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The long road to renovating a Detroit neighborhood jewel

Jul 25, 2017

The Alger Theater today is owned by the non-profit Friends of Alger Theater. Work on the exterior is exciting news for the surrounding neighborhoods.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Across Detroit, neighborhoods are trying to figure out what they can do to remake their community. One neighborhood is pinning hopes on something it still has that most of Detroit’s other neighborhoods lost years ago.

There used to be dozens of movie theaters scattered across Detroit’s neighborhoods. Nearly all of them have been closed and demolished. There are a handful left. One of them is the Alger Theater  in the MorningSide neighborhood on Detroit’s east side.

Paul Phillips is a board member of the MorningSide Community Organization. He says the Alger was once central to the area, a gathering place that helped keep the business district along East Warren Avenue buzzing.

“The Alger was one of our cornerstone facilities here in the MorningSide area. There’s been a long history of the Alger theater and we’ve been hoping that it would be restored soon,” he said.

Paul Philips got a peek inside the Alger Theater. "We’ve been hoping that it would be restored soon," he said as he learned more about the plans.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Alger opened in 1935. With no TV or internet, the movie theater was a major source of entertainment. Plus, it had air conditioning long before it was common in homes.

But, by the 1980s, the Alger had fallen on hard times.

A non-profit group formed in 1983. The Friends of the Alger Theater bought the building a couple of years later. For more than three decades, the group has been slowly renovating the theater.

“We are looking to activate a community center here on the corner of Warren and Outer Drive that serves these east side community members,” said Friends of Alger board member Melissa Bunker. The group has high hopes for the facility and the value the members expect it will have for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Melissa Bunker is a board member of the Friends of Alger Theater. The group is slowly renovating the theater for the use of the surrounding neighborhoods on Detroit's east side.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“It will be available for their use. We will do programming as well as hopefully house different performing arts groups, could be educational groups. We are going to be doing all things including film,” she continued.

As you look around, there are parts of the theater that look OK. Then there are other parts that are damaged. There are exposed pipes because the once ornate plaster work is rotting. The paint is peeling. Bunker agrees it’s a little rough.

“We have a lot of work. What we’ve done thus far is work that you can’t see. We’ve done asbestos remediation. It’s expensive. It’s not sexy. And, no one can see it,” she explained.

The group is now working on the outside of the building. It wants the surrounding neighborhoods to see there is progress.

Paul Phillips with the MorningSide Community Orgnization says the residents are talking about the Alger.

“People are wondering what’s getting ready to happen there, especially since they’ve been redoing the storefronts there. People are wondering what’s going in there. And then there’s also been a buzz since last summer that there’s going to something happening on the rooftop. They’ve seen sketches, but no one has really seen what’s going to be there. So, there’s excitement,” he said.

A rendering of the planned rooftop patio at the Alger Theater.
Credit Courtesy: Friends of the Alger Theater

The rooftop will be the site of a patio.

One of the stores that’s going in the street-level spaces is an ice cream parlor. Christopher Reilly is renovating a storefront now.

“I have my own creamery, Reilly Craft Creamery, located here in Detroit. And, I want to open up a retail location here at the Alger theater,” he said.

Reilly lives in the East English Village neighborhood which is adjacent to MorningSide. Reilly says opening in one of the booming neighborhoods such as Midtown or Corktown might be a better business decision, but that’s not where he’s going.

“Those neighborhoods don’t need any help. I really kind of see the seeds of a real turnaround and renaissance (on Detroit’s east side). But, no one is going to move over here unless there are some cool services. And, I’m really excited about this Alger project because I think this project is going to serve to really be like the anchor of these neighborhoods in the area to finally see some resurgence,” he said.

Christopher Reilly is refurbishing one of the street-level retail areas. He owns a craft creamery and plans to open an ice cream parlor.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The added benefit is that the Alger Theater will have a tenant, a regular source of income to supplement the non-profit’s fundraising efforts.

Melissa Bunker with Friends of Alger says the theater does not have to be perfect to be used. The group had about a third of the seats fixed and cleaned for some past events, including a presentation by Mayor Mike Duggan and the first showing of a movie in three decades (see story here). Bunker says the Alger can once again be a venue to hold events and performances for the surrounding neighborhoods and the next door Grosse Pointe suburbs.

“We’re in a very unique geographic position to be able to draw a very large market. And, we can seat – when we get these seats up and going – 600-700 people. Where can you do that? Nowhere,” she declared.

There’s optimism among the group’s members, but Bunker says what they still need are more volunteers and more money to bring the Alger back for Detroit’s east side.

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.