In the rebranded Cass Corridor, police say hipsters are crowding out the criminals. But the drug dealers who have permeated the neighborhood for years aren’t going down without a fight.
The Corridor’s makeover from Detroit’s red-light district to trendy Midtown has led to charges of gentrification of the area, but police are dealing with a different type of demographic shift: The old-guard criminals are being squeezed out by the recent influx of residents who patronize newly built trendy bars, restaurants and upscale shops.
The established drug dealers also are being threatened by their younger counterparts who are trying to wrest control of the fast-shrinking turf, 3rd Precinct Capt. Darin Szilagy said.
“The revitalization of the Cass Corridor has left very little territory for drug dealers,” he said. “The little that’s left has become valuable territory, and that’s led to some violence.
“You have your OGs (original gangsters) who go back to the 1980s, and they’re fighting with the younger guys who are trying to move in. The older guys obviously don’t want to let that happen. This is where these dealers have operated for years, and they want to hold on to it.”
With the new Detroit Red Wings arena set to open next year on the Corridor’s southern fringe, and Wayne State University’s expansion to the north, more changes are coming to the neighborhood that has evolved drastically over the past decade.
Growing pains in the legitimate and underground economies are inevitable in once-poor communities that become trendy, said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies.
“Gentrification ... affects criminals, too,” he said. “It’s been happening all over the country: in Brooklyn, areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, the east side of Dallas.
“You see development, and when you have a strong foundation of investment, that brings more law enforcement and people who are more likely to report crimes. And the criminals are forced to go elsewhere.”
Violence on Peterboro
Matt Scott, general manager of Bookie’s Bar and Grille on Cass and Columbia, said he’s noticed less crime in recent months.
“There’s been a lot less vandalism and break-ins of cars around here,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot more police officers than I used to. That means we don’t need as much security as we once did. We used to have two big guys at the doors; now it’s just one. The neighborhood is definitely getting tamer.”
As of July 1, violent crime is down 26 percent from the last year in the Corridor and the New Center, the area defined by police as Midtown. But tensions between rival drug gangs led to three shootings May 27-29, Szilagy said.
“We have some suspects (in the shootings), although the witnesses haven’t been cooperating,” he said. “We’ve been doing what we can to break up these gangs by running blitzes (looking for people with outstanding arrest warrants).”
The warrant sweeps have helped push up year-to-date drug arrests in the area 48 percent from last year, Szilagy said.
He added Wayne State police, private security from the Detroit Medical Center and other businesses, and citizen CB patrols have helped keep crime down in most of the area.
“Violent crime in the overall Midtown area is way down. Most of it happens in the area around Peterboro,” Szilagy said.
According to Detroit police crime data, there have been 61 reported crimes on Peterboro since Jan. 1., including four shootings, 10 assaults and five robberies. Two of the three shootings in May were on Peterboro, hours apart.
Lucrative drug market
Szilagy said a longtime issue for police has been the overflow of people from the Neighborhood Services Organization homeless shelter and service center on Third near Martin Luther King, a block north of Peterboro.
Long before the Corridor became prime real estate, people complained about the crowds that loitered for hours around the NSO office. It causes a headache for police, Szilagy said.
“A large percentage of the people who visit NSO are addicted, and that’s a lucrative market for the dealers,” he said. “These are non-mobile customers, so they only have a few choices where to buy from. So to the dealers, it’s a market worth fighting for.”
Phone calls to the NSO seeking comment were not returned.
Szilagy stressed some of the well-heeled newcomers to the neighborhood also take drugs. “But the hipsters buy dope differently than people on the street,” he said. “They use social media to hook up deals. Hipsters generally aren’t walking down to Second and Peterboro to score.”
Szilagy lamented the lack of services for the city’s homeless population. “We’d prefer they get the kind of mental health treatment, and drug treatment, or other services, but it is what it is: The sheer volume of so many addicts just hanging around with nothing to do creates an open-air drug market.”
Cass Corridor resident Cynthia Walker said she often sees what appear to be drug deals going down outside the NSO building.
“You learn to just stay away from that part of the neighborhood,” she said.
Decades of changes
Rent and property values skyrocket when a neighborhood becomes trendy, “which pushes out poor people,” WSU’s Thompson said. “That goes for criminals, too. Most of them are poor and they’ll do whatever they can to survive, so they move out of the new trendy neighborhood and go elsewhere.”
The fear of criminals being forced from one neighborhood and into other areas helped turn the Cass Corridor from a working-class community after World War II into the city’s red-light district.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Detroit’s old Skid Row section on Michigan east of Tiger Stadium was razed to make way for the expansion of the Lodge Freeway and a planned development called International Village, which was never built.
Before the bars, pawn shops, tenements and homeless shelters were demolished, the Detroit City Council discussed what to do with the people who would be displaced. Former councilman Mel Ravitz spearheaded the effort to contain Skid Row’s residents and shop owners into a single neighborhood.
“The businessmen who operated along Michigan Avenue and the men who lived there are going to turn up somewhere,” Ravitz told The Detroit News in November 1962. “Why can’t we control and designate a specific area for them, before we find the effects of a new Skid Row appearing throughout the city?”
The council eventually settled on an area The News referred to as “Jumbo Road.” The term “Cass Corridor” didn’t appear in the paper until the early 1970s. City officials helped the Salvation Army open a homeless shelter on Cass, and city money was used to convert the Avon Hotel on Brainard, now razed, into a homeless shelter.
Residents complained at council meetings they didn’t want the influx of transients and addicts, and the crime they would bring. But within a few years the Corridor was transformed into what many called an open-air crime bazaar.
In addition to the pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers that made the Corridor infamous, the neighborhood also attracted people from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani and Native American, along with blacks and whites. A Chinatown area on Cass bustled with activity.
Many of the immigrants were students; or worked as doctors, nurses and professors at the nearby Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University. There was also a sizable community of artists.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, this neighborhood became known for the girls and the drugs, but that’s not all it was,” said Ronald Davidson, 66, who said he took his prom date in 1968 to Chin Tiki, a Polynesian restaurant on Cass, which closed in 1980 and was demolished in 2009.
“It was always busy, and there were businesses open everywhere. Then, in the ’80s, crack came in. The Corridor went way down, and there were a bunch of empty buildings and homeless shelters.
“Now, the neighborhood is growing, and you have the new people moving in. The Corridor will be even more popular when the new (Red Wings) stadium is finished, and I’m sure the powers that be will make sure the criminal element is out of here by then.”