I'm pretty excited about the Live6 Alliance initiative to help redevelop the area around Livernois and McNichols (Six Mile Road) because I used to live in the area. I took a drive around there with Lauren Hood, the Live6 director, and chatted about the neighborhood and her plans to engage with the community going forward. The Live6 boundaries are basically between Puritan, Curtis, Wyoming, and Fairfield Streets.
We drove past where I used to live on Santa Rosa. That's something I've done less and less over the years because I found the decay in my old neighborhood depressing and the last of my friends there moved out a couple of years ago. We also drove by where Hood's grandparents lived on Greenlawn across from Marygrove College. Hood often spent after school time there, and her family lived not far away in the Wyoming and Seven Mile Road area. It's obvious that her heart is in her efforts to help this area revive.
Although it's mostly not visible yet, Hood pointed out that there is already a lot going on along McNichols. The corridor between University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove is Live6's first focus area. There is a new coffeehouse close to opening its doors there. A block over, a neighborhood resident has bought the former Winkleman's department store and the parking lot across the street that used to belong to the Larco's Italian restaurant (a rumored Mafia hangout). George N'Namdi, creator of the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, has bought some properties along there and is looking at other locations in the area.
"I looked at Six Mile and its proximity to the university there and the density you can get from being there," says N'Namdi, who is also developing several properties in the Grand River and Rosa Parks area. "It's a very narrow street. When you start seeing development on that street it's going to have a very different impact [from the Avenue of Fashion] because of the width of the street. You end up with a little boutique neighborhood. ... I do creative place-making. I'm not interested in just buying a building. My properties will be there to service that residential area and make it a place where people can come to. If you've got a coffee shop, now you got people coming out of houses. Couple that with UDM and Marygrove, there are young people using a coffee shop, a lunch place, then you've got a place where a small cleaners can come in."
That's one vision. There are others and Live6 recently sponsored walking and bus tours around the neighborhood, offering the chance to sample food from local restaurants and hear discussion about development with values in the neighborhood that was supported by the 2015 Van Dusen Urban Leadership Forum in order to build ideas about what the neighborhood can be. It included events at UDM, Marygrove, and in a storefront. About 75 people participated, and some 30 of them were from the neighborhood. They broke up into four groups; each group talked to residents and visited at least one small business in the area.
"The walk was really useful to understand the neighborhood better," wrote one participant in evaluating the day.
Another participant wrote, "I really appreciated challenging the very vocabulary we were using to address the topics."
This is basic and it goes to the root of Hood's efforts. There is no grandiose transformation plan to be implemented. There is only getting in there and figuring things out. In the best of all worlds there will be organic growth based on community wants and needs. In the end it won't be all that, but that connection, appreciation, and respect for those who are already there will ease the evolution.
Moving forward Live6 is sponsoring a series of "Dine and Develop" dinners funded by the Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation of Michigan in area storefronts to further the conversation and build on the community's wants and values expressed during discussions at the tour-day events. There will be four dinners on Friday nights in November and December. The first will be this Friday.
"We're having them in the storefronts so people start to look at the area differently," says Hood. "Not everybody is a visionary and to some people an empty storefront is just an empty storefront. If you can get people inside of the place discussing the possibility of what it can be, then people can see the possibilities. Sometimes you have to walk people through the process and get them in there. ...
"I'll be taking recommendations from our funders and from local neighborhood organizations and civic leaders citywide for developers that do businesses of a similar scale and that are interested in investing in Livernois and Six Mile specifically, and preferably live in the area. Yes they do exist; I've met some."
While the dinners will be hyper-focused workshops to make connections that will quickly lead to businesses occupying empty storefronts, neighborhood residents who wish to see what's going on or speak to neighborhood needs are welcome to contact Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Live6 is not starting totally from scratch. Its footprint is inside an area that always shows up in city plans for long-term stabilization and development. The larger plan is to develop Livernois from Eight Mile Road to the Lodge Expressway and McNichols from Livernois to Schaefer. That's a lot of pieces and Live6 is at a key intersection.
"You have to create a synergy," says N'Namdi.
Having a corporation such as Live6 will probably help to focus things. Midtown's explosion came with the help of the Midtown Development Corp. Further west from Live6, the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corp. works to maintain the area's residential base and develop business along the Grand River corridor. Certainly Live6 has already been able to focus foundation money into neighborhood development.
"Our five principles are safety, place-making, commercial real estate, neighborhood stabilization, and business attraction and retention," says Hood.
She also plans to tap into existing programs such as the Motor City Match, which connects businesses with real estate opportunities; the HATCH competition for new businesses in the city; and the BUILD Institute that helps budding entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses.
It's not clear what the character of the neighborhood will be going forward. The old Avenue of Fashion is becoming something of a restaurant row with the upscale 1917 Bistro, and Kuzzo's Chicken & Waffles anchoring the strip, and a Bucharest Grill planned for next year, you can see it.
But farther south at Six Mile is something of a different creature. Actually there is a McDonald's on that corner (where Gregg's Pizza used to be) but fast food is probably not the identity folks want to build around.
Live6 plans a Pop-Up Café event in one of the storefronts during the holidays. It will feature live music, spoken word, and storytelling from neighborhood residents. When you consider the café kind of atmosphere, a coffeehouse and the kinds of enterprises that N'Namdi is known for, not to mention the nearby colleges, you might find some kind of indigenous hipsterism.
"I think we can bring back these neighborhoods but you have to pay homage to what was there," says N'Namdi.
I used to walk that neighborhood, look at buildings and think about what they could someday be but was never willing to put my money down for what I figured was going to be a long time before I could get a return on my investment. I didn't have the vision. I'm glad there are people like Hood and others who have opened up my eyes to the possibilities.
I can actually see that things could look a lot different on McNichols in a few years. It won't be over the top in the short run, but I don't think this is going to be a 20-year slog just to get things going in the right direction. A few businesses should be opening within a year and that will mean a lot.
It's good to have dreams. Hopefully Hood will make some of them come true.