Detroit's Corktown area finds life after Tiger Stadium

Posted on July 20, 2012

Cast off as dead when the Tigers left for Comerica Park a decade ago, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood — Corktown — is experiencing a resurgence, thanks to an influx of young entrepreneurs and new residents.

In the past 18 months, seven businesses, including restaurants, a hostel, a coffee shop and a cocktail bar, have opened along a neglected stretch of Michigan Avenue. Other ventures are in the works, and neighborhood stalwarts like Nemo’s, a popular sports bar, are helping the revitalization with plans to expand or launch businesses.

“People thought Corktown would die after Tiger Stadium left,” said Dennis Fulton, co-owner of the Mercury Burger and Bar, which opened in March at the corner of Michigan and 14th Street. “It’s been quite the opposite. There’s a real young, hip crowd moving in creating a great mix of the old and new.”

The buzz about new businesses, along with incentives to encourage downtown workers to live in some city neighborhoods, are luring residents to the area settled by Irish immigrants who arrived here from County Cork in the mid-19th century. The rental market is white hot. While the neighborhood west of downtown has been on the verge of a comeback in the past, the latest effort seems to have more momentum, with many new businesses working collaboratively to create an eclectic mix of shops and eateries.

“This is maybe the first model of locally owned businesses that are diverse in every way possible,” said Phillip Cooley, an owner of the popular Slows Bar B Q, who has encouraged and worked with others to set up shop in Corktown. Slows, which opened in 2005, has been a catalyst in the redevelopment, drawing lots of local and national attention, and enticing suburbanites back to Corktown.

The activity, though, extends beyond Michigan Avenue. A few blocks away, in an area called North Corktown, the city’s first hostel in 15 years, Hostel Detroit, opened in April 2011, offering cheap lodging to mainly young travelers.

Plans also are in the works to refurbish the old Roosevelt Hotel on 14th Street, near the derelict Michigan Central train station, perhaps the city’s most famous ruin.

“Slows was the anchor,” said Fulton, a former Detroit Police Department commander who thought the time was right to open an eatery in Corktown. “There are now people walking up and down the street. That’s just something you never saw before.”

‘A collaborative effort’

Among the new business owners are Jason Yates and Deveri Gifford, who opened a breakfast spot, the Brooklyn Street Local.

The Canadian couple chose Corktown after staying at Hostel Detroit and realizing the neighborhood was “the perfect spot” for their restaurant.

Fellow business owners have been overwhelmingly supportive.

“It’s a collaborative effort, rather than competitive,” Yates said. “It’s fun because we’re all doing this at the same time.”

Astro Coffee, which opened on Michigan Avenue last July, epitomizes that collaborative spirit.

Owner Dai Hughes was running out of money before he was set to open, so Phillip Cooley provided wooden tables, and David Kwiatkowski, in the process of opening a nearby cocktail bar, The Sugar House, helped with the metal work.

“We joke that it takes a whole village to raise a coffeehouse,” Cooley said. “Everyone wanted him to succeed.”

Hughes is returning the favor by helping with the development of the Detroit of Institute of Bagels, which will open nearby soon.

“You can’t be in it for yourself,” he said. “It just won’t work.”

A group of business owners — including Fulton from Mercury Burger and Tim Springstead, co-owner of the venerable Nemo’s sports bar, which survived the post-Tigers downturn — are teaming up to open an upscale Italian restaurant, Otto Via, on Michigan Avenue.

The new venture is just one way Springstead, who has worked at Nemo’s since 1965, has adapted the changing landscape.

“Business is better now than when Tiger Stadium was around,” he said.

A booming housing market

While there always has been some demand for housing in Corktown, things didn’t heat up until this spring.

Ryan Cooley, owner of O’Connor Real Estate and a partner in Slows with his brother, Phillip, said the new businesses have helped attract residents. Ryan owns seven rental units and works with landlords at about 50 units.

“There’s not one availability,” he said, noting he has never had to turn a prospective renter away until this spring. “We turn away at least one person a day.”

Also contributing to the demand is the Live Downtown initiative, which gives up to $2,500 the first year and $1,000 the second year for new renters in downtown, Corktown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park, Midtown and Woodbridge.

Among the new residents is Achille Bianchi, 27, who snagged a sought-after loft two months ago.

“The younger people (here) do a good job of integrating with the rest of the community,” he said. “Everything’s walkable down here, and I’m noticing more and more new faces. This is the spine of the revitalization of the city.”

Waves of newcomers

The influx of businesses and residents is prompting many to spruce up their yards and houses.

“It looks like everybody’s trying to make their houses better,” said Joel Quitoz, a 32-year Corktown resident who has been remodeling the façade of his century-old house. “It’s good for downtown.”

The idea of young people helping create a cohesive community doesn’t surprise the Rev. Russell Kohler of Most Holy Trinity in Corktown.

The church, he said, was founded in 1834 in the midst of a cholera epidemic.

Its founder, the Rev. Martin Kundig, then just 23, turned the church into a makeshift hospital and recruited Irish immigrants to serve as doctors and nurses, he said. That effort helped break down prejudices, something relevant today.

“There’s been some degree of alarm of a takeover, of gentrification,” Kohler said. “I have to remind the people that we welcomed (new residents) in the past.”

The latest wave of newcomers is reinstilling hope in the community.

“You’re seeing real leadership in these young people,” he said. “They’re bringing an attitude of fearlessness. They’re not afraid to invest and keep the roots of the community alive.”

By: Michael Martinez, The Detroit News