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Bridge Michigan
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Detroit, a tale of two cities – and worth checking out

Things are pretty tough in Detroit, what with an emergency manager and a possible bankruptcy lurking just around the corner. But despite that, there are enough good things going – the Midtown boom, Dan Gilbert’s investments, Mike Ilitch’s plans and the M1 rail line – to give some hope that things are turning around here.

Those are all big deals, but let’s take a closer look at some developments in the city that don’t get a lot of media attention, but are just as important ub making the city livable and likable. You can’t put your arms around the whole city but here are a few spots worth checking out.

Willis Village: Everybody has heard about Midtown and the big institutions that anchor it. The corner of Cass and Willis Streets, known as Willis Village, is an enclave within Midtown that helps give the neighborhood its allure. The strip along Willis off Cass has been a hipster hangout for decades.

The trendsetting Del Pryor Gallery is right on the corner, with the Tulani Rose gift shop inside. In former years the Spiral Collective, the Cass Corridor Food Co-op and legendary Cobb’s Corner jazz club inhabited this space. Next along the strip is Flo, a boutique selling clothing, accessories and small home furnishings. Then there is Goodwell’s Market, a natural food store and restaurant. At the far end is Avalon International Breads, a gathering spot for locals. Avalon is getting ready to move a block over next to the Traffic Jam restaurant, but it’s hard to imagine its current space (that once housed the Willis Gallery) will stay empty long in a burgeoning neighborhood.

On the other side of Cass, the Auburn building has ground-floor retail (with lofts upstairs) including two restaurants, the Source Booksellers, Butcher’s’ Daughter contemporary art gallery, Hugh, an upscale men’s fashion shop, and Nora, its feminine counterpart. This area, once known more for prostitution and drugs, has stepped up in a big way.

Brightmoor Alliance: Located on Detroit’s far west side, Brightmoor was a neighborhood the city forgot. However, several years ago, the Brightmoor Alliance was established to help access resources for education, jobs, safety, blight, recreation and more. Community members have embraced urban agriculture; there are more than two dozen community gardens in addition to numerous family gardens and a handful of market gardens – beekeeping is growing there as well as chickens, rabbits and even a few goats.

Community members have built a butterfly garden, a nature trail leading into nearby Howell Park and turned an abandoned house into a community stage. There is a youth garden where young people learn about growing food, and also sell it at a nearby market. Brightly colored signs throughout the area show the neighborhood pride as block by block residents are cleaning up and taking charge of their environment.

Blight Busters: The Motor City Blight Busters started 23 years ago when drug dealers who had taken over an abandoned home partied too hearty one night.  The next morning, John George, who lived on the street behind the drug house, began boarding up the place. Some neighbors came out to help him and the Blight Busters was born. Since then the group has parlayed hundreds of thousands of volunteers and volunteer hours into securing, tearing down or fixing up houses.

Blight Busters has made the block of Lahser north of Grand River, where the historic Redford Theater is located, a community development center. Sweet Potato Sensations, which recently began selling its products at Detroit’s new Whole Foods store, is located there. Java House café, Ray-Ann’s Wardrobe resale shop, and the Artists Village community stage were all established with Blight Buster aid. Now the group has started clearing off two full blocks in order to establish Farm City Detroit. One enduring aspect of the farm is already planted -- a fig tree brought by George’s grandmother from Italy when she immigrated here.

Central Detroit Christian: They used to call the area Piety Hill for all churches nearby on Woodward Avenue. Central Detroit Christian, a community nonprofit, has laid claim to the area just north of the New Center in an effort to revitalize the neighborhood. CDC has established Detroit’s first fish farm as a for-profit enterprise. Other businesses under its umbrella include Peaches and Greens produce market, Café Sonshine, Higher Ground Landscaping, Restoration Warehouse and Solid Rock Property management. Spreading a little piety around seems like a good thing.

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