Tag Archives: General Motors

DETROIT: New Center

10 Oct

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The city of Detroit was booming in the 1920’s; throngs of pedestrians crowded downtown sidewalks, elaborate movie palaces surrounded Grand Circus Park, skyscrapers began to fill the city skyline. Large plots of land were hard to come by, available lots were expensive. About 3 miles north of downtown Henry Ford was building a new hospital, railroads traversed Milwaukee Junction, the Piquette plant attracted large numbers of workers to the area. From 1900 to 1930 the city’s population swelled from 265,000 to over 1.5 million! In 1922 General Motors headquarters opened on Grand Boulevard, the Fisher brothers followed suit, the Fisher Building opened in 1928. Automobile wealth created what they hoped would become the new downtown or New Center. Professionals and executives built spacious, lovely homes, large apartment buildings housed the influx of workers in the automotive and manufacturing trades. Life was good.

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By the 1960’s the area had become run-down. Instead of moving out of Detroit, GM spent millions of dollars on a project called New Center Commons; they renovated existing homes, added new commercial development, added landscaping and then they did something really daring, they re-routed traffic around the historic neighborhood to the north of New Center, transforming Pallister Street into a scenic park. The hope was to stabilize the neighborhood and encourage executives to move back into the area. It didn’t happen. It did stabilize the neighborhood and in the long run it protected the historic houses. Let’s take a walk.

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Pallister Street is a narrow, brick, tree-lined, picturesque, pedestrian-only road surrounded by elegant, beautifully restored homes lovingly tended to by their owners. Old-fashioned street lamps add to the feeling of going back in time. No two houses are the same; Neo-Georgian, Arts and Crafts, Neo-Tudor and bungalows are rooted side by side. Ornate chimneys, leaded glass, columns, cedar shingles and decorative brick patterns adorn the homes. Bright accent colors surround windows and doors, shrubs are neatly trimmed, flower pots are bursting with color. Porches are big, ferns hang from hooks, wide overhangs protect residents from bad weather. I stand at the end of the block overlooking the street while Kris takes pictures; it’s so pretty, so unique, a treasure tucked away from the traffic of the city.

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We walk and we walk some more, up and down adjacent streets past more historic homes and apartment buildings, the architecture of the time was really quite magnificent; tile roofs, glazed brick, tile ornamentation. Squirrels are busy gathering up nuts, leaves rustle under our feet. Now a commercial and residential Historic District the work continues as more houses, apartments and buildings are being restored. General Motors moved to the Renaissance Center in 1996, their old building is now called Cadillac Place, it houses the State of Michigan Detroit offices. The QLine transports people from downtown to nearby Grand Boulevard.

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As usual I’m hungry. Avalon just opened a new cafe and biscuit bar on Grand Blvd in the 1920 Boulevard West Building. Enter through the main entrance, make a quick left and you’re there. The cafe is bright, large windows allow the sun to illuminate the space, yellow and black pop against the otherwise white room; the decor is distinctly Mid-Century. I really like the open section of the ceiling with the floating white tiles, the giant whisk light fixtures are pretty cool too. Enclosed in glass cases are the usual Avalon offerings; bread, cookies, baked goods. Here we also have light offerings such as fritattas, soba noodle salad, and the reason we’re here, BISCUITS! I stare at the chalkboard menu, mouth watering as I read. Kris and I each select a biscuit to split. While we wait I’m drawn to a piece of art made from the seat of wooden chairs arranged in a shingle-like pattern. The painted scene depicts the streetscape of the original Avalon on W Willis, the way the pieces are layered almost gives it a 3-D effect. The Food: Delicious. I mean, here we have a perfect, delicate, buttery biscuit, split and layered with creamy ricotta cheese and a mixed berry jam, the outer edge of the biscuit has that slight crispness, what’s not to like? The other biscuit is the ALT; avocado, lettuce, tomato and herb mayo, sinfully good. It was hard not to get the biscuit with vegetarian sawmill gravy… next time. The cafe also has a full coffee bar and serves all day breakfast and lunch. 

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Over on Brush Street we are visiting America’s first sustainable urban ‘agrihood’. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) has transformed a long-vacant apartment complex and about 3 acres of land into a farm in Detroit’s North End. Founded in 2011, MUFI is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization looking for solutions to urban problems such as vacant land, poor diets, nutritional illiteracy and food insecurity. General Motors, BASF, PPG, Borg Warner, Weber Shandwick, Herman Miller, Stanley Black & Decker and others are working together to turn the former apartment building (circa 1919) on the property into a community center for residents and visitors while also being a showplace of innovation and energy efficiency. The goal is to uplift and empower urban neighborhoods.

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From the moment we see it, it’s clear this is a farm. We start at the mural-covered structure; flowers, veggies, a bee, a skyscraper, all painted in pretty colors represent Detroit. A billboard of sorts credits organizations responsible for making the project happen. A strip of Zinnias add a splash of color between the sidewalk and the curb. There’s a hoop house in the distance, we follow a wooden walkway toward the orchards; a split rail fence surrounds 200 young fruit trees. A sign tells us Scott’s Miracle Gro gro1000 Initiative is a contributor. I see Bees in The D has a honeybee hive here too. Raised beds are overflowing with marigolds, an antique red tractor is parked off to the side, rows and rows of vegetables are laid out in the distance.

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More than 300 vegetable varieties are grown here, which yields about 20,000 lbs of produce annually. MUFI volunteers harvest the vegetables, the fresh produce is available on Saturdays from 10-4. The food is FREE to the more than 2,000 households, food pantries and churches within 2 sq. miles of the farm. I watch an oscillating sprinkler give thirsty plants a drink, mounds of yellow and orange marigolds grow at the end of rows. Leaf lettuce appears in deep greens and red, cabbages are green and purple varieties; I’ve never seen so many eggplant plants. Kale and Swiss Chard grow in a rainbow of colors, peppers cling to tall plants. Tomatoes are plentiful, they have their own section, plants are tall and lush, branches are heavy with unripe fruit, sizes range from the tiny grape tomato to beefsteak. A plant I’ve never seen before has piqued my curiosity, what is it that grows on these large-leafed, burgundy-stemmed, stunning white flower plants? I ask a volunteer, okra is his response. It’s absolutely gorgeous, I may have to plant some next year. As Detroit moves forward re-making itself I’m happy to see it’s honoring its past; renovating buildings, revitalizing neighborhoods, instilling a sense of community. Hazen Pingree would be proud to see all of the community gardens and farms. 

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Flint: Cool Old Stuff…

22 Sep

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Summer has come to a close, vintage cars are being tucked away for the winter in garages, barns and storage units. We wanted to give you one last look at these mechanical beauties with a rewind back to August; Flint’s 9th Annual Back To The Bricks. Held in downtown Flint on the bricked streets of South Saginaw, Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, King Ave and the surrounding blocks, this five-day celebration of the automobile draws thousands of visitors each year. Known as “vehicle city”, Flint is the birthplace of General Motors. Earlier in the day a statue of GM founder William C Durant was unveiled, he is responsible for much of Flint’s automotive history. His statue is rightfully located in Statue Plaza alongside fellow icons Louis Chevrolet and David Buick.

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We begin in the heart of the activities, S Saginaw Street, vintage cars line both sides of the strip as far as one can see; street rods, rat rods, muscle cars and customs. Paint colors vary from creamy whites to bright orange metalflake, pinstripes, side pipes, hood scoops and chrome bumpers all make an appearance. Cars are lowered, chopped and tricked out under the hood, chrome is everywhere; moldings, grills and bumpers. The sun is directly overhead in the flawless blue sky reflecting off of hoods the size of a Smart car. We roam street to street, the 70’s are alive and well represented by custom vans and Trans Ams. A large group of Buicks are parked on Water street for the 110th anniversary of the brand. Over on King St a Corvette reunion is being held, hundreds of Corvette models span the 60 year history, the crowd is thick, everyone is taking photos. Dragsters, trucks, even the old family station wagon is now cool; everybody has a memory or a story about an old car.

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We find ourselves on Second Street, directly in front of us the stunning marquis of the historic Capitol Theatre, wait, the door is open, people are milling about inside, what are we waiting for, let’s go in! Our love of architecture has led us to some pretty amazing buildings through the years, exteriors can be deceiving, you never know what you’ll find inside.The Capitol Theatre opened in 1928 as part of the W S Butterfield chain of theaters. The exterior is 15th century Hispano-Italian style, or so they say. All I know is, it is a gorgeous blend of brick and white terracotta, the vintage red and yellow marquis studded with hundreds of tiny white light bulbs and a double-sided blue vertical sign spelling out Capitol in white letters. My understanding is the current owner inherited the building when his father passed away, over the past few years a great deal of money has been spent and restoring and refurbishing this grand lady. Proceeding directly to the auditorium we look around in awe; the theater is the old atmospheric style, this one mimics a Roman courtyard. Ethereal blue LED lighting creates a glowing night sky, standing on the stage looking out we take in the room; arches line the sidewalls and are brightly lit, door frames and columns are at balcony level. Backstage a wall is thick with handles and levers for controlling lights and rigging, we follow a series of hallways and then descend a set of stairs. The basement is huge, an old sign off to one side leads us to believe there used to be a bowling alley on this level, we meet some local folks who confirm it. We meander from space to space, down hallways and past rooms that house the original theatre seats, signs and old equipment. Back up the stairs and through the auditorium again, we make our way to the balcony.

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Up the stairway we pause at the landing to have a look, the restoration has been completed in this area and it is elegant, opulent. Walls are textured plaster, a beautiful medallion pattern is painted gold with deep blue and red. Above us is a vaulted ceiling, a rope pattern shimmers in gold, antique light fixtures dangle from gold chains, dark wood trim surrounds walls and doorways, a large photo of the original interior rests on an easel. Walking to the front of the balcony we have a perfect, dazzling overview of the theater, the stage framed out in Roman-style architecture, the sidewalls resembling a city; it is still a work-in-progress. I overhear people talking as they look around, some share memories of when they used to come here to see movies, others, like us, are seeing the building for the first time; all are excited and looking forward to the time when we can come back and see it completed.

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One of our favorite lunch spots in Flint is Hoffman’s Deco Deli and Cafe, lucky for us Garland St is just a short walk away. Inside we get a reprieve from the heat of the day, though the patio is inviting, the air conditioning feels too good to pass up. We place our order at the counter then have a seat window-side at a high-top table. Sipping on ice-cold diet cokes, our food arrives without delay; the BBQ Chicken salad is piled high with greens, peppers, bacon and chunks of chicken breast, BBQ sauce is the dressing. We opt for the Super Veggie sandwich on nutty multigrain bread (Breads come from Fenton’s Crust bakery), the sandwich is cool, the veggies crisp, feta cheese adds a saltiness, the seasoning makes it a home run. Lunch was delicious, time to get back into the thick of things.

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Back through the brick streets of town we make our way toward our car, Kris points out a beautiful church on Saginaw street and notices it is open to visitors. St Paul’s Episcopal Church was completed in August of 1873, much of the church remains the same today as it did 140 years ago. The church has a familiar look and feel to me, I learn the architect was Gordon W Lloyd who also designed The Whitney, Wright Kay building, Christ Church Detroit and the Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, ok, now I know why. Passing by the large oak exterior doors we find ourselves in a lovely Gothic Revival space; walls are painted a rich gold, dark wood beams frame the ceiling and walls, extraordinary chandeliers hang from long chains. Light pours in through a series of stained glass windows, most are memorials donated or given to the church in honor of select parishoners; one titled Easter Morning was made by Louis Comfort Tiffany in his New York studio. In customary English tradition choir stalls face one another, the high altar is carved istrain marble from Italy, a mosaic of The Last Supper came from Venice, wainscoting and wood carvings were done in Grand Rapids MI. I cannot leave out the decorative floor tiles in the chancel, they are Flint’s own Faience Tiles and they are just wonderful. The church provides informative brochures on the building, one is a guided walking tour of the building, the other concentrates solely on the windows, after briefly looking them over I realize many of the church’s most special and noteworthy belongings were donated by members of the church.

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At one time Flint was an industrial powerhouse, men who lived here made their fortunes in lumber, railroads and of course automobiles, they employed thousands. The vehicles produced put the world on wheels, allowing individuals personal modes of transportation that took us to the local market or across the country. Many are considered works of art by enthusiasts, they capture their time period perfectly, which I think is the reason Americans love the automobile. In turn, these men, their families, gave back to their community, spending their fortunes creating foundations, museums, purchasing art, paying for the construction of amazing churches and buildings. Today their legacy still stands and is there for all of us to enjoy.