A few months ago, this corner of Van Dyke in West Village was an empty lot with an overgrown tree in the back. It was less a place for people to hang out than to cut through to the alley.
Not today. On this sunny Sunday, it is fenced in, filled with crowded, communal tables and benches, a place where revelers drink Michigan craft beer, listen to music, eat local food and play beanbag games. From old codgers to young kids, from locals to yokels, it's a pretty inclusive bunch, alive with chatter and mirth. The lot's spreading, newly pruned tree now arches over a leaf-covered lawn, with lights spiraling up its branches and strung over the tables, since the fun lasts until after dark.
The empty parcel has become a pop-up, open-air beer hall — the Tashmoo Biergarten — all the work of "Team Tashmoo." And, despite the jolliness and toasts, there's good reason local media have taken such a serious look at it during the short five weeks since its inception. Anything that can turn a vacant lot in Detroit into this demands attention.
Grabbing a beer on the second floor of Park Bar, amid the late Tiger playoff hysteria, Tashmoo organizers Suzanne Vier, owner of Simply Suzanne granola company, and Aaron Wagner, a buyer for a purchasing company, explain the project's genesis and growth. Vier, who lived in New York for 16 years, did her master's overseas in the Czech Republic and Croatia, where beer gardens are typical. "It was something I frequented a lot. Then, when I got back, I began noticing lots of beer gardens in New York," she says
New York's beer gardens have gotten a boost since the late 1990s, when hipsters started crashing places like Queens' traditional Bohemian Beer Garden. The phenomenon there has grown to where even pop-up, temporary beer gardens spring up, such as chef Tom Colicchio's summer-only "Lot on Tap" under Manhattan's High Line.
Vier thought a beer garden might be just what Detroit needs. With her partner Wagner, a longtime resident of West Village, they began planning. Though she lives in downtown Detroit, Vier's affinity for close-knit West Village is contagious: "It's an amazing community that's still making headway, and active residents there have a fierce loyalty to it. It was definitely the right place for Tashmoo."
Wagner has lived in the neighborhood east of Grand Boulevard — bounded roughly by Parker, Seyburn, Jefferson and Kercheval — since 2007. He says, "There are different kinds of people, different kinds of architecture. You have some single-family houses, but you have some apartment buildings too. Right behind the beer garden, you have the Parkstone Apartments. It's a good mix of homeowners and renters."
But the two felt the neighborhood lacked a place to get together.
Wagner says, "About 10 years ago, Honest John's moved from the area. Then about five years ago, the Harlequin Café closed. That has left a void; now there's no bar in the community."
Better than a bar, Vier thought, why not a beer garden? "In Eastern Europe, beer gardens are a place to come together. That's intrinsic to the European beer garden experience," she says. "In Eastern European culture, it's not just about drinking, it's about food, music, families — it's an open and inviting place."
She adds, "We weren't trying to create a hipster place — we already have enough of those."
The group established a relationship with the Village's Community Development Corporation, for use of necessary permits and insurance, and found a vacant lot in an excellent location. "It's a central point," Wagner says, "very easy to walk to from anywhere in West Village."
Along with help from friends, other "Team Tashmoo" volunteers and "community support," they built it, scrounging up materials. The fencing is made of recycled shipping pallets. The benches are made of two-by-fours, and the tables are topped with reused flooring. Wagner says, "It's definitely not fancy." Practically the only thing they had to buy outright was the supply of wristbands for customers.
Oh, and the beer, all Michigan-brewed, including pours from Motor City Brewing Works, Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, Bell's, Atwater, New Holland. Tashmoo serves a wide variety of session beers, including ales, lagers, porters, and even some cider.
And, for those who were wondering, they say the "Tashmoo" tag resurrects a Native American word for "gathering place" — as well as the name of an old dance hall on Harsens Island in Lake St. Clair and the ship — the S.S. Tashmoo — that ferried guests there. The inside reference implies a connection not just to the community, but to the past as well. In fact, Wagner grows excited discussing a Tashmoo guest who realized his relation to an old engineer of the S.S. Tashmoo, who once lived in the neighborhood during its high German period.
And, more than just the West Village community, Vier and Wagner hope to draw in visitors from Detroit and surrounding suburbs — and they've been successful.
Vier says, "We even had people from other countries who said it was awesome."
On this Sunday afternoon, the lot on Van Dyke is undeniably "repurposed as a place where people are coming together as a community." Vier is on hand, saying, "Last week, we had more than 1,300 people come through, including kids and nondrinkers."
She admits the previous week wasn't perfect, that high temperatures, technical problems and crowds — likely from that Sunday's Detroit football holiday — contributed to long lines. Today's operation, by comparison, seems to be running smoothly.
On tap today is their widest array of beer yet, including Motor City's Oktoberfest, Atwater's Purple Gang Pilsener, Milking It's Brik Red Ale and, for three tickets, Jolly Pumpkin's Calabaza Blanca — with a wheat nose and a bitter aftertaste that leaves your tongue crackling like Pop Rocks.
Off to one side, providing food, are local vendors People's Pierogi and Porktown Sausage. Porktown is selling fall sausage, with such rich ingredients as curried squash, toasted pumpkin seeds and apple cider reduction, cooked right there over a hardwood coal fire. The company's Brian Merkel says they've switched off selling at Tashmoo with Corridor Sausage Co. for a few weeks. "It's a great space," Merkel says. "All the beer they've chosen is good, and as far as vacant lots go, this is a pretty nice one." He adds, "We've been selling out every week."
In terms of attendance and sales, the project is clearly a success. On the community-building front, it's a good mix of all ages and cliques — or at least those who'll pay a few bucks for a fancy beer. Indeed, more than one pedestrian walks by warily, considering the beer garden a curiosity best enjoyed from a distance. But the beer garden is only getting started. Vier says, "One volunteer bartender told me that lots of people who came to Tashmoo were really excited about West Village, and said, 'Expect a lot of people looking for someplace to live here this spring.'"
Beer as a community development tool? In Detroit, it just might work.
There's still one last chance to experience the Tashmoo Beer Garden, this Sunday, Oct. 23, on Van Dyke between Agnes and Coe streets, Detroit. Expect them to return with more fun next year.