Corktown: Will Ford's move transform inner-city neighborhood, and with it Detroit?
By Allie Gross
Detroit Free Press
June 22. 2018 12:48AM
Workers set up for the upcoming train station party at Michigan Central Station in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood on June 13, 2018, to celebrate Ford Motor Company's purchase of the long-vacant building. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/tns)
— In 1979, Jerry Esters was working on the roof of a property he had inherited from his father in North Corktown when he had an epiphany: He could see downtown. First the train station, then the downtown skyline.
The property at 14th and Perry had been in the family for years, but as Esters sat perched on the shingles, he couldn't help but marvel at just how close he was to the heart of Detroit.
“It was like, right there, and you didn't have to go anywhere to see the fireworks. You could be right there and see them,” the retiree, who worked as a clay sculptor at Fiat Chrysler for 33 years, said Tuesday.
It was in that moment that Esters realized he had to begin investing in the neighborhood. He had to preserve his family's properties. He had to work to refurbish and maintain anything else he could get his hands on in the community that he had grown up in. A community that was cratering under disinvestment.
“I was making good money so I just kept buying up buildings as they came up and became available,” said Esters.
Today, the 56-year-old owns seven buildings in the neighborhood — six properties on 14th Street between Temple and Perry and a two-family duplex on the corner of Vermont and Temple — and 30 lots.
Esters' foresight to invest in the neighborhood was underscored Monday when it was officially announced by Matthew Moroun that the iconic and long-vacant Michigan Central Station that his family picked up at a tax auction in the 1990s had been sold to Ford Motor Company.
“With Ford coming, to me what that says is that the city is turning around big-time,” Esters pronounced, adding that he is most excited to see downtown Detroit's boundaries expand.
“Downtown used to stop at the Lodge; now it's going to expand to where the train station is,” he said. “It's going to be a lot of little things that are going to add up and make downtown more like Chicago — a bigger downtown.”
News of Ford's purchase of the derelict but seminal train station and its purchase and renovation of an old factory on Michigan that now houses Ford high-tech workers, has not only re-ignited discussions about the future of Corktown, it is resetting the image of what Corktown can be.
The potential transformation, from having such a powerful company as an anchor in the community, is unfathomable. It calms fears from some who are anxious about being left behind but also spurs excitement from others who look forward to seeing the return to a community that once was densely populated and thriving.
“I feel I used my money wisely,” Esters said. “I invested back where I started.”
Re-imagining a neighborhood staple
Pat Springstead, the owner of Nemo's in Corktown, was in a meeting in 2013 with an associate from Soave Enterprise, the Detroit-based development firm, when he made a comment about how a lot people were beginning to move to Corktown.
“Pretty soon, there needs to be a development for places for folks to live,” Springstead remembers telling the associate. The developer didn't agree. He told Springstead the need just didn't seem to be there.
Fast forward five years and Soave is in the midst of erecting Elton Park, a $44-million retail and housing project on Trumbull just north of Michigan Avenue.
“I'm not a soothsayer,” Springstead said with a laugh. He was just, he said, paying attention.
While shifts in the neighborhood have been on Springstead's mind for some time — and he has been eager to hear about new projects like Elton Park and the Corner, nearby at the old Tiger's Stadium site _ Ford's big news is, he said, a game changer. It also means that the bar, which has been around for 53 years, is beginning to consider how it will fit into the ever-changing landscape.
“All these years we've really been a sports bar. Shuttling people to sports events has been our bread and butter,” said Springstead. That won't stop, he said, but the bar will take into account the morphing demographics.
“We certainly are looking to the future to move our place, Nemo's, more into the area where younger folks who will work at Ford and live in the neighborhood will find more appealing.”
Some changes to come: updates to the building to make it “more open,” a diversified menu and extended hours.
When asked about upticks in menu prices or changes to the vibe of the neighborhood restaurant beloved for its unpretentious and easygoing atmosphere and affordable, no-fuss burgers, Springstead scoffed.
“We'll obviously be spending money to improve the kitchen and facilities, so one would expect prices to go up,” Springstead said, though he has every intention to “keep prices competitive and affordable for people in the neighborhood.”
“I think people have a negative look at gentrification; people always think of increased property costs and rents and I think that's a disservice. Most everything all of us do is market driven and when things improve, the market improves, obviously, prices change,” he said.
Hope just over the bridge
Down the road from Nemo's is another long-standing establishment _ Hygrade Deli.
Stuart Litt's restaurant is less than a mile west from the train station _ a 3-minute drive in the car. But despite the proximity, there is a barrier: An overpass atop the Jeffries Freeway. It's the marker that divides Corktown from its neighbor, Core City, where Hygrade is located.
While new development is edging closer, it has, for the most part, stopped just short of the freeway and the 63-year-old Litt is waiting for the day that it comes west.
“I'm one mile away, but this bridge is a barrier,” said Litt, who pointed out that some newcomers — who were later criticized — tried renaming the area "West Corktown" to try to associate it with its popular neighbor.
While the new moniker didn't stick, Ford now brings Litt hope that the development to the east will begin to trickle toward him.
“Everybody that I talk to — people with businesses or something to do with southwest Detroit — they've all been saying for years, 'Once Corktown gets to where there ain't no more room for anybody, they're all coming across this bridge this way.' While I haven't seen that yet, everybody says the same thing," he said, noting that there are several abandoned and dilapidated buildings surrounding Hygrade that he knows speculators are sitting on, just waiting for the payoff to come.
"They're hoping people will come in and offer them five times what they bought it for and will do something about it," said Litt.
The Ford purchase of the train station is a surprising turn of events, for the business owner who has seen the neighborhood _ and his business _ vacillate over the decades, and for a while, it really didn't feel like a rebound would happen.
"There was at least a 20-year struggle where it was hard for the business to make money," said Litt, explaining that he got behind "personally and professionally."
Litt's father, Bernie Litt, bought Hygrade Deli in 1972 from its original owner, Nate Stutz. The restaurant was first opened inside the popular Western Market just down the road but was ultimately demolished for the creation of the Jeffries Freeway _ the freeway that has since become a physical and mental obstacle for Litt nearly half a century later.
After the creation of the freeway, the deli was moved to its current location on Michigan Avenue just east of West Grand Boulevard. Litt doesn't remember how much his father, paid for the deli, but he knows the building was ultimately purchased a few years later for $20,000.
At the time that Litt took over, a Cadillac assembly plant sat kitty-corner from the restaurant. Hygrade _ with its affordable sandwiches _ became a lunch hangout for the workers. When the plant slowly began to close down _ much of the business moving to Pole Town _ business began to peter out as well.
"It wasn't a steep drop; it was a slow decline," Litt said, adding that around the same time that the Cadillac plant closed in the 1980s, workers and residents began to move out of the city as well. "It wasn't fun," Litt said, noting that the Great Recession of 2008 felt like the final nail in the coffin.
"We dug ourselves into a hole," he said, adding that had he been "smarter," he perhaps would have packed it in and closed up shop during that time.
Luckily, he didn't.
Business, he estimates, began picking up again in the last five or six years. Litt credits people, such as Quicken employees, coming downtown. But he also is grateful for social media, which has allowed his business to get the word out, without having to pay for advertising. The result is a business that _ with Ford or not _ has been on the upswing.
"It has value now just because Detroit has come back; the last five years is going in totally the opposite direction of the '80s when it slowed down. When I look in my bookkeeping at home, my year-end sales prove it," said Litt. He estimates that his sales have increased by 25 percent over the last decade.
"Maybe more, I'm not good with numbers," he laughed.
Litt expects sales to go up with the potential of Ford workers as new customers. He also said he believes the value of his property will rise.
"I don't know what the value of my empire is right here; I might have an idea based on what I've seen sell in Corktown and what I've seen in similar situations," he said, estimating that his building, should he ever sell it, could be worth about $200,000 to $300,000.
He is not, however, looking to sell. Instead, he's anxious to see what happens around him and how his business will benefit from the newcomers _ what could be what he calls "Cadillac Days" again.
"I'm excited for what Ford can do for the area and potentially what they can do for me," he said, noting that in an ideal future, the movement of Ford to the train station will mean that Hygrade is packed once again. "Dine in, carry out. I'm full service," he said.
Still, Litt is thoughtful. And he's aware of his patron base. While others may try to capitalize on the changing demographics of southwest Detroit, Litt is not one of them. Just because Ford is coming in, doesn't mean prices are going to skyrocket. He doesn't want to lose those who have been with him during the rough times.
"People don't understand that in this area, I have to deal with the affluent and the well-to-do _ people from Quicken or Ford Motor Company _ but I also have to deal with the people from the neighborhood. People who are low income and on a fixed income," he said, noting that in January he raised sandwich prices by 50 cents to reflect the rising food costs. It was his first menu increase in three years and an agonizing process.
"I realize that people have been coming in here for years and I don't want to shut the door on them by raising prices more than they can afford. I still think about those people," he said, later adding: "Maybe I'm cheating myself. But I'm trying to keep the customers I got. I want them to know they can get a decent meal at a reasonable price."
Still, while Litt doesn't want to shut out his current customer base, he remains hopeful that development will eventually make its way over the bridge.
"If it wasn't Ford, the area would still resurge, it just wouldn't be as fast," Litt said.
A newer resident of Corktown
For Alex Lauer, a Detroit real estate agent and Corktown homeowner, this trickle effect that Litt discussed is real. It's just a matter of time before the spillover happens in Core City.
"Ninety percent of people in life need an example to follow in order to do something," said Lauer, who moved to Corktown in 2011 and remembers people calling him "crazy" when he purchased his home.
"I'm sure others heard that, too," he said, noting that just a year later he started to notice an uptick in interest in the neighborhood and more people and development moving in. "People just need to see others do what they want to do first, and then they go do it."
While Lauer may have been an early buyer in the neighborhood, he is quick to point out that much of the neighborhood consists of those like Esters, who have been there for decades.
"There are still a lot of original residents in Corktown who have seen the worst of times and they held out," Lauer said Monday. "For a lot of people, I don't think it's a real estate thing so much as where they've lived. A home is a home. You can't always put a price on it."
The shifting dynamics in the neighborhood are exciting to Lauer, but he is quick to point out the importance of dialogue between developers and newcomers and respect for those who have always called the neighborhood home.
"As far as developers and big companies moving back in, they have to really be in touch with the community," said Lauer, explaining that these conversations can help set the tone for how development and gentrification can work together.
"It doesn't all have to be these horrible stories that you hear," he said, noting that it's complicated, especially since there is no exact protocol for how to develop an area. "I think people need to be aware of the history of these areas that they come into and who is there, who's been there, what they do, and engage everyone as much as possible."
The conversations Lauer prescribes are in many ways the foundations of Community Benefits Agreements, which require developers to meet with residents to discuss a project's community impact.
Under Proposal B, which passed in November 2016, any project with $75 million in investments _ including tax abatements or below market-value land transfers _ must go through the process.
It is likely that a project, such as the renovation of the train station will hit this threshold many times over. CBAs also go into effect if a project gets a tax break or other economic incentives. It is unclear what is in the works between Ford and the City of Detroit.
Some community members have started to prep and ask questions.
"Over the years, there have been so many rumors about development happening in that community," Linda Campbell of the Equitable Detroit Coalition told the Detroit Free Press in March when rumors of the possible sale began to bubble.
"My first reaction is always, what will this development mean for residents in the community and nearby communities and the city of Detroit at large? What kind of public investment _ if any _ will be made? Is it something that will get taxpayers on the hook for corporate development? These are details we need to take a look at as citizens to see if this is truly a development project that is going to make a difference for the everyday Detroiter."
For those like Campbell, there is also a huge irony when it comes to any developments in Corktown. In 2014, at the request of Mayor Mike Duggan, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr disbanded Detroit's Citizens District Councils, which were neighborhood coalitions given a direct line to city government _ and a voice in local development projects _ in urban renewal zones.
The Corktown Citizens' District Council had been one of the most robust and active of the community groups.
"It wiped them out as a formal structure," said Campbell, who is critical of the Community Benefits Agreements legislation that has been viewed by some as a replacement of the citizens' councils.
So far in Detroit, only six projects have been subjected to the law _ four of them Dan Gilbert initiatives. The results, according to a spring report from WDET, have been a lot of talk and not many actual benefits.
"WDET found that after 12 weeks of community benefits talks with residents across the four projects, Bedrock committed to two community benefits in its agreements with the city. The first: Bedrock would communicate with residents about construction-related activity. And the second: Bedrock would support job training initiatives, something the company has been doing for years," the WDET report stated.
For Esters and others, there is excitement about what Corktown and the surrounding neighborhoods can become, but also a desire to see permanent change.
"I'm not really there trying to capitalize on money as much as I am trying to see the neighborhood come back to when I was a kid," Esters said. "When it was beautiful."