Success of Detroit's Mexicantown spreads to suburbs

Kim North Shine
Special to The Detroit News

Lincoln Park — The scent of grilling corn tortillas and meats saturates the air outside the grocer Abarrotes Sin Limite.

Inside the market, whose name translates to "groceries without limits," are more good smells, sights and sounds.

Javier Lopez, of Abarrotes Sin Limite, makes a spicy mexican pork for tacos al pastor at the Lincoln Park market. The Lincoln Park store has a small restaurant that is a neighborhood favorite.

There is a panaderia with a case of Mexican baked goods. Playful pinatas dangle from the ceiling, and sombreros hang here and there. More than 95 percent of the stock on the shelves is from Mexico. At the cash register, the conversation is almost all in Spanish: "Credito o debito? Gracias. Adios."

A walk down Fort Street in Lincoln Park is quickly becoming like a stroll down Vernor in southwest Detroit's Mexicantown.

"To me, as far as Lincoln Park goes, give it two to three years and it's going to be another southwest Detroit," says Fabian Hernandez, manager of Abarrotes Sin Limite.

Five years ago, his uncle opened the market, which buys imported Mexican merchandise from baby food to body lotion for locals who want the products they know and love. The market started as grocery and added the taqueria about two years ago.

"In the last few years, it's really started to change. More people are coming. More businesses are opening," he said.

There are at least three other food markets, several restaurants, hair salons and barber shops courting Latino customers, and a massive Spanish-speaking church on a three-mile stretch of Fort. Nearby Dix Highway and Southfield Road are dotted with Latino businesses, too.

Despite his prediction of becoming the next southwest Detroit, Hernandez does not see Lincoln Park's Hispanic businesses competing with those in southwest Detroit. "They're doing really well there, too. Things have really changed and gotten better in the last five years here and there," said Hernandez, whose family moved to nearby Southgate from Detroit nine years ago, when he was 12.

"Back then, you saw some Latino businesses and Latino people, but now it's very obvious," he said.

Todd Galley, owner of Todd Galley Family Chiropractic on Fort Street in Lincoln Park, is next door to La Rosita.

"There's been a strong influx in the last five years. A lot more people are moving to Lincoln Park for whatever reason and we've seen a noticeable increase in my office," he said. "It's been great."

It's prompted Galley and his staff to learn Spanish.

"I took a couple of years in high school and never figured I'd need it again," he said. "We're trying to get better, and the people who come here are very helpful and want to help us learn more. They appreciate that we're trying."

Galley lives above his chiropractic practice, and he watched the owner of La Rosita renovate the vacant building himself for about two years, while he ran a restaurant in Detroit. Galley has been there three times for tacos in the two weeks since it opened.

"I love the tacos, and I appreciate what great neighbors they are," he said.

Latinos' roots in Lincoln Park go back to the arrival of Hispanic immigrants after World War II. They and their offspring worked in auto factories and steel plants, and over time their numbers grew. So did their influence on local business.

The U.S. Census Bureau puts Lincoln Park's percentage of Hispanics or Latinos in 2010 at 14.9 percent or about 5,600 residents out of a total population of roughly 38,000. That compares to 6.4 percent Hispanic/Latino in the 2000 census.

The Latino businesses appear to be mixing, not competing, with the city's oldest Anglo-owned establishments and newer national chains.

Leslie Lynch Wilson, a longtime resident and member of the downtown development authority who's active in several civic organizations, said the growing number of Latino businesses helps make the town more attractive and healthy by filling in empty stores.

"I would say that the Latino influence is a way to build a vibrant downtown," she said. "It's the only businesses that we are getting currently, and they are the only ones with the money and ability to do so. Hopefully, it helps to attract other businesses as well. "

Tomasa Varga filled in a space in August with La Sultana Paleteria Y Neveria, seller of frozen fresh fruit popsicles, aguas frescas and favorite fast foods such as elote en vaso (corn in a cup) and tostilocos, a bag of corn or tortilla chips sliced open and topped with jicama, salsa and other toppings. She wanted a place "like you find on every street corner in Mexico."

Neon green walls, stuffed pineapple and other favorites and a simple front door give off a stand-style vibe that reminds locals of similar places back home.

It's businesses like Varga's, Galley said, that make "life interesting and entertaining."

Kim North Shine is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Mexicantown in Lincoln Park