Neal Cassady, the man largely responsible for the Beat movement and the inspiration for many literary works, was famous among his peers for his energy and charisma. Bob Vila, of the “This Old House” TV series, is instantly recognizable with his trademark flannel shirt and beard.
Detroit, more specifically, the Cass Corridor’s historic Peterboro and Charlotte district, has its own Neal Cassady/Bob Vila wrapped into one. Like Cassady, Joel Landy is an energetic and eccentric individual who lives by an exact and demanding schedule. He also possesses Cassady’s uncanny ability to engage in several conversations at once. Like Vila, his passion is the restoration of old homes; he is almost single-handedly responsible for the recent regeneration of this Cass Corridor neighborhood.
Landy, the president of the Cass Avenue Development construction company, was drawn to the Corridor about 30 years ago by affordable housing and the freedom of its artistic heyday. His love for his neighborhood, its old Victorian homes and his passion for “making something out of nothing” inspired him become a real estate developer — a trade he learned on the job.
Wanting to avoid the “new model every year” mentality of residential development, he set about refurbishing beautiful homes in the neighborhood.
The initial battles in this process of regeneration were fought with the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan. Modern codes made it almost impossible for developers to repair old buildings and bring them up to code. Citing Europeans’ ability to modernize their historic structures, developers fought and won the battle to modernize their buildings.
Landy was also partly responsible for getting the state to recognize the area bordered by Woodward, Cass, Charlotte and Peterboro as a historic district, recognition that protects and provides funding for its maintenance.
One of Landy’s first projects was the old Jefferson Middle School, which had fallen into disrepair and had become home to winos and prostitutes. Landy purchased the building for around $1,000 and evicted the squatters. After the project was finished, he gave it back to the community; it’s now used for public education.
Landy and his company are currently putting the finishing touches on the Addison building, at the corner of Charlotte and Woodward. For many years, the structure’s shadow served as a harsh reminder of times gone by, but now it has returned to its previous state of splendor. Profits from the aforementioned school project funded the purchase and some of the restoration of the Addison Building, which has been converted into apartments.
“No one is afraid to live in Detroit anymore,” Landy says. “People, college kids and their parents have realized that this city offers the same sorts of things that Chicago does, and they are rediscovering Detroit.”
He’s got other projects planned. Landy wants to restore several abandoned homes and turn them into affordable (around $500 a month) lofts — an effort he calls “controlled gentrification.”
According to Landy, the Cass Corridor has always been a mixed-income area and he wants to maintain that tradition.
Several vacant lots will house new buildings built in the style of the older structures; they will also serve as residential spaces.
Some residents seem to oppose the redevelopment of the area. Many of the abandoned structures serve as residences for the area’s large homeless population. There is tension between older residents and those moving into the area. Long stares and taunts may await those who aren’t familiar in the neighborhood. Large crowds loitering on the sidewalks can be intimidating to visitors.
Landy says, “Since Engler closed down the state’s mental health facilities, many of the people who still need care have been shipped to the area’s homeless shelters.” Moreover, a lack of redevelopment in surrounding areas casts a shadow on even the newly restored and/or well-maintained neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, organizations, companies and individuals are undertaking similar activities nearby and are developing other parts of the Cass Corridor and the rest of the Midtown area.
But Landy has no burning desire to take his passion to another neighborhood. Once he completes all the projects in this area, he plans to get out of the redevelopment business.