The commercial strip along Grosse Pointe Park's Kercheval Avenue is such a step back in time, such a throwback to another era that it could stand in as a ready-made movie set for 1930s-1940s-era Detroit. In fact, the area's Pointe Hardware was the backdrop for at least one big movie, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino
. Though it wasn't set in the pre-war era, the vintage feel definitely came through.
But this isn't a story about movie-making in Michigan. This is a story about an old-school business district that's served generations of the same families and is now verging on -- dare we say it in typically staid, once-upon-a-plaid-loving Grosse Pointe -- hip.
The five-block area between Beaconsfield and Alter Road, Grosse Pointe Park's border with Detroit, has become a draw for retail entrepreneurs, many of them women jumping on affordable start-up costs. They are opening businesses with an edginess, a creativity, an originality not found just a mile up Kercheval in the retail- and restaurant-chain heavy Village business district in the city of Grosse Pointe.
Where there's Einstein's or Bruegger's bagels in the Village, there's Fou d'Amour, a bakery and weekly dinner takeout spot here in The Park -- the new marketing moniker for the stretch of Kercheval in the Grosse Pointe Park. Where there's Starbucks and Caribou in the Village, in The Park there's Greengo's with its organic coffees and menu of daily, freshly prepared items on a menu for vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian eaters. Where there's Trader Joe's in the Village, in The Park sits Sprout House, a natural foods market that's a favorite with locals.
And in the latest nod to cool, on Charveloix, a street about two blocks over from Kercheval, Good Girls Go to Paris, a midtown Detroit creperie with a loyal metro Detroit following, has fired up its pans and French feel.
For the 45,000 or so residents living in the Pointes (Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Shores, Grosse Pointe and Grosse Pointe Farms), The Park is the Pointes' most alternative business district to be sure.
"I don't think we want to be like the Village or compete with the Village," or any other business district in the Pointes," says Joe Hebeka, a 29-year-old who's practically grown up here while working for Belding's Cleaners, owned for 33 years by his father, Fred Hebeka. "We can each have our own identities and our own loyal customers. Grosse Pointers are loyal if you give them good service," he says.
Hebeka took over his dad's business five years ago and not long after took the lead of the Grosse Pointe Park Business Association, which had gone dormant for several years. His sister moved away and lives in Chicago. He could have gone that route too. But he didn't want to give up the family business. He has worked at the cleaners, known for handling high-cost and specialty items, since age 15.
"I could easily be some kid who goes out of town every weekend, goes to Vegas to have a good time, but I want to be here. I want to see this succeed," he says. "The whole vision is different. Everyone is looking at it in a different way now," Hebeka explains. "It's got a cozy feel, a neighborhood feel, but it's becoming hip. We're on the brink. We need that one, big quality thing to push us to the next level.
"We already have younger people moving in," he adds.
That could be in part due to a program started by Jon Cotton of Grosse Pointe Park. His Grosse Pointe Park Housing Foundation has $250,000 in donations, with more coming, to cover the monthly rent (or part of the rent, with a maximum of $350) for students enrolled at Wayne State University, the College for Creative Studies or the University of Detroit Mercy. The goal is to attract younger residents, fill rental vacancies and also promote renovation in the neighborhood, something that's happening, city officials say. So far at least 50 students are part of the program.
"The housing program starts a chain reaction. Friends come to visit, they stay. The students who rent, they get here and they want to stay. They buy a house. They move up. They raise a family," Hebeka says.
Hebeka stops just shy of calling it a mini-Ferndale or Royal Oak. The Park has the eclectic mix and artsy feel of Ferndale and the commercial district and walkability of Royal Oak, but in miniature. One thing missing is entertainment such as movie theaters. Still, the change that's coming to this part of Grosse Pointe Park, a district surrounded by the city's most affordable housing -- neighborhoods known as the Cabbage Patch -- is due to a confluence of at least four things: the affordable entry price on business space for entrepreneurs, the rental subsidies, the resurgence of the business association, and a yearning for an alternative.
"There's a lot of history, a lot of history," says City Councilwoman Laurie Arora. "There's a pulse going on here. What I like about our business district is it's so earthy and it's so friendly. Not to take away from other business districts, it's just a different feel."
Family-owned businesses in The Park go back 10, 20, 30 even 80 years or more -- Pointe Pet Supply, Pointe Hardware, Janet's Lunch, and Belding's mix with newbies such as Bikram Yoga, Greengos and Park Grill, a Mediterranean restaurant that does a brisk carryout business, and Gabrielle's, a florist with unusual creations that fetch customers and premiums across and outside the Pointes. There are also art galleries, an antique shop, and a publishing house rubbing elbows with a mechanic, a pharmacy, a clothing resale shop, and a liquor store. It's a mix that appears to be working, drawing customers from across the Pointes rather than Grosse Pointe Park alone.
There are almost no commercial vacancies, except for one very noticeable spot, an Art Deco-style service station that is seen as the wick that will light a big fire if the right owner takes it over. Its size and its location make a linchpin in The Park district. The city is working with a veteran restaurateur to bring in a project, but it is too soon to say what that is. In the meantime, Dale Krajniak, Grosse Pointe Park city manager, says this district, which is one of four in the Park (the other three are along Charveloix, Mack and Jefferson) is on the upswing.
"I think it's improving and it's going to continue to improve. You're going to see it over the next few years," he says. "It has more of a cosmopolitan flair."
To call Grosse Pointe Park cosmopolitan when it often feels more Maybury isn't such a stretch when you consider the variety, from practical to privileged, that co-exist here. "You could come down here on a Saturday and run just about any errand you have," Hebeka boasts.
But what makes this neighborhood quaint could also work against it, including a lack of parking and places to grow. Krajniak says the uptick in the district is partly due to the arrival of new residents -- outsiders -- coming for the affordable home prices or for rent subsidies offered by the Cotton family, the members of whom live and have raised children in the Park and want to see it thrive.
No one likes seeing their property values go down, but the affordability is moving Grosse Pointe Park away from a place inhabited mostly by generations of Grosse Pointers to one where newcomers are more common.
"It used to be unless you had family on this side of town, or friends, it was unlikely you would come to this side of town," Krajniak says. "Now we're seeing people from Downriver, Dearborn, Oakland County…"
"And we're getting local businesses that people are appreciating much more and coming for."
Are we seriously talking about Grosse Pointe and the D-word -- destination -- in the same sentence?
People have long said the Pointes are too quiet, too far away from everything (namely Oakland County), but Pointers boasts about a 15-minute commute to downtown Detroit as well as the parks, schools, walkable neighborhoods and remarkable homes.
"I think it's a rediscovery of our community," Krajniak says. "I've got to say it's one of the quaintest communities you'll find in Southeast Michigan. People just don't know it unless you live here."
Hebeka says, "It's definitely a good time to start a business." He's dedicated to reviving the business association to spread the word. Monthly meetings started again, banners went up, and The Park sign was installed along with benches, either purchased by business owners or by donations.
"I wanted to have uniform vision," Hebeka says. He says the city has been crucial in making things happen, including having city employees assemble and install the benches outside businesses.
"Not only do they make it easy, they don't put a lot of red tape in front of us. That is a big part of this definitely," Hebeka says. "We all know how great it can be. We know we're on the cusp of something big."
Kim North Shine is Metromode's Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance wri
All Photos by David Lewinski
Good Girls Go To Paris
The Sprout House