Tag Archives: North End

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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