May 15, 2007 at 1:00 am

Funky Ferndale

Cool vibe draws shop owners to Nine Mile

FERNDALE -- Fashionable. Fabulous. Funky.

These days, fashionable again applies to Ferndale. With eclectic shops and boutiques selling everything from high-end designer apparel to vintage clothing, Ferndale's thriving business district at Woodward and Nine Mile is certainly avant-garde.

Fabulous? That works, too. Where else in Metro Detroit will you find a bank that devotes more floor space to the works of local artists than, well, banking? Or a store like Beautiful Home, where owner Violeine Oliver puts her contemporary touch on mahogany and teak furniture made in Africa?

And funky? Well, these days that's the F-word most commonly used to describe Ferndale, which has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past decade. Underscoring the funkiness are places like Boogie Fever on Woodward, a nightclub that pays homage to the music of the 1970s and 1980s, and American Pop, a small shop selling nostalgia to baby boomers.

"My store motto is, 'Visit my American Pop store in Ferndale and see how Royal Oak was before it became Birmingham,' " says Wyll Lewis, who opened his emporium in a former shoe store 18 months ago. "There are not a lot places anymore where you can walk around in a friendly downtown."

But Ferndale is more than that. It's a vibe. It's something in the air, something visitors, shoppers, business owners and residents feel whether they're browsing storefronts, discoing at Boogie Fever or taking in a concert at the Magic Bag.

"Ferndale has a Bohemian feel," observes Keith Priemer, who owns Contempo Home, an accessories and furnishings boutique on Nine Mile that also sells fresh flowers. "It's very artsy. It's very earthy. It's eco-friendly, which is real cool. People who live here care about where they live and support local businesses. It's got that small-town feel."

Adding to that vibe, says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority, is a sense that "you can come here and be comfortable in your own skin and not be judged for that." In addition to a diverse mix of entrepreneurs, such tolerance has attracted a large population of gays and lesbians to Ferndale, which is home to a gay, lesbian and transgender community center, Affirmations.

It's been a long journey to fabulousness

The funkiness didn't happen overnight.

Not too long ago, the onetime shopping hub, one of the first storefront clusters along Woodward north of Detroit, was littered with empty retail shells and had become known more for its massage parlors and X-rated movies than merchants. Gone were the days when "fashionable" Ferndale was a shopping mecca with stalwarts such as Federal's Department Store, Cunningham Drugs, Hagelstein's Bakery, Sanders and Kresge's. Shopping malls and a population shift to outlying suburbs contributed to its decline.

"It didn't help that we were so close to the first shopping mall in the country," says Sheppard-Decius, referring to Northland Mall in Southfield.

Ferndale's latest incarnation got started about a decade ago. The city created a pedestrian-friendly environment by narrowing West Nine Mile into two lanes, adding parking and sprucing up the streetscape with new lights, trees and flowers. Businesses were encouraged to improve storefronts, with the city offering them a 20 percent reimbursement for exterior renovations.

Those physical improvements, coupled with competitive downtown lease rates and the city's affordable stock of bungalows, helped the transformation of this bedroom community, which came into its own after the opening of the Ford Highland Park Plant and the burgeoning growth following World War I. The trolley lines that ran along the median of Woodward lured Detroiters northward; most of the city's housing was built between 1920 and 1945.

Today, city officials proudly point out the low commercial vacancy rate.

"It's really nice in these hard economic times to be a community where the pace of development and redevelopment has slowed but has not come to a complete halt," says City Manager Robert Bruner. "There are still businesses moving in, not only downtown but along other corridors."

Cool, unique businesses thrive

Kelly Pettibone, who opened Naka, an indie boutique on West Nine Mile a year and half ago, is among the new retailers.

"I opened a business here for the same reasons I chose to live here," says Pettibone, who sells her own handmade jewelry and specially designed T-shirts. "I like the diversity. It's interesting. It's funky, without being pretentious. It's been good, and I think it's just getting better, with more and more stores opening."

After scouting the region, Jim Monahan returned to his hometown to open a 1,500-square-foot Irish gift shop -- The Twisted Shamrock -- in the former F & M store; sharing the building with Buffalo Wild Wings, a locally owned franchise and one of the few chains in Ferndale.

"Ferndale's a great location," Monahan says. "There are lots of things happening in Ferndale. It's kind of a funky, fresh place. You have a little bit of everything."

Maile Ilac Boeder, executive director of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, has been on the job for about 15 months. One of the reasons she chose to work in Ferndale was because it's "exploding with energy."

"We've got so many cool things here in Ferndale," she says. "I've been to Troy, Birmingham, Royal Oak, but none of them are Ferndale. We're Ferndale and we know what we are. We're unique and we have a lot of positive energy. We have diversity. We're the very definition of the word. We're quite proud, and I don't mind bragging about my own town."

You can reach Greg Tasker at (313) 222-1872 or gtasker@detnews.com">gtasker@detnews.com.

The bustling Woodward-Nine Mile area, seen in 1965, is experiencing a ... (Detroit News file)
A policeman directs traffic at Woodward and Nine Mile in the 1920s from a ... (Ferndale Historical Society photo)
An eclectic mix of restaurants and boutiques attracts shoppers to the Nine ... (Heather Rousseau / Special to The Detroit News)
An atmosphere of tolerance has attracted many gays and lesbians to ... (Heather Rousseau / Special to The Detroit News)
"There are lots of things happening in Ferndale," says Jim ...
The popular Boogie Fever nightclub spins dance hits from the '70s and '80s. (Heather Rousseau / Special to The Detroit News)
New boutiques like Naka add to the funky indie vibe of downtown Ferndale.
Wyll Lewis' store American Pop stocks fun, kitschy mementoes of particular ... (Heather Rousseau / Special to The Detroit News)