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Future uncertain for most business districts outside of downtown Detroit

May 23, 2017

Update: 5/24/2017 The business, Hammer Time True Value Hardware, closed shortly after the interview with owner Bill Kamman. That leaves another substantial gap in the business district on E. Warren Avenue in the MorningSide neighborhood.

Bill Kamman of Hammer Time True Value in Detroit's MorningSide neighborhood.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

There are small business districts throughout Detroit that are barely hanging on. They were once thriving. But population loss and the loss of wealth in the neighborhoods have created hard times for neighborhood businesses. The question is: what to do with them now?

In the MorningSide neighborhood on Detroit’s east side, the main business strip is East Warren Avenue. It cuts through the center of the neighborhood.

Business owners who have been in the area for decades remember its best days.

“Eastern Warren used to be a major shopping spot,” said Bill Kamman, owner of Hammer Time True Value hardware store.

“There were businesses in every building on Warren,” explained Marilyn Nash Yazbeck who owns Nottingham Pharmacy.

“No matter what you needed, you could find it on Warren Avenue: the grocery stores, the party stores, the library, the movie theater, the bike store,” Patrick Maher of Eastside Locksmith said.

Bran Pikielek of Bike Tech continued, “...the tailor, an arcade, a woodworking store, five and dime, whatever.”

Eric Dueweke is a resident of Detroit's MorningSide neighborhood and a Lecturer in the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the Taubman College at the University of Michigan.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Back in the day, East Warren Avenue in MorningSide was so busy that finding a place to park was difficult and the sidewalks bustled into the evening.

On a driving tour of the neighborhood,  Eric Dueweke described the Warren Avenue strip in MorningSide today.

“I’d guess 50 percent are boarded up and then you see all these vacant spaces here. This is where buildings have recently been torn down,” he said.

Dueweke is a Lecturer in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan. He also lives in MorningSide.

“Really, this is a problem all over Detroit of "What do we do with our former retail strips that there really isn’t a demand for?' You know, people just don’t shop in these kinds of small businesses as much anymore,” Dueweke explained.

Demand is also down because there is not as much wealth in this neighborhood. Firefighters, police officers, and teachers once owned the homes in MorningSide. They left. Today many of the people here rent.

Bill Kamman of Hammer Time hardware store says that means his business has been cut in half in the last 15 years.

“It’s about not having money to buy stuff around here. They’re spending 60 to 70 percent of their money on rent and they don’t have the extra money to be working on houses and putting into stuff,” Kamman said.

With much of the neighborhood without disposable income, it’s risky for new businesses to fill those vacant storefronts.

Marilyn Nash Yazbeck owns Nottingham Pharmacy in Detroit's MorningSide neighborhood.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Marilyn Nash Yazbeck is the owner of Nottingham Pharmacy. She’s one of the few African American business owners in Morningside.

“I’m not really sure what will really thrive here because of the economics of the area,” she said.

The celebrated economic boom happening in downtown Detroit is not spilling over into the neighborhoods. Patrick Maher with Eastside Locksmiths owns the firm which been operating in MorningSide since 1939. He says the area needs a kick start.

“I understand that everybody wants to put the money downtown, but – and I mean not knowing a whole lot about a lot of the other neighborhoods, but knowing a lot about this particular one -  we need some help,” Maher said.

What kind of help? Bian Pickielek at Bike Tech has some ideas. He was the last president of the business association before it folded several years ago. He’d like the city to do a few things.

“…to quickly and efficiently take care of the abandoned buildings, boarded up, keep the neighborhood clean, safe, and lit,” Pickielek said.

Patrick Maher owns Eastside Locksmith which has operated in MorningSide since 1939.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

These days the lights are on. In the past, 40 percent of Detroit’s streetlights were out. With the huge replacement project, all of Detroit is now lit with LED streetlights.

Some neighborhoods have gotten grants to update facades of business district buildings. Recently, Mayor Mike Duggan announced three neighborhoods will be getting money to help rejuvenate business and improve the area. Thirty million dollars of public and private money is being made available to the Fitzgerald/University District, the West Village on the east side and southwest Detroit near Clark Park.

A recent press release indicates the City of Detroit is now “seeking proposals for planning and design services to create a neighborhood and economic development strategy in three additional neighborhoods: Russell Woods/Nardin Park, Jefferson Chalmers, and Campau/Banglatown.” 

Bill Kamman at Hammer Time hardware is not sure now if MorningSide is ready for economic development.

Brian Pikielek owns Bike Tech. He was the last president of a business association along East Warren Avenue. It ceased to exist several years ago.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“I don’t think that this side of Detroit has hit bottom yet. So, maybe throwing good money after bad where other neighborhoods are showing signs of a rebirth or something. That money might be better used in those areas than here,” Kamman said.

That’s not a sentiment many of the residents share. They’ve seen a few new stores recently open along East Warren Avenue. They seem to be doing well. The residents are hoping for more and they want the City of Detroit to do what it can to encourage that development.

This story was updated to indicate one of the featured business closed shortly after interviewing the owner.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.