Corktown Rises: Michigan Ave. Has a New Shine
Michigan Avenue has a new shine, driven by drinks, food and neighborhood spirit.
Published: February 4, 2014
Ten years ago, the mile-long stretch of Michigan Avenue between the Lodge Expressway and I-96 was at low ebb. Aside from a few bars, clubs and diners, some of them lively enough, the graying strip in the shadow of Michigan Central Station was a textbook case of urban disinvestment, with vacant storefronts clad in ancient iron wicker. On some days, you could have fired buckshot down the road with no casualties. And if you wanted something to eat, one of your main choices was White Castle.
How times change! In 2005, Slows Bar-B-Q opened, showing that a repurposed city space could draw customers from all over metro Detroit. Though a cluster of Corktown boosters and groups had laid the foundation, Slows was the first of many small businesses that began to appear along the neighborhood’s main drag. The pace of investment has quickened in the last several years, with almost a dozen establishments opened or revamped in Corktown since 2011, and several more scheduled to launch this year.
You could call it gentrification, but it’s not quite there yet. Michigan Avenue is getting that crucial first wave of creative investors staking their claims, catering to a hipper clientele of young professionals. (Don’t expect a Chase Bank or Urban Outfitters on Michigan Avenue anytime soon.) That’s why it’s the perfect time to see what’s happening along this historic thoroughfare, and learn how central cities are becoming some of the most sought-after environments in the country.
With this in mind, we decided to take a day out of the office and eat and drink our way down the street, meeting the people who are driving this change — and maybe ending up half in the bag.
I get going a bit late, but it’s still pretty early when you’re on bartender time, like my tour guide, Evan Bradish. He works on Michigan Avenue at Ottava Via, but on this particular morning, he’s recovering from a bartending shift at the Painted Lady, bleary-eyed and running on two hours of sleep. Luckily, he’s game enough to throw on some clothes and join me for my Michigan Avenue tour.
It’s mid-morning when we finally roll in to the Detroit Institute of Bagels. Whitewashed and sun-splashed, with strains of warm salsa music on the sound system, the interior is a welcome change from the biting wind and single-digit temperatures outside. We take a seat at the bar near the rear, amid original exposed brick, a wall covered with customers’ chalk drawings, and another adorned with photos of the original space and its recent transformation.
This is a neighborhood spot, with real hands-on owners. You can tell because they’re right there right now. Originally from Bloomfield, owner Ben Newman, 30, didn’t go to culinary school. He studied urban planning, deciding to put his money where his mouth was. Talking about why he took this long-vacant building and turned it into a bagel stop, he takes pages from urban guru Jane Jacobs: eyes on the street, small businesses, diversity. But instead of writing dissertations about that stuff, Newman is backing it up with his quirky shop. True to the neighborhood ethos, he lives just a few blocks away, and has for more than three years. He says it’s a great feeling to “get out at 3 a.m., carve out a little unfrosted part of your windshield and drive a few blocks home.” (Jane Jacobs probably wouldn’t have driven, but she didn’t have the polar vortex to contend with either.)
After looking around the city for a good location, Newman rejected renting, saying he couldn’t easily find a “white box” ready for repurposing, adding that many properties had dirt floors, as well as landlords who expected renters to do a build-out on their own dime. Rather than rent, Newman bought this building in November 2011. It’s actually the sole remaining part of a three-story, three-storefront structure (pictured among the original photos on the wall). His funding mix included $10,000 raised by crowdfunding to buy a used oven, as well as a $50,000 grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy.
Newman’s partner, general contractor Alex Howbert, tells us that the building, a former Tigers bar, had been vacant for more than 40 years. Giving the building new life was a special challenge for Howbert.
“Keeping an old building like this was a lot of work,” Howbert tells us. “It certainly would have been easier just to tear it down and build new. But you wouldn’t get that beautiful old character that you have here with the arches and the whole aesthetic of it.”
He explains their labors, how they shored up load-bearing walls in the front to install bays of windows without the building tumbling down, and had to sand every individual beam in the ceiling just to clean it up and apply good paint.
“There’s also a lot of reuse,” he says. “This is an old basketball floor. The cladding on the front of the bar was originally the space’s ceiling. The table and the bar up in front were old bleachers, made of beautiful old maple wood.”
Pointing to the brick arch that opens onto the kitchen, Howbert says, “It was a great day when we knocked this arch open and joined the two spaces, once it was totally weathertight and secure. … It was certainly expensive. A big project.”
Yes, but increasingly the sort of project that pays off, given the premium customers are willing to pay for that feeling of history and locality. There’s little doubt the goodwill generated by rescuing a vacant building and preaching density and walkability plays into the joint’s success. And Newman says they’re doing well, between walk-in business, catering and weekly orders.
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