Death of Detroit’s last Big Boy sparks east side angst

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — The last Big Boy restaurant in the city put up a worrisome message on its marquee this week: “Thank you for 50 years.”

On Wednesday, it was announced the East Jefferson Avenue diner across from Belle Isle Park had been bought and its final day would be Easter Sunday. The restaurant is set to be demolished at some undetermined date. The site, on the corner of East Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard, could then temporarily become a farmers market and food truck court, according to the new property owners.

Nick Waller and his wife Val Waller share a moment on Saturday at the famed Big Boy on East Jefferson. “It’s sad,’ said Val Waller, of the diner’s pending death. “And let’s face, it brings up a lot of worry that gentrification is coming to the east side and is that going to push some people out.”

Since the news broke, many Big Boy patrons have had a rolling discussion about what longtime Detroiters have to sacrifice in the name of so-called progress.

“I just hope there’s still an affordable place for people to come and eat and relax,” after the Big Boy closes, said Danize Purcell, an east side resident who has been frequenting the diner for 11 years. “So many people have been coming here for a long time, and you worry about that. Are they going to be welcomed, feel at home, with what happens,” next, she said, as she filled her plate with offerings from the soul food buffet on Wednesday afternoon.

On Saturday morning, the Big Boy was full of longtime Detroiters, most of them African-Americans. As usual the breakfast buffet was popular. A patron at the register counter was snapping a photo of the framed picture of President Obama with the previous longtime owner of the restaurant, Michael Curis, president of Curis Enterprises.

In one booth there was Nick and Val Waller, who started to come here 40 years ago with their families. Now their adult children eat here often, too. In a nearby booth sat Keisha Moore and April Jackson, who has been a patron for a decade. All of them were being served by a wait staff that included Conchica Lolie, who’s worked there 10 years, and Angela Swilling, who’s been there for 17 years. Another waitress, Dorothy Bembroy, is a 31-year veteran.

All Big Boy workers will receive a bonus as well as job placement at other establishments.

“It’s sad,’ said Val Waller, of the diner’s pending death. “And let’s face it, it brings up a lot of worry that gentrification is coming to the east side and that’s going to push some people out.” The Wallers once ran nearby a pizzeria on East Jefferson. They both spoke highly of Michael Curis, who had owned the Big Boy for decades, they said.

The new owners of the property say they are taking great efforts to build what many residents of the Islandview neighborhood want.

The Big Boy is part of a larger plan to breath new life into five properties near East Jefferson Avenue, East Grand Boulevard and Congress Street. Except for the Big Boy, the other properties are either vacant, boarded up buildings or empty lots. The development group called The Detroit-based Platform intends to overhaul all of it.

Beyond buying the Big Boy site, the group says it agreed to buy five parcels from that includes a former nursing home at 130 E. Grand Blvd., designed by famed architect Louis Kamper. The building will be renovated along with three other historic properties. New construction is also planned. The other three properties involved are 144 East Grand Blvd., 7220 East Congress and 7222 Congress.

The buildings will be turned into residential and affordable housing. The empty lots are planned for retail and possibly residential. The developers didn’t give a timeline or put a price on their plans.

The Platform says they are no strangers to the neighborhood. Dietrich Knoer, co-principal of The Platform, is a parishioner at the nearby Church of the Messiah Episcopal Church at East Grand Boulevard and Lafayette.

“We care about the community that we work in and remain committed to celebrating Detroit neighborhoods by making them the great places to live that they deserve to be,” Knoer said in a statement. “Islandview is a beautiful neighborhood located around the important intersection of Jefferson and Grand Boulevard and surrounded by amazing public amenities, such as Belle Isle, Gabriel Richard Park, and soon the RiverWalk, when it is extended to Belle Isle,” Knoer said.

Islandview also has its fair share of empty houses and blighted commercial buildings. Many of the once stately houses have been sectioned into apartments or senior housing.

The development group has already had community meetings about their plans.

One Islandview institution that’s endorsed their efforts is the Immanuel House of Prayer, which is next to the Big Boy on East Grand Boulevard.

Bishop Thomas L. Johnson Sr., the church’s pastor, said the church “fully supports” the development plan. “Affordable housing and the establishment of stores that offer high quality foods for residents who lack transportation are among the things that we believe will enhance the neighborhood and make it more stable and desirable. ” Johnson said in a statement provided by The Platform.

Islandview neighborhood is starting to see more investment from small private investors and the city. East Jefferson Avenue near Belle Ilse is part of the 400 acres near the east riverfront intended to get a makeover.

The goal is to preserve more public space and open more access to the waterfront. That includes upgrading two greenways to connect east side residents to the RiverWalk. The Joseph Campau Greenway, which runs from the Detroit River to Vernor, will get new lighting, furnishings, paving and landscaping. The Beltline Greenway, between Belleview and Beaufait, will run from Kercheval to the Detroit River. The Beltline runs through Islandview.

Another part of the plan is reduce East Jefferson Avenue from Belle Isle to Rivard Street from nine traffic lanes to five. Bicycle lanes will be installed.