Along Livernois Avenue, in the mile and change that runs from 8 Mile Road to Margareta Street, it looks as if a small natural disaster has shaken the earth from its foundations. In its wake lies a long path of rubble, with orange traffic drums inserted to bring some order to the chaos. But the dizzying scene, in all its harsh edges, is entirely man-made.
Affectionately known as the Avenue of Fashion, this stretch of restaurants, boutiques, and shops of every flavor is home to a storied legacy of black commercial and cultural life dating back decades. And as the city continues on its uneven road to recovery, it is one of many commercial corridors being targeted by an $80 million streetscaping effort.
That means a few things in this corner of the city: wider sidewalks and bike lanes to go with them, and, to universal cheers, eliminating a much-despised median once and for all. The changes themselves are largely welcome.
“When they first started talking about this development, I was excited about it,” says April Anderson, the co-owner and pastry chef of Good Cakes and Bakes, which is tucked along the Avenue just south of Outer Drive. But the badly executed project has been an endless headache for residents and shop-goers as well as a massively disruptive and near-fatal force for shop-owners.
“The planning,” Anderson adds, was “good at first” but collapsed when communication “fell through” just days before construction began, leaving the community in the dark about what would soon befall them.
And so, it landed like a sledgehammer. Nearly all of the available parking was wiped out, while sidewalks and crosswalks were choked off, making foot traffic equally challenging. Add it all up, and you can see why it’s become “difficult for small businesses to survive in that area,” says Reverend Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. “While we certainly support the coming changes”, Anthony adds, “we cannot stand by and just watch businesses evaporate right before our eyes without stepping in.”
That nightmare scenario — of cherished local shops driven off the changing landscape — feels increasingly real. As Curbed Detroitsummarizes, while a much-beloved eatery like Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles is using the slowdown in business to temporarily close up shop and renovate its kitchen, others are in more dire straits. The Narrow Way Café & Shop, for instance, has warned that they might soon have to close their doors for good. And Anderson’s own Good Cakes and Bakes, while stable, has “had a 37.4 percent decrease of walk-in traffic since construction started.”
Without adequate relief, Anderson rightfully predicts “several of those small businesses being closed” and “replaced by businesses that are more appealing to the type of neighborhood and neighbors that this development is trying to” attract.
This echoes the simmering frustration in many of Detroit’s black communities. Since tales of the city’s “revival” were first spun, a vast and defiant chorus began to rise with a clear warning: by putting the whims of capital before the needs of people, the city would inevitably make life more difficult for the flesh and blood human beings who have been here all along. Or, as Anderson crisply puts it: “Development isn’t good if everybody can’t partake in it.”
Jessica Bondalapati lives in the University District and owns a small consultancy that works closely with businesses in the area. She also celebrates the changes, which stand “to totally transform our commercial district in such a positive way.” But she also refuses to do so blindly, insisting that we ask, “At what cost?”
“Bringing in, you know, the hot and shiny new business is one thing, but the city needs to remember that a commercial corridor should really be for residents first,” with their priorities front and center.
In response to these deepening challenges, a web of commercial and community groups has united to rally support for the Avenue. One of the results is First Fridays, which encourages “residents and visitors alike to walk or bike to the Avenue of Fashion and support as many small businesses as possible.”
Bondalapati highlights the recurring monthly experience as a way to support businesses both during and after construction by introducing “something that would be sustainable, and would be a way for residents to continue to engage with the commercial corridor.”
After a flurry of critical coverage, the city is cobbling together resources to drive traffic back to the Avenue. They’re offering weekend shuttle services, supporting grant-making events like Livernois Soup, and providing free off-street parking spaces to residents and visitors, among other initiatives. It remains to be seen what fruit these efforts will bear over the long-term.
Ultimately though, the real story may not be about what the city did for the Avenue of Fashion, but what this community did for itself when a sloppily dropped sledgehammer fell on it. Laser-focused on solutions, Rev. Anthony insists that “African Americans can get it done with the right resources and support,” with the ultimate question being “what can we do to fix it before it’s too late?”
Equally unflinching, Anderson stresses that “Everyone wants new development and new economic streams to come into the city, but you don’t want those at the cost of the people” or “the businesses that have been there forever.”
Cover photo: Kory Woods