October 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

Abandonment

Detroit's Hygrade Delicatessen hangs on as hope approaches

Customers dwindle to a loyal few
Customers dwindle to a loyal few: Hygrade Deli owner talks about the slow decline of the once-vibrant Michigan Avenue neighborhood.

The Hygrade Delicatessen is named after a business that moved to Livonia 40 years ago. Its clientele once came from a nearby farmers market, but it was demolished 48 years ago.

Resiliency defines the Michigan Avenue eatery as much as its Reuben sandwiches. Hygrade has survived for six decades. Owner Stuart Litt said he believes its best days may be ahead.

There is plenty of room for improvement, he said.

“Today is one of those days when I have to figure out how to pay DTE (Energy) and still have my employees be able to cash their checks,” said Litt recently as he closed up shop. “Honestly, I have many challenging days.”

The interior of the 12-table diner is as retro as its name. It’s all wood paneling and faded Formica. There’s a dash of primary colors in the glittery plastic seat covers.

The deli is on a stretch of Michigan Avenue in southwest Detroit that yearns for better days. One of its neighbors is the Detroit Highwaymen Motorcycle Club, which has had several brushes with the law. It doesn’t generate much business.

“We are a deserted island,” Litt said.

What mainly surrounds it are neglected ruins of what used to be. There used to be a bank, a foundry, Tiger Stadium, a crowded neighborhood.

There used to be Western Market, a big open air market like Eastern Market, at 18th and Michigan, but it was demolished in 1965 to make way for Interstate 75.

Litt’s father, Bernard “Bernie” Litt, bought the deli in 1972. He had owned Billy’s Deli on Seven Mile and Livernois for years, but its business sank after the 1967 riots.

“We were a Jewish deli in a neighborhood that was no longer Jewish,” said Stuart Litt, who took over Hygrade from his ailing father in 1977.

The customer base shriveled through the decades. The mammoth General Motors assembly plant nearby closed in 1987 when the automaker began assembling Cadillacs in Texas.

Litt has sacrificed much. Like vacation. And cutting back on the menu. He puts in many extra hours each week picking up his own supplies. He scrimps on workers’ pay and heath insurance.

There is promise rising from the east and west. From the west, the Latino immigrant energy that has fueled southwest Detroit for decades is getting closer to his deli. To the east is the booming downtown. Just past the freeway is surging Corktown, with an ever-growing collection of popular restaurants, trendy dives and $200,000 lofts.

Litt believes in the power of his corned beef, soups and coleslaw. Recently, a new customer came in at the end of the day, when only one other patron was on hand. Litt jumped to serve her.

“Tomorrow is another day,” he said.

laguilar@detroitnews.com
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'We are a deserted island,' Stuart Litt says of his Hygrade Delicatessen on Michigan Avenue. / Daniel Mears / The Detroit News