Detroit's Cass Corridor makes way for new era

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — The last of what's still called Cass Corridor is now being marketed as "Woodward Square" and "Cass Park Village," signaling the final overhaul of the seedy and wildly creative neighborhood.

Renderings of the future Woodward Square show a massive arena with a glowing fire-engine red roof — the $450 million new home of the Detroit Red Wings. Tree-lined streets are packed with cafes and there's an outdoor stage.

Presently, Woodward Square is four blocks of mainly barren land between Woodward and Cass. Many of the buildings, like the former Temple Hotel that offered rooms for $375 a month, already have been demolished.

Cass Park Village, in its present incarnation, is the square park near the front entrance of the Masonic Temple, where hundreds of street people line up daily for free meals from a soup kitchen.

This is how Cass Park Village is being hyped: "Part entrepreneurial, part punk, this neighborhood has been conceived with individuality and expression in mind," reads the description on

The website is the public face of the $650 million development plan that intends to create five thriving "new neighborhoods" north of downtown.

If it succeeds, it will obliterate the final chunk of what's still called Cass Corridor, a name that was notorious and at the same time intriguing, dating back to the '60s — referring to a loosely defined area of Cass from Wayne State University to the north to the 1-75 freeway to the south.

"Cass Corridor never had specific borders, but it had a very clear state of mind," said Elias Khalil, co-author of a book about the history of the area. "It was bohemian, counter-culture that thrived in a neighborhood that sometimes was bleak and industrial, but, also rich with free expression," he said.

It sparked art movements and fostered the music careers from everyone from the MC5 to Madonna and the White Stripes, Khalil said.

It's just the kind of neighborhood that's been gentrified in most U.S. cities, said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who closely follows urban land issues.

"It's the mix of cultural institutions, universities and proximity to downtown," Mogk said. To developers, that translates to an educated, diverse audience. "The other attractive element is Cass Corridor's deep history of a raw creativity. In this era of "creative class," developers will see that history as way to attract the kind of demographic everyone wants."

Much of what used to be called Cass Corridor was rebranded as Midtown in 2000 and it has boomed — even as the city slipped into bankruptcy. Plenty of foundation funding, along with state, city and federal dollars aimed at boosting inner-city development, helped nurture Midtown's growth.

The material on which to build a community was always there. In addition to Wayne State and the Medical Center, Midtown includes the jewels of the Detroit's cultural institutions: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Public Library and the Michigan Science Center, among others.

Wayne State and the College for Creative Studies built Midtown dormitories in the past decade. The University of Michigan and Michigan State University also have planted their flags in Midtown: UM with its Detroit Center at Orchestra Place, and MSU through an extension of its College of Osteopathic Medicine and Community Music School.

The education facilities and medical center hired steadily through the decade.

What's being rebranded now often is referred to as lower Cass Corridor. It's still marked by poverty and blight. But there are also areas of extreme contrast where the upscale restaurants and renovations of buildings are started to happen:

Many Cass Corridor habitues seemed resigned of the change.

"It used to be bars and hookers. Now it's gentrification," said Susan Najar, whose husband owns a small parcel of land on Second Avenue near Alexandrine, near the high-end restaurant Selden Standard. "This isn't Cass Corridor anymore, you know what I mean?"

But that's not a bad thing, since her husband is now getting many offers for property that no one wanted for years.

Properties are routinely being sold now. Last year, three of the few remaining buildings still owned by Chinese Americans in the long-gone Chinatown area, near Cass and Peterboro, were sold. Each of the commercial buildings was sold in the range of $225,000 and $275,000. For years, no one wanted to buy them at any price, said Don Yee, a real estate broker with Max Broock Realtors, who was involved in one of the sales.

On a recent day on Second, Jack VanDyke, with young sons Finneghan and Rowan, made deliveries on bike to Cass Corridor restaurants, from their Rising Pheasant Farms, a naturally grown vegetable, fruits and micro greens farm in Detroit. VanDyke moved to the Corridor in 2000, after he earned an urban planing degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has paid as little as $300 in rent for various places in which he lived. Rent these days, especially in Midtown, can easily reach $1,000 a month.

"There are still pockets of affordability, but other parts of the Corridor I barely even recognize," said VanDyke, who now lives on the city's east side.

VanDyke rode past Terrance Williams, a Cass Corridor resident who spends many days dancing along Second Avenue, often across the street from the Selden Standard. As Williams does his unique style of exercise, many passersby smile and give him the thumbs up. Williams has seen the changes in the Corridor and seems unfazed.

"White people, and the money, came to Midtown; it's a blessing. It's better than Southfield," he said.

Robert Sestok moved to Cass Corridor shortly after the 1967 riots and was among the many who has helped foster the Cass Corridor art movement that's produced scores of artists. "It was bleak sometimes, but always cheap and often pretty inspiring," Sestok said.

Sestok still lives in Cass Corridor. "I'm not real keen that they are pricing (out) poor people, but, the development is something I can deal with. I mean, it got really desolate and tough for a while," he said. "Every artistic enclave seems to eventually be taken over by developers. And you know what? If it gets too much for me, there is always Highland Park, where big places are still cheap."

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN