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Cover Story

The neighborhood that wouldn’t die

Despite abandoned and decaying landmarks, Corktown pulses with life.

Len Danielson's 1860 cottage.
Aryn Smith (l) and Len Danielson at the annual summer picnic.
Dylan Ponman, 2, creates sidewalk chalk art near the Michigan Central Station.
Powell's historic fixer-upper.
Corktown resident Mark Powell and his pet chicken.
Corktown is noted for its picturesque, colorful homes.
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Published 8/6/2003

On a lazy afternoon, kids joyfully beat the hell out of an oddly resilient pińata that hangs from an ancient tree. As the kids squeal and pound with all their might, the adults watch from afar, laughing robustly while they tend to the grill and pass around a plate of juicy watermelon slices.

Neighbors lounge on blankets under the shade of an oak, chatting about work and renovations on their homes.

It’s a scene straight out of a suburban picnic, except for a few glaring inconsistencies.

A couple down-on-their-luck folks in tattered clothing wander about, eyeing the watermelon with longing. One approaches and politely asks for a cup of water; he stands in the shadow of the empty Michigan Central Station, where rays of sunshine spike through endless rows of smashed windows.

The event is the annual Corktown picnic, and the shadow of the decaying train station symbolizes many of the struggles the community faces.

Just down the street, Tiger Stadium, another vacant historic structure, quietly molders. When the stadium shut its doors in 1999, outsiders boldly predicted Corktown would become a wasteland.

Instead, the neighborhood has blossomed, and is now one of Detroit’s brightest, most closely knit communities.

“Just a very nice area”

Corktown is Detroit’s oldest surviving neighborhood; its founders hailed from County Cork, Ireland. It’s a rare, diverse mix of incomes, races and ages, and, unlike other historic neighborhoods, encompasses a bit of everything.

Home prices range from $70,000 to $289,000. Rentals can be found for $500 to $1,000 a month. Some homes date to the 19th century, while others have sprung up in the past few years, with more planned.

The 2000 census portrays the neighborhood as 50.3 percent white, 35.2 percent black, and 24.3 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race). Last year, the Detroit News cited Corktown as one of the two most racially balanced neighborhoods in metro Detroit.

The nerve center is its stalwart community organization, the Corktown Citizens District Council (CDC). One of Detroit’s most active community groups, the CDC publishes monthly newsletters, is a liaison between city government and residents, and spearheads renovation projects along with a sister organization, the Greater Corktown Development Corporation (GCDC).

Thanks to the efforts of the two groups, the dilapidated Mercury Bar at Michigan Avenue and 14th Street — and a group of buildings across from it — will be renovated and turned into a mixture of lofts, offices and retail. The GCDC acquires abandoned or ruined homes, and renovates and sells them. There are also recycling programs, graffiti cleanup outings, and the Michigan Avenue Streetscape fund, which underwrites improved lighting and historic preservation of the brick surface that speckles the street.

In April, the CDC organized the first ever Corktown Hop, a bar crawl of the neighborhood’s many taverns, as a benefit for the fund. The neighborhood even has its own nonprofit publishing company, the Corktown Press, which produces The Furnace, a quarterly literary journal.

Corktown has drawn families, thanks in part to a solid selection of schools, including two parochial elementaries, Most Holy Trinity and St. Vincent’s. Just north of the neighborhood sits Burton Elementary and Middle School, a magnet school that reserves 20 percent of its desks for Corktown kids. Nearby Owen Elementary is noted for high test scores, as is Pelham Middle, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s alma mater.

Scott Martin, director of the GCDC, has lived on Leverette Street for six years. His 6-year-old daughter attends Burton, and his 4-year-old son will start there in the fall. His wife, Heidi, teaches in Roseville, and used to teach at Cass Tech. She did extensive research and met with teachers and principals before selecting a school for their daughter.

Martin acknowledges that some of his neighbors send their kids to private schools, but says he and his wife are extremely satisfied with Burton. He says some people are shocked when they learn his kids attend Detroit public schools.

“They’re horrified, and they think we’re irresponsible parents,” says Martin. “If you’re willing to work for it, and willing to find it, you can find the best in your own back yard.”

In the fall, the Martins will host a German exchange student who will attend Cass Tech.

Like any urban neighborhood, Corktown has its share of problems. Although the neighborhood has a small grocer, the Bagley-Trumbull Market, and a mom-and-pop hardware store, Brooks Lumber, residents must drive anywhere from five to 20 minutes to reach amenities like a large supermarket, gym, video store, pharmacy or strip mall.

During the neighborhood’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, the CDC polled 121 residents and visitors in the crowd, soliciting their thoughts. Those surveyed most appreciated Corktown’s diversity and historic ambience, and most disliked the vacant buildings and the uncertainty surrounding the stadium. Respondents said they wanted a full-fledged grocery store and a coffeehouse.

Crime is relatively low in the neighborhood, says Officer Maria Dorsey, crime analysis officer for the Third Precinct, which includes Corktown.

“It’s about the safest neighborhood in Detroit; there’s very little trouble,” says Dorsey. “I think it’s because it’s an older neighborhood, and neighbors don’t move a lot and they look out for each other. It’s just a very nice area.”

Michigan Avenue’s expansive stretch of bars makes little difference. “The bars are pretty cool,” Dorsey says. “They mostly have their consistent customers and local yokels.”

Dorsey says the only trouble tends to come from the Corktown Inn, and the bank across the street, but attributes this to “transients.” Last year, there was a shooting at the White Castle on Michigan Avenue, but most of the crime in Corktown is limited to occasional burglaries and homeless persons sleeping in Roosevelt Park.

Big-box or not big-box?

However, the biggest issues are the two hulking abandoned giants (see accompanying stories "A hole in the heart" and "On track"). While the train station finally has a glimmer of hope for revitalization after more than a decade of abandonment, many residents fear Tiger Stadium could wind up in the same state of limbo, or face the wrecking ball.

The community seems to want the storied structure preserved, but residents and City Hall can’t seem to agree on a use for the stadium.

Residents and the CDC lobbied for a mixed-use development for the stadium that would turn the structure into lofts, office space, retail and a recreation center. The city wasn’t as enthusiastic. In May, the mayor pitched the site to Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers.

“It’s frustrating, because it doesn’t feel like the city is listening to what the neighborhood wants,” says Corktown resident and CDC secretary Deb Ferris. “The city just doesn’t seem to be moving on it.”

The empty stadium poses other problems as well. Lots that once served as parking areas for baseball fans remain empty, some littered with glass and weeds. The lots could be used for new construction — more homes and sorely needed retail — but they remain untouched by owners uncertain whether they will be needed again for parking.

“It’s like a domino effect,” says CDC administrator Kelli B. Kavanaugh. “There’s no development because the owners are hanging on [to the lots]. Development hinges on the fate of Tiger Stadium.”

Lifelong Corktowner Felix Formosa co-owns the Bagley-Trumbull Market with his brother Anthony. They also own three lots; one is still used for parking on days the Detroit Lions play, with a shuttle service.

“We’re waiting to see what they do with Tiger Stadium before we do anything,” says Formosa. “We might do housing, or we might try to develop a business that would complement whatever happens at the stadium.”

He’s frustrated by the city’s inertia.

“Every time [the city] has a deadline, they never meet it. It seems like everybody is in the blind.”

While he isn’t thrilled about the idea of a big-box store, which would surely hurt his market’s traffic, he wants something done.

“Anything would be better than nothing,” he says. “The whole area has so many historical buildings, to put a square building there … I’d hope they’d at least consult the community about the facing on the building, maybe make it something more historical-looking.

“But personally, I’d like to see them save the stadium.”

Mbodja Mougué, associate professor of finance at Wayne State University, lives in Detroit and favors the convenience of a mega-store like Wal-Mart.

“I could only see good things,” he says. “With all this talk of revitalizing the city, I don’t think you could do that without a major player like Wal-Mart. You have to look at the overall impact of the community, and it’s my opinion it would be beneficial overall.”

Kurt Metzger, research director at Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies, disagrees with the “bigger is better” approach.

“The city has decided big-box is the answer to their needs,” says Metzger, “but in terms of the area and what we’re seeing with Corktown, while the residents are in desperate need of shopping, something about putting a big-box in the area just kind of ruins the historic nature of the community.”

Metzger notes that big-boxes tend to put small, independently owned stores out of business. He feels small business is key to a tight-knit community.

“I don’t think Wal-Mart is going to bring life to the community, I think it’s going to suppress small retail and development, and decrease some of the desirability of the neighborhood.”

“Is this what the community is asking?” Metzger wonders. “Whose decision is this, and how much input does the community get when big-box wants to come to the city?”

Those answers remain unclear — though published reports say Wal-Mart, for one, considers the stadium site to be too small.

Life after the Tigers

When the stadium closed, residents lost a baseball team, and everything that goes with it: massive traffic jams, parking crunches, occasional drunken fans and car thieves.

Longtime resident Joe Xerra calls the stadium’s denouement “the best thing that ever happened to the neighborhood. It got rid of some of the transients who were picking up bottles and breaking into cars, and the traffic died down. When games were here, sometimes you just didn’t want to come home because the traffic and parking were so bad.”

Xerra would like to see the stadium preserved and put to another use.

“You go to other cities, and they restore, but in Detroit they knock down,” he says, “and the stuff you do want knocked down, they won’t do it.”

Although some feared businesses on Michigan Avenue would suffer with the loss of game traffic, they’ve survived by increasing advertising and drawing new clientele; as an added boon, customers have plenty of places to park.

Steve Kahlil owns the Detroit Athletic Co. on Michigan, which supplies athletic clothing and sports memorabilia.

“Obviously game-day traffic won’t ever be the same,” says Kahlil, “but we’ve held our own, and we’ve built up a loyal customer base. We’re really pleased to see how many people go out of their way to see us.”

Shelley’s Tavern is a stone’s throw from the stadium, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. The bar/restaurant began an extensive expansion project just as the stadium closure was announced.

“The stadium is not an asset to someone this close to it,” says owner Shelley Paros. “Parking was a huge issue. [The closing] has been extremely good for business. People look at it from the wrong way.”

Paros wouldn’t mind a big-box store in place of the stadium.

“As a person who renovated a small business, I understand,” says Paros. “It would have been less expensive for me to tear this down and start over. Tiger Stadium is very antiquated, and it would cost an incredible amount of money to renovate it. It was never maintained to be a historic site.

“It’s a sad thing, but you need something productive here. It’s just dead space and a rat haven right now. I see the train station every day from the window here, and it’s a beautiful building that people try to break into and take apart.”

In the past year, Corktown added another large abandoned building, when Michigan State Plaza at Sixth and Howard vacated and state workers moved into the old GM headquarters.

However, like the Tiger Stadium vacancy, the move has a silver lining.

Rob McDonald co-owns Eph McNally’s deli on the corner of Porter and Brooklyn, a block from the plaza.

“It actually kind of helped business a bit, because now there’s more places for people to park,” he says. Although the deli lost plaza employee business, increased advertising has drawn new customers, who now have plenty of places to park.

McDonald has owned the deli for six years, and lives next door. He says the empty plaza has created “the Bermuda triangle of giant vacant buildings” in Corktown, but feels the community will continue to prosper.

“I think the neighborhood will keep plugging along,” says McDonald.

And plug along it has.

“Either we are experiencing the longest deathwatch in history — 89 years and counting — or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, news of Corktown’s death has been greatly exaggerated,” John Ferris, Deb’s husband, wrote in 1998 in the CDC newsletter.

The Ferrises have lived on Leverette for 10 years. John Ferris has assembled news articles dating to 1908 that chronicle Corktown’s imminent doom; it seems each time a large business or gathering center closed, people predicted the neighborhood would dissolve. And each time, the community persevered.

The neighborhood faced a crisis in the 1950s, when the city, in the name of urban renewal, slated several blocks of homes for demolition, to create room for light industrial factories and warehouses. Corktowners didn’t take it sitting down. They showed up in droves at City Hall to protest — to little avail.

In the end, more than 100 homes south of Bagley were razed for the project. The city claimed the factories would create jobs and benefit the community. Today, many of those factories lie silent and crumbling, long abandoned.

The Corktown secret

Many residents say the CDC and GCDC are key components of the neighborhood’s success story.

“They help with code violations, dealing with the city,” says Deb Ferris, “and they were instrumental in getting new construction here.”

“The historic designation also helped,” adds John Ferris. “It gave a new and intrinsic value to the neighborhood and attracted new owners.” Corktown received the city’s historic designation in 1984; national designation came in 1998.

Mark Powell, a freelance photographer, bought his home on Leverette three years ago, as a fixer-upper. He says he lucked into it, and was thrilled with the opportunity to live in Corktown. His wife, Karina Morales, is a Spanish teacher who hails from Mexico City.

The couple believes Corktown’s secret is its diversity and its allure for creative and artistic people.

“People who live here aren’t afraid to welcome people of all races and income levels,” says Powell. “The No. 1 secret is historic preservation. Also, creative use of space, and welcoming artists and creative-type people who want to work on their homes.”

Powell and Morales like the fact that Corktown originally relied on foot traffic.

“It’s a very walkable neighborhood,” says Morales. “We can walk over to Mexicantown and get tacos, or go to Clark Park and have a juice in the park.”

Although he agrees there is a need for retail, Powell is disgusted by the notion of demolishing the stadium for a Wal-Mart.

“So, the home plate where Babe Ruth once stood is now checkout aisle three? Come on!” Powell scoffs. “There are so many other empty lots where you could build a Wal-Mart; why tear down this historic structure?”

Powell says no other stadium in the country has ever been renovated for an alternate use, like the mixed-use proposal that residents favor.

“Detroit has the potential to really set the bar here, to do something no one has ever done before. And they just dropped the ball.”

He admits the need to expand Corktown’s middle class without hindering diversity.

“I know there are a few people who want to get rid of the soup kitchen (at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church), but I don’t mind it,” says Powell. “It has to be about give and take. You have to bring in some incomes that can fix up the houses, but I don’t see why a neighborhood can’t coexist with the history of community service this area has.”

Due to demand, Corktown real estate prices have steadily risen. Is gentrification a concern?

“I think the ultimate goal of Corktown is to have a neighborhood where people of all income levels can live,” says Kavanaugh, “and I think developers are trying to be sensitive to that as well. There’s still low-to-moderate housing [being developed]. And there’s three services for indigent people in the neighborhood, so I’d say it’s pretty far from being gentrified.

“The term gentrification often has a negative connotation. It’s negative when it forces out people who’ve been living here at the expense of new residents, and I don’t think that’s happening.”

Not just an address

Len Danielson hated West Bloomfield.

“It was far too impersonal. We lived there for 16 years, and we only knew two of our neighbors,” says Danielson, who moved to Corktown six years ago. “I was looking for a place that was more of a neighborhood, and I was born in Detroit and I wanted to move back to Detroit. A lot of people thought it was a great idea, and a lot of people thought I was nuts. …”

Danielson lives on Labrosse Street. Two years ago he purchased the rundown historic cottage next door and renovated it with his own money. He says he bought it for $15,000, and it’s now worth about $150,000. He wanted to do his part to preserve his street’s historic beauty.

“The community and the people in the community drew me in,” says Danielson. “It’s one of the best places I’ve ever lived.”

Joe Xerra, who’s lived on Leverette since the ’60s, is a bit of a neighborhood celebrity. An exceptional gardener, Xerra’s back yard is a stunning tribute to the Japanese bonsai gardens he grew to love while stationed overseas in the military. A virtual urban oasis, complete with a pond containing Japanese koi, every corner of his yard is crammed with exotic plants, flowers and trees. Kids are fond of Xerra’s “dragon,” a 15-foot alligator sculpted from shrubbery in front of his house. His garden has been a highlight of Corktown’s annual Home and Garden tour for 11 years, and has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens twice.

When tragedy struck a few months ago, Xerra’s got a taste of neighborhood spirit. Xerra received a call at work: His house was on fire. The home next to his had gone up in flames and was gutted; the resident, Jackie Shaffer, was unharmed. The fire had spread to Xerra’s roof. While firefighters arrived in time to thwart much fire damage, Xerra’s home was devastated by water and smoke.

Corktown residents banded together to raise funds for Shaffer, who had no home insurance. She’s currently residing at the Corktown Inn, thanks to funds raised by neighbors and St. Peter’s.

Xerra did have insurance, but residents showed their support in other ways.

“A lot of the neighbors came to help me move furniture, a lot offered their assistance right after the fire,” he says. “One of them put me up for a couple of days, one of them put me up for a week. I’ve known these people for a long time, it’s sort of like a family.”

Xerra’s garden was unscathed.

After the fire, friends suggested Xerra cut his losses and buy a couple of acres of land in the country, so he could have the space to garden to his heart’s content.

Xerra declined.

“I like it here,” he says. “I really like living in Detroit, and I love the neighborhood. This is really more of a community. In other places, you’re just an address.”

Visit Corktown’s Web site at www.corktowndetroit.org.

Read the other Corktown features in this issue:

A hole in the heart
By Curt Guyette
Corktown’s lost field of dreams.

On track
By Ann Mullen
Hope gains steam for renovation of train station.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at sklein@metrotimes.com.

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