The Avenue of Fashion may soon become the avenue of eateries. And that's a good thing.
The area of Livernois near Seven Mile Road was once known as an upscale shopping area. As the nickname implies, there were plenty of fashionable clothing stores along the strip.
"I grew up walking down Livernois, so I have a memory of what it was like," says Mandisa Smith, who lived nearby as a child. "My parents shopped on Livernois; when I was teenager I went to Livernois and shopped. I bought the most expensive Mother's Day gift ever there at Marty Fuerst. It was an ostrich skin purse and an ostrich skin pair of shoes. I had a job and they must have cost two week's pay."
However, like the rest of urban America, shopping malls going up in the suburbs combined with urban flight decimated the Avenue of Fashion. Now after decades of downturn, things are beginning to look better around there, with new businesses popping up over the past few years and more under development.
Smith is co-owner of Detroit Fiber Works along that same strip. They opened up in September 2013 after a pop-up marketplace at the nearby Livernois Community Storefront showed support for the business that sells artwork, clothing, jewelry, home accessories, and more.
But eateries are the key element in the mix that will draw people. There are already five restaurants or businesses that serve food between Seven Mile and Eight Mile Roads, but there need to be a lot more to create a critical mass.
"When you think about Birmingham, Royal Oak, and Ferndale, one of the things that works is there are a ton of eateries," says Kim Tandy, District 2 Manager for Detroit's Department of Neighborhoods. "We need restaurants. Restaurants bring people, and when they come they walk around and see other things that they like. Restaurants give energy for people to walk around and spend money."
April Anderson, co-owner of Good Cakes and Bakes with her wife Michelle, sees the same need. "People want to come shop and have somewhere to eat, then maybe walk around and shop some more," she says.
Anderson, who formerly worked in human services, learned to be a pastry chef at Macomb County Community College. You won't find endless trays of cookies at her place. The focus is on gourmet and organic products. There's a café atmosphere, with coffee and other beverages offered, and tables to sit at and enjoy a dessert.
Good Cakes opened up at the same time as Detroit Fiber Works after participating in the same pop-up event. Both were involved with Revolve Detroit, a program of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation aimed at activating vacant storefronts, and they're neighbors in the cluster of businesses on the street.
Tandy says there are three more restaurants slated to open along Livernois in the next few months. A sign identifying storefronts posted on the window of the community storefront showed a Kurzo's Chicken and Waffles, a Regal Café, and the Old Hunter Supper Club under development. The site of the Old Hunter is going through renovation that will include retail and residential space.
"A lot of people don't know the great things taking place here," says Anderson. "Everybody thinks about the developments downtown, Midtown, and in the New Center area. I love being located here. I grew up near Livernois and West Warren but we used to come here and shop. So I knew the history of the area. I knew I wanted to be in a space over here."
It's that combination of the old and new that makes a difference. While much of Detroit was falling apart, there was still a semblance of economic activity on the Avenue of Fashion, with art galleries, a dry cleaner, an income tax preparer, discount clothing, and other small businesses, but it was dominated by beauty shops and their suppliers. There's nothing wrong with those businesses, but it takes more diversity to create a vibrant economic community.
Also, while there is some blight in the area, most buildings were not allowed to just fall apart because they were being used. That means sprucing things up is not as onerous as in other parts of Detroit.
"I think we will see a big turnaround quickly," says Tandy. "We just had Jazz on the Avenue for Neighborhoods Day. There were hundreds of people walking around, experiencing the shops."
Sometimes it just takes a moment to slow down and take a look around to see what's there. I live nearby and drive through often, but haven't paid much attention to what's going on there. I'm not getting my hair done, and when I buy clothing, it's usually from a resale shop.
What I didn't know is that Red Carpet Select Resale is right there on the avenue — along with a new game store, a health and fitness shop, and a store selling green, nontoxic cleaning supplies. There are three places to buy shoes and a children's apparel shop mixed in with the hair salons. The Simply Casual clothing store brings a bit of the upscale feel.
There's nothing along the line of a B. Siegel or Marty Fuerst that once populated the strip. And there will probably not be anything like that in the future either. Shopping trends have evolved. But a vibrant, walkable area is possible, especially if people are drawn to places to dine. And it matters for the neighborhood and the city.
"We can make structures beautiful, but if we do not have economics, if we don't have businesses that are hiring people and feeding families, all of that is for naught because nobody is going to have money to spend," says Tandy, whose job focuses on blight reduction. "We can fix it all up and five years from now it's back in the same situation. The economics piece and the blight piece are tied together very closely."
The infrastructure for starting businesses is more and more apparent around Detroit. When I stopped by the community storefront, a D:hive BUILD class was taking place inside. About a dozen budding entrepreneurs were gathered around a table going over what it takes to start a business. There will be a BUILD Bazaar in that space and at Good Cakes and Bakes Thursday through Sunday this week.
The Bazaar is a pop-up marketplace featuring emerging entrepreneurs who have been through the BUILD program. They will be present and sell their goods and services, network, and enhance their public profiles. It's entirely possible that some of them could end up locating in the area — particularly because many BUILD participants are budding restaurateurs.
Midtown has been deservedly garnering press for its development. Having Wayne State University, the Cultural Center, and the Medical Center as local anchors enhances its viability. None of that exists here on the northwest end of town. However, with several of the city's most stable neighborhoods clustered together, there is a residential base that Midtown developers can only dream about.
Now all we need is a trendy new name to rebrand and market the area. Well. maybe not — like I said, this place is a blend of the old and the new. Let's keep it the Avenue of Fashion. But, hopefully, we soon can add "where people come to eat."