening in Detroit; from neighborhoods to the riverfront to downtown it seems everybody has a stake in making the city a better place. As one of Detroit’s most charming neighborhoods West Village hosts tree-lined streets and lovely historic homes that encourage leisurely walks to the corner market, meeting a friend for coffee, a delicious meal or slice of pie. Today Better Block Detroit is sponsoring a community event in the village to help stimulate improvement projects and encourage new business to take up residence in the area. Along with Pop-up businesses in vacant storefront spaces, day-long events are planned to encourage kids to participate in health and fitness activities. 

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We park on Kercheval in front of the old Detroit Savings Bank; engraving along the top of the building reads “The Oldest Bank In Michigan”, indeed it was, it went on to become Comerica Bank. The important-looking structure has recently been renovated; the main floor will be retail with residential lofts occupying the second floor. Inside, three pop-up businesses are set up, showcasing the available space; terazzo floors have been polished to a high shine, a crystal chandelier hangs in the center of the large, open room, sunlight pours in from large front windows, folks mill about checking out the merchandise for sale. First things first, Coffee and (____) is selling cold-brew coffee and delicious pastries, Kris and I each get a coffee and we split a chocolate cupcake–yum! Mor & Co, a lifestyle store hoping to take up permanent residence in the city, offers a variety of outdoor, fun-friendly items for purchase: sidewalk chalk in the shape of downtown skyscrapers, aloe after-sun spray, woven blankets for the beach or picnic and bug-repellent candles. Common Threads Clothing is selling Detroit-themed t-shirts, tanks, hoodies and hats—all Made in America! A florist is setting up permanent shop in the space facing Van Dyke.

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Outside, we admire the building; a covered patio is taking shape along the side where the drive-thru window was once located. Clusters of pedestrians weave through neighborhood streets, a Preservation Detroit Bike Tour is in progress, vegetables growing at Fish Eye Farms are plentiful. Coe St is closed to traffic, Rollerblade clad skaters gather speed as they approach the wooden ramp in the center of the street, each performs a trick, skateboarders follow suit; skaters show off their skills zigzagging between orange cones. Metro Central Christ Church is having a clothing swap, demonstrations focus on renewable energy and sustainability such as solar power and rainwater harvesting, it’s a greener world these days.

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Over on Belle Isle the Great Lakes Chapter of the Antique Outboard Motor Club Inc is hosting an event outside the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the theme is “Made in Michigan”. At one time there were 33 companies that produced outboard motors in Michigan, more than a dozen in Detroit alone. Outboard motors were an important part of recreational boating heritage; to put this in perspective remember that before the advent of the inexpensive, portable outboard motor, boating was a rich man’s sport. Did you know the world’s first commercially viable outboard motor was invented and marketed by Grosse Ile resident Cameron B Waterman in 1904. We did it all in Detroit, from ship building to stoves to rowboat motors and the automobile, there was nothing this city couldn’t manufacture! 

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Members from across the region have arrived to show off their motors; names like Sea Gull, Sea-bee, Cadet, Sea Queen and Chief identify the models. Rows of motors are held in place by stands, metals are highly polished, paint gleams. Older models are lettered in beautiful script, trimmed in gold. Caille was one of Michigan’s most successful companies, there are many “Red Head’s” here today. There’s a wonderful exhibit of Oliver outboard motors complete with huge signs that would hang in the showroom and outside the building. You can see the way the motor works in the older models, parts are exposed, in the later years the mechanics were shielded by covers in bright colors and cool graphics. As we pad our way across the lawn we pick up bits and pieces of conversation; friends become reacquainted, ask about projects, owners share stories of where they got the motor, how long they’ve had it and how many others they’ve acquired through the years.

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Our attention is diverted to the Detroit River as a series of powerboats skip across the river, splitting the difference between the US and Canada. Brightly colored graphics cover the hull, they sound powerful, lengthy roostertails shoot out behind them, cameras come out and everybody stops what they’re doing to watch, even the helicopter flying overhead. After a couple of passes we go back to what we were doing; we see motors built in 1906, 1924 and 1928. The “Detroiter” was made in St Clair Shores on Mack Ave, the Gierholtt in Marine City, Algonac and Saginaw also manufactured outboards. Several boats are parked in front of the museum; a gorgeous antique wooden boat trimmed in red has a Mercury outboard, the all wood Thunderbolt gets lots of looks, the aero craft looks crude with its multiple rivets. Parts lay on blankets in the swap meet area, shifters bear names like Quicksilver and Shipmaster. It has been fascinating to see the show, but now it’s time for lunch.

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Parks & Rec is a little 30-seat diner that recently opened in the triangular, castle-like G A R Building on Cass and Grand River. The building itself was constructed in 1897 for Civil War veterans, it had shops, a bank and meeting space along with a small auditorium. The last occupant of the building was the Detroit Parks & Rec Department more than 30 years ago. The interior pays homage to its former use with green metal park chairs, tables inlaid with checkerboards, an old shuffleboard with discs and cues mounted to a wall. An old billboard complete with the image of the fountain that welcomed visitors to Belle Isle hangs on the back wall. Milk glass lights, quilted stainless steel and a retro-style countertop give it that old diner feel.

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The restaurant shares the chef and kitchen staff of the adjoining Republic Tavern, they bake their own pastries and breads, make their own preserves and pickles, they even cure their own bacon. Open 7 am to 3 pm daily, the menu is filled with breakfast favorites. We are having the liege waffles, 2 petite waffles made from rich batter, chunks of sugar give them a delicate crunch, topped with real maple syrup and a sprinkle of powdered sugar they are super delicious– served with 2 eggs, we ordered ours scrambled, it’s a nice combo. The Hash was also very good, we ordered our eggs over medium and added sautéed onions to the hash, the eggs were cooked perfectly, soft enough for the yolk to soak into the hash below but not runny. Served with tasty toast and housemade ketchup, we really enjoyed our meal. The desserts looked really good too, next time………

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