I used to take long walks in the Cass Corridor at two, three, four o'clock in the morning. I'm kind of a nocturnal person and I've always loved walking.Those walks were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It wasn't unusual to hear about murder, mugging, rape and robberies taking place in the neighborhood. No, I didn't have a death wish. Actually, it was amusing to me that when I did encounter others in the wee hours, they usually crossed the street to avoid me. If people were scared of me I felt all the safer. I lived there and felt pretty much secure in my ability to recognize and avoid an unsafe situation. More secure than I feel now when I take my dog out for a midnight walk out on the north end of town.
Day or night, foot traffic is one of the holy grails in city development. It's a double benefit: The more people you have on the streets, the safer they are, and commercial activity increases when people walk rather than drive through neighborhoods.
Lately more and more people are feeling safe enough to walk around the Cass Corridor.
"I see women walking the street as far south as Alexandrine," says Bob Slattery, who moved to the area in 1975 to attend Wayne State University. "Students park cars here. People are walking around. Sometimes I want to go out and ask, 'Where are you going?'"
And he's not talking about that kind of streetwalker. Slattery's been in the neighborhood long enough to know the difference, and he's excited to see a lot of people walking around. People who live and work in the area — like him.
In the old days Slattery lived on Willis Street between Cass and Woodward avenues.
"I liked Cobb's Corner," says Slattery, who bought a home in the neighborhood and is now president of Midtown Detroit Construction, a developer that has created 88 loft units in the Corridor.
Back then Cobb's Corner was a jazz bar at Cass and Willis. You could catch Marcus Belgrave, Griot Galaxy, the Sun Messengers and sometimes a national act there. Cobb's also had a bit of notoriety after the manager was shot dead in a passageway behind the bar. Word in the neighborhood linked it to some cocaine business. Since then the building has housed the Cass Corridor Food Co-op and, now, the Spiral Collective, four small businesses that share the space. In fact, the strip going along Willis toward Second Avenue is buzzing with activity. There're the Flo Boutique, Goodwell's Natural Foods Market and the popular Avalon Bakery in the same space that was once the cavernous Willis Gallery. Beyond that is a still-in-construction Slattery development called Willys Overland Lofts.
It's a different Cass Corridor than the one I lived in.
"The big difference is new housing; there are about 1,000 units," says Sue Mosey, president of the University Cultural Association in Midtown. "Wayne State University has added about 1,600 dorm rooms. Now we're seeing some pickup in the commercial area. There's a new grocer opening at the Crystal Lofts on Woodward. There are plans for more restaurants, more music venues, small boutiques, more leasing of commercial space. It's stronger than we thought it would be."
Mosey lists other developments in the area — trees planted and new lights installed along Woodward, and an already-funded two-mile greenway that will run along Cass from Kirby to Canfield before turning toward the Medical Center. She says that Avalon Bakery will be expanding into a larger (although not yet disclosed) space in the area.
"Royal Oak has restaurants and shopping but they don't have what we have in the Cultural Center and the Medical Center, and the sports stadiums," says Slattery. "WSU anchors the neighborhood. There are restaurants that service the institutions."
But more than anything else, Slattery credits residential development; a new breed of people are discovering city living and breathing life into the neighborhood.
But as you travel farther south there are still more run-down and boarded-up buildings. At Cass and Peterboro, the former Chung's restaurant and Burton International School sit empty. The Mantra boutique and Showcase vintage clothing store stand where there was once a pet store. Down the block the old Gold Dollar Show Bar sits shuttered and empty.
Homeless people and others of marginal means still walk the streets there, many of them clearly mentally ill. In years past, some of them would be in state hospitals, but that ended in the 1990s when Gov. John Engler largely closed down the system. Mixed-income housing is part of the residential boom a bit north, and not every job in the Medical Center and at WSU requires a degree. Still, most of these people don't have the means to get a piece of the pie.
Even as prosperity begins to ripple nearby, there is the sense that these are their streets, where they know how to scrabble on their own terms. Somehow the burgeoning development pushing in from the north end of the Cass Corridor will have to accommodate them.
The old and the new eye each other warily. For instance, an Ace Hardware and a Papa John's Pizza have signed leases for commercial space in the Willys lofts complex. That's an eye-opener for the area, since an Ace already operates at Trumbull and Michigan Avenue, by Tiger Stadium, and Third Avenue Hardware, a traditional family-owned place, is even closer.
Third Avenue owner George Sultana wonders why Ace would locate another store in the neighborhood. "We're barely surviving," he says. "I couldn't believe it, as tough as it's been."
Sultana thinks there aren't enough homeowners to support another hardware store. While the new Ace will compete with Third Avenue in selling nuts and bolts, Slattery says the store will "carry a lot of housewares, furniture, Tupperware. I think of it as a mini-Target."
Tupperware? Well ... where residents roam, Tupperware follows. There's a warm spot in my heart for the old Cass Corridor. Even the street people gave the place vibrant color as they mostly went peacefully about trying to get by. But I also know that radical change is necessary to keep the Detroit that I love alive and thriving.
There has to be a place for both — the grand old buildings and the new developments — the people, new and old, interacting with some kind of integrity. Can they walk together? One way or another, they will have to.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com
The conventional wisdom in organized labor is that Toyota owners don't care that their vehicles were built by nonunion workers. Jobs With Justice is trying to turn some of that attitude around with the launch of a Toyota Owners for Fairness group in support of workers at the Georgetown, Ky., plant. Previous attempts to unionize at Toyota and other Japanese carmakers have been blunted by management, but there's always hope. JWJ will start the campaign Dec. 10, at Detroit's Central Methodist Church. Father John Rausch, a Catholic priest who chairs Jobs With Justice in Kentucky, will speak on "Building Moral Power: Bringing Together Unlikely Allies to Win Justice for All." Call 313-961-0800 for more information.