Tag Archives: New Center

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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The Fabulous Fisher Building

23 Nov

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In August 1927, ground was broken for a new building that would be home to the offices of Fisher and Company. Having purchased seven acres, and employing architect extraordinaire Albert Kahn, the Fisher brothers spent $9 million dollars to create The Fisher Building. A little background here; the seven Fisher brothers developed the closed body for auto manufacturing, you may remember GM cars had “Body by Fisher” at one time, these are the men responsible for that. They amassed fortunes, so money was no object in creating what they wanted to be the world’s most beautiful office building. Often referred to as “Detroit’s largest art object”, it is one of those places you have to see to believe.

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Enter the building from from Grand Blvd or Lothrop for the most impressive view. The main arcade is 30 feet wide 44 feet high and 600 feet long, this place is incredible! It’s difficult to decide what to focus on, my eyes are usually drawn to the towering art deco chandeliers first; ranging from 5 to 8 feet tall they hang from the center arcade and softly illuminate this work of art. Everywhere you look there is something beautiful; 3 original mosaics enhance the grand arcade, solid bronze medallions are laid into the floor, 40 different varieties of marble from all over the world, brass and bronze decorate the interior. The elevator doors are incredibly detailed and vary from floor to floor. Geza Maroti was brought from Hungary to Detroit by Eliel Saarinen to work on Cranbrook, while he was here Kahn hired him to work on the Fisher. Maroti hand painted the frescoes, he also created the lunettes, plaques and mosaics.

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Take the stairway to the second floor; here you can get an up close view of the magnificent chandeliers. From this level you can really appreciate the intricate floor patterns, notice the same architectural design is repeated throughout the building. Walk up to the third floor, now you are in the thick of things. Find yourself surrounded by hand painted decor; there are 60 nude figures painted on the ceiling of the arcade, no two are alike, dozens of eagles, hemlock, and oranges fill up the space. 40 % of the ceiling is gold leaf, and from here it is stunning. Standing in the archway at the end of the hall you are completely surrounded by decoration, it’s tempting to reach out and touch the walls, but don’t! When you have had your fill of sightseeing on the third and second floor return to the main floor for a snack and a little shopping.

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Start at Stella International Cafe for a beverage and a snack, carry it over to the lobby that is across from the Fisher Theatre. Have a seat at one of the tables, make yourself comfortable and just sit there and take in the surroundings. This is my favorite little area, the ornamentation here is insanely gorgeous. The blending of marble and bronze, exotic sconces and more chandeliers, wow! While you are sitting there think about this; this was built as an office building, seriously. Since the 20’s  regular people like you and I would come here to shop, have a bite to eat, maybe see their dentist or accountant. Men would smoke their pipes, couples would dress up to attend a show at the renowned Fisher Theatre.  Looking to do a little shopping? Stop in the Detroit Gallery of Contemporary Crafts, if you are looking for something unique, you can find it here. From glassware, pottery and jewelry to clothing and art objects their selection is first class. While inside note the amazing Pewabic Pottery flooring. If you’re looking for something Detroit, then by all means stop in at Pure Detroit. T-shirts, music, Sanders, Faygo, Pewabic Pottery, and a great book selection; chances are if it’s a Detroit thing they have it here.

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You may not know this but the Fisher building connects to the Albert Kahn building and the old GM building through a series of underground corridors, how cool is that? You have to check it out; from the lower level of the Fisher building follow the the tiled corridors from building to building, they even made these pretty. I love the mailboxes that are built into the walls and the drinking fountains that can be found here and there. This is a great convenience on those cold winter days. We usually come up through the Kahn building, another fine example of beautiful design. Once outdoors take the time to really look at the Fisher building, the main tower is 28 stories, it was originally covered with gold-leaf tiles, but has since been replaced with tiles made of green terracotta. If you listen to WJR you have heard them say they are coming to you “from the Golden Tower of the Fisher Building”, now you know why. Since 1928 this golden tower has  brightened the Detroit skyline, that same year Albert Kahn received the Architectural Leagues Silver Medal, designating this as the most beautiful structure of the year. In 1989 the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.  I invite you to come and experience it for yourself, it is a must-see Detroit landmark!

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Time to eat! We drove a few blocks over to Baltimore to Northern Lights Lounge, you can park in their lot or right on the street. The sign out front is indicative of what you will find inside, that cool 50’s lounge style. They do a nice job with it, great retro furniture and lighting, and shuffleboard too. There’s a roomy sitting area in the front, seating is laid out in a way that makes it easy for small groups to converse. The dining area is large and offers regular or high top tables and booth seating. All the old standards were represented on the lunch menu, we had the cobb salad with their spicy homemade ranch dressing. The salad was huge, thick strips of ham, turkey and swiss cheese were placed on top alongside halved hard boiled eggs; the dressing was good, I liked the kick of spice it added. The sandwich decision was little harder, the Baltimore Burger caught our eye, so we gave it a try. Similar to a Big Boy the burger was topped with cheese, onions, and thousand island dressing, it was served with a pile of seasoned fries that were crisp and tasty. Our waitress couldn’t have been nicer and the service was quick. It’s a good place to keep in mind when you are in this section of the city.

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New Center Park, Hot Club of Detroit, The Bronx Bar

6 Sep

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Detroit’s newest entertainment venue is New Center Park, located across from the fabulous Fisher Building on West Grand Blvd and Second Ave, this outdoor urban space is delightful! We went down for the Thursday Jazz & Blues; arriving about 10 minutes before the 6pm start time, street parking was plentiful, and there was no lack of wide open lawn seating. Orange folding chairs are available for your use, many bring their own or simply spread out a blanket. The amphitheater like park can easily accommodate hundreds on the gently sloping lawn. Tall trees provide needed shade while planters filled with flowers add color to the landscape, historic buildings make an eye catching backdrop for it all. Activity surrounds the park, cars drive up and down the boulevard, dogs are being walked by owners curious to see what the all the activity is about, nurses from nearby Henry Ford Hospital have a listen and a snack before heading home.

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Hot Club of Detroit was the evenings entertainment, they are incredible! Their music is pure pleasure for your ears, to watch them play a thrill for your eyes, the guitarists play with amazing speed. They had a female vocalist join them for this performance; she sang in french as her crystal clear voice got carried away in the gentle wind of the summer evening. It was one of those blistering hot days that transforms into a perfect night; cool grass beneath your feet, intoxicating music filling the air, time passes easily.

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Opposite the stage is a bar; enclosed on all sides by glass doors this paprika colored room offers bar and table seating, restrooms are found here too. The alfresco cafe menu is perfect for the venue; appetizers like chips and salsa, crudites and dip or hummus with pita wedges, also available are four sandwiches, salads and nachos, and of course a full bar. Food and beverage purchases are what support the facility and allow all the entertainment to be FREE, no coolers here. New Center Park hosts a variety of events such as the Wednesday Lunch Series, Wednesday Night At The Movies, and Thursday Jazz and Blues, check the website for details.

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The Bronx Bar is a Midtown mainstay, located on Second Ave, word is they have great burgers. It was still kind of early for the bar crowd to file in, so we thought we’d drop in. Walking in your  immediate observation will be that it is dark, very dark, but once your eyes adjust you notice the personality of the place; vintage ceramic tile covers the walls, the wood is stained dark and varnished in high gloss. Posters of Jean Harlow and Raquel Welch compete for every males attention. Tiffany lamps hang from the ceiling providing only dim light. The side by side jukeboxes are legendary for the wide variety of music selections.  Order at the bar and then have a seat, wanting to soak up as much of the pleasant evening as possible we sat outside. Before long our food arrived; a club sandwich with turkey shaved thin and piled high, crispy bacon, mayo, lettuce and tomato served on a delicious bun. The blackbean burger was out of this world; a slice of pepperjack cheese to give it a kick, next a stack of spinach then topped off with sliced ripe tomato, a wonderful mix of flavors. Unable to decide between fries and onion rings we got a half order of each; the fries were fresh cut, crispy and delicious, the onion rings were the small rings fried to a perfect crunch. Definitely a step above your average “bar food”, many items are homemade. Bronx is within walking distance to Wayne State and seems to be a popular hang out for students and hipsters alike. Most weekends you can’t even get in the place, if it seems like someplace you’d like to try I’d say the earlier the better. Prices are fair, portions are good and the bartender was helpful and friendly. 

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