Joe Gulawsky vividly remembers how his parents had their family home in Hazel Park lifted and then shifted one housing lot over to make room for the Interstate 75 (I-75) freeway that came through in the mid-1960s.
Looking around the original 1955 house on W Mapledale Avenue, where he grew up with his two younger siblings, he points to the dining room, explaining that it would have been in the service drive of the freeway.
“My father worked in construction, so it wasn’t a big deal to him to move it. They put these massive beams under the house and jacked it up off the ground – the process took two weeks, and we lived in it the whole time.”
“We cleaned up the leftover bricks from the move to build the garage we have now. Dad gave me 2 cents per brick to scrape off the mortar. Man, that was hard work, but it was a lot of money for me at the time.”
The Gulawsky family’s do-it-yourself attitude seems to be a common trait for Hazel Park residents. The city, known for its blue-collar beginnings, has been tipped as the next suburb for the kind of gentrification seen in neighboring Royal Oak and Ferndale.
But Hazel Park is remaining steadfastly true to its origins, and business owners, city planners, students, and residents are quick to explain how Hazel Park is doing its “own thing”.
Staying true to its roots
“Hazel Park is the next Hazel Park,” says Chef James Rigato, owner of the renowned Mabel Gray restaurant that opened on John R Road in 2015.
“Blue collar implies people who get their hands dirty for a living,” he says. “The people who wake up early, show up and perform. I find that work ethic inspiring and it certainly resonates with who – and what – Mabel is. The community is growing, and new businesses are proving to be a good investment. I feel like everyone who is coming to Hazel Park wants to join, and contribute – not change.”
James Rigato at Mabel Gray
Rigato has made Hazel Park his own home, purchasing and renovating a house last year.
“I love the D.I.Y. attitude of Hazel Park,” he says. “There are so many residents who work hard on their home, yard, and neighborhood – despite many of the struggles of the last 10-plus years.”
“Not to mention, we have Loui’s Pizza, which is half of the reason I came to Hazel Park in the first place.”
Loui’s, which opened on Dequindre Road in the mid-1950s, is one of the stalwart eateries in Hazel Park, along with the Kozy Lounge on 10 Mile Rd, established in 1962.
Rigato has also recently purchased a 1965 ice-cream stand, Doug’s Delights, on John R Road, with plans to re-establish the dairy trade there. Pastry Chef Kristina Conger will be making desserts in the spot for Mabel Gray, but the iconic parlor will also serve street-food fare.
Nothing fancy, Rigato warns. “Hazel Park doesn’t need more fancy food,” he says.
Gulawsky believes many of the established businesses have survived because they cater to the residents around them, such as burger and pizza joints, but also second-hand appliance stores and services that rely on word-of-mouth.
“If you ask someone where to get your car fixed, they’ll tell you ‘go to see Bob down on John R.’”
New-comer Joebar (also on John R Road) takes its cue from these longstanding establishments, with a focus on catering to ‘the average Joe’ with beers, sandwiches, and dips. The bar opened last year, and co-owner Joe Vaughn speaks highly of his patrons.
“We have the best guests and regulars coming to us in Hazel Park,” Vaughn says. “They are down-to-earth and keep us grounded.”
joebar . Photo courtesy joebar.
“Our clientele is a crazy cool mix of college-aged kids, blue-collar workers, city officials, suburbanites and city dwellers. Hazel Park is a smack-dab, fantastic geographic point in our community.”
This hasn’t stopped the success of trendy culinary venture Frame, another restaurant by Vaughn and his wife, Cari. Located behind Joebar, the revolving hub hosts popular chefs on a short-term residency.
“We’ve played host to the most amazing chefs this past year - from the likes of James Rigato, Craig Lieckfelt, George Azar, and Luciano DelSignore,” says Vaughn.
Vaughn is also a professional photographer, so Frame doubles as a food studio by day for commercial and editorial clients. With the popularity of such an experimental food style and edgy photography, you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s room for gentrification in Hazel Park. Not so, argues Vaughn.
“I think the term ‘cool suburb’ for Hazel Park is natural and well-deserved,” he says “It doesn't feel forced and gentrified, which is what is the cool part about it.”
The tension is not lost on city leaders.
“What we're trying to focus on,” explains City Manager Ed Klobucher, “is making sure that we communicate with potential developers about the identity we're looking for. We're trying to say, ‘Look, we're never going to be Ferndale. We don't want to be Ferndale.’”
“We are our own,” Planning and Economic Development Director Jeff Campbell agrees. “We have our unique character with a little bit more blue collar. We're a little edgier.”
Gulawsky says residents in Hazel Park also look out for each other in a way that’s not common in other neighborhoods.
“I get a sense people here have a tie to the city,” he says. “They’ve grown up here or have returned here. It’s fairly close-knit.”
“I've lived in Hazel Park my whole life,” says Klobucher. “I always knew this was a cool place to live…now just the rest of the world is finding this out.”
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The road to recovery
It was only a few years ago that the city of Hazel Park was in trouble. Like many of Michigan's older inner-ring suburbs, the 2008 financial crisis left the city of 16,587 hurting as a result of declining state revenue and capped property taxes (don’t bring up Proposal A).
“We were on the ropes,” Klobucher admits, “We were hanging by a thread for a few years after that crash in property values.”
“We're more stable now,” says Klobucher, “If you are managing any of these older inner-ring suburban communities, you're going to be facing financial challenges. It's especially acute in the city of Hazel Park because we were hit harder than any other community in the tri-county area by the property value crash of 2008.”
Ed Klobucher and Jeff Campbell
These days, Klobucher describes the city's finances as "cautiously stable."
Much of the current stability comes with a “make lemonade” attitude, and Klobucher says the community is proud of the way it has rebounded.
“There was no way for us to be able to grow our way out of this,” Klobucher explains, “There was no more available land. We are largely fully built out. We've tried to redevelop where we can, and we've had some success with that."
Klobucher points to the Tri-County Commerce Center which opened last year at 1400 E. 10 Mile Rd. The center is set to bring over 200 jobs to the area, with companies such as Amazon and LG Electronics establishing businesses there.
In 2016, Hazel Park was one of four “legacy projects” conducted by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), which focused on creating a walkable and connected downtown area. It was something community members were eager to be a part of.
“We had amazing attendance and great participation,” says Campbell.
CNU’s report found that, despite deteriorating over the past 50 years, the corridor along John R road between 8 Mile and 10 Mile “bears the potential to become the civic and communal heart of the city.”
Better pedestrian access, a distinct culinary district and a distinct arts and entertainment district were suggested in the planning, with a mixture of historic and new buildings.
“They developed basically from what had already started organically,” Campbell says, “We're looking to formalize that as we revise our master plan.”
True to the self-made attitude of Hazel Park, the city won’t be hiring outside consultants for the vision. “We plan to do it in-house,” says Klobucher. “We have resources that we can draw upon to help us, assist us with this process."
A real estate market heats up
One of the major differences between Hazel Park and its more gentrified neighboring suburbs is the house prices. Despite prices rising dramatically (13.4 percent in the last two years), Hazel Park hasn’t seen the boom that some of its neighboring suburbs have.
“I think property values need to go up here,” Gulaswky admits. “We have a cheaper reputation, but the other side is that it’s affordable.”
“I think that's one of the reasons why we're seeing so much interest,” says Klobucher.
The city is also part of the non-profit Cities for Urban Revitalization and Enhancement (Land C.U.R.E.), which is dedicated to improving housing and vacant spaces in Hazel Park. The group purchases houses from Oakland County through the tax foreclosure process and places owner-occupants in the homes.
“Basically, it has helped stabilize comps, and the rule is that you have to stay in a house five years,” says Klobucher. “You can sell within two years, but if you sell it you have to sell it to somebody else who's going to be an owner-occupant for the remaining three.”
“We've had some great sales in the last few years.”
Homes in Hazel Park.
The CNU report also recommended row housing for Hazel Park, which is something the city confirmed it is considering for the future.
“We have more interest from people coming here than we have available land,” says Klobucher. “It's all about hooking up somebody who wants to be in Hazel Park with some available land with somebody who wants to sell, or wants to rent, at a reasonable price.”
Convincing landlords to sell, rather than rent investment properties, is one of the struggles that is holding Hazel Park back, says Klobucher. It’s something that bothers business owners like Rigato as well.
“Landowners should price their buildings for their appraised value and not an inflated rate hoping for a gold rush,” Rigato says. “We have an 11,000 square foot CVS building that has been vacant for a decade, asking almost $1 million, right across from Mabel Gray. [It’s an] absolute blight, benefiting no one.”
“There’s no real easy solution to that,” says Klobucher. “There's no magic bullet.”
Other plans for the city include slowing down the traffic flow between 10 Mile and I-75 and possibly connecting bike lanes with Ferndale's’ at Woodward Heights. Three new smaller retail centers on 8 Mile and Dequindre also include a Save A Lot grocery store, Tim Horton’s, and plans for a Secretary of State office.
Whatever the future brings for Hazel Park, its residents seem willing to roll up their sleeves and face it head-on.
“I feel that if you want to work hard and invest in a community that works harder than most, come on in,” says Rigato, “Grab a shovel or a paint brush.”
Just don’t call it ‘the next Ferndale’.
All photos by JOE POWERS InSitu Photography