PGA Tour event highlights Detroit’s contrasts

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — Professional golf tournaments attract some of the whitest and wealthiest spectators of any major sporting event. This week, the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic tees off in Detroit, the least-white and least-wealthy major U.S. city. 

Where shall these two sides meet?

Lisa Dedvukaj, left, of Noni's Sherwood Grille, and Lauren Rivers, a realtor with Rivers Realty Group, hope the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament will bring positive attention to the area.

"I hear you, and a lot of people are kind of wondering, too," said Lauren Rivers, as she waited to have coffee with a client at Noni's Sherwood Grille.

Rivers has been a customer at the Livernois Avenue diner just north of the Detroit Golf Club for much of her life. She lives on the same Sherwood Forest street as her parents, who are among the many African Americans and others who persisted through thick and thin in the neighborhood of brick Tudors and Colonials.

"Detroit's on the rebound, and this is a great neighborhood, so why not? Most of the people I know are looking forward to make this an opportunity," Rivers said.

Six years ago, historic homes in Sherwood Forest were selling in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, said Rivers, who is a real estate agent. "Those homes can be in the $300,000 to $500,000 range now. We definitely have some momentum." 

The Rocket Mortgage Classic is the first PGA Tour event to be held in Detroit. Tournament officials haven't offered a target number of spectators, but 100,000 are expected to visit the grounds of the Detroit Golf Club.

A colorful privacy screen is seen along 7 Mile at Bauman, obscuring a closed business lot in preparation for the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament.

Those fans will see two contrasting Detroits around the Rocket Mortgage Classic: The well-kept historic homes of Palmer Woods, the University District and Green Acres, neighborhoods that have shown remarkable resiliency. And some not-so-resilient neighborhoods south of Eight Mile, which rightly conjure images of Eminem and blight.

The PGA Tour has ventured into such urban areas in the past. The neighborhood surrounding East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta had fallen onto hard times in the 1960s. A public-housing project was built on one of the club's courses in 1970s. But a local charitable foundation purchased the club in 1993, and has used its profits as a catalyst to revitalize the neighborhood. The PGA Tour Championship was first played at East Lake in 1998, and has been held there 18 times since then.

Putting best face forward

Rocket Mortgage, of course, is part of billionaire Dan Gilbert's downtown Detroit empire of businesses led by Quicken Loans Inc. 

Many residents around the Detroit Golf Club praise the efforts by the Gilbert's Rock Ventures' family of companies to keep residents informed, hire local vendors when possible and come up with a plan to handle traffic. Attendees of the PGA event will receive listings of nearby businesses. 

Gilbert's companies, along with city and state officials, went to the old Detroit playbook of cleaning up trash on streets and doing what they could to put the best face on empty buildings.

More than 400 employees from Gilbert's companies volunteered to clean up trash near the former Michigan State Fairgrounds between Interstate 75 and Woodward, and on Seven Mile between I-75 and Woodward.  Several artists were commissioned to paint murals on empty buildings. 

The city and state also coordinated clean-ups on nearby McNichols Road and other major streets.

Artist Fel'le works on a mural on 7 Mile near the Chrysler Freeway off-ramp on Friday.

A firm called Groundswell Design Group painted at least a dozen buildings on Seven Mile, many of which appear empty, according to city officials. One of the building's owners said he never gave permission.

Nick Bashe said he arrived last week to discover the entire front exterior had been painted green. Some of it is forest green and other parts are a lighter avocado. The mailbox, the front door, the canopy, the lights — everything had been painted. 

"I don't know who painted it," said the truck driver, who uses the building as a storage facility. "At least they should call me. I don't get anything in the mail."

Calls to the Groundswell on Monday were not returned. City officials and Quicken representatives say they didn't have enough information to comment.

Nick Bashe points to his freshly painted building along 7 Mile in Detroit. Bashe didn't want or ask for his building to be painted in preparation for the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament at the Detroit Golf Club, but even the light bulbs and address numbers were covered in one solid color.

The strip of Seven Mile that has been spruced up used to have restaurants, bakeries and other small businesses that closed in the past decade, Bashe said. He is hopeful that Perfecting Church, a megachurch that's been under construction for more than a decade at Seven Mile and Woodward, will finally open and provide the spark for small businesses again.

Despite being upset over his building's unexpected paint job, Bashe was open-minded about the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

"If it brings attention and people, yeah, sure why not?"

'Secret place'

Perhaps no residents are more thrilled than the ones who live in the Detroit Golf Club community, the upscale enclave of 126 historic homes bordering the fairways and greens. Longtime residents like Doris Ewing and Leigh and Lane Coleman have great views from their backyards.

Homeowners Leigh Coleman, left, Doris Ewing and Lane Coleman can watch the action on the 9th hole at the Detroit Golf Club's North Course from the Colemans' pool.

The Detroit Golf Club was founded in 1899. It has two 18-hole courses designed by legendary architect Donald Ross. Its arts-and-crafts clubhouse was designed in 1918 by Albert Kahn, often called the architect of Detroit. Like many elite private country clubs, membership was exclusively white for decades. 

"Its first African American member was Mayor Coleman Young in 1986," said Lane Coleman. Previous mayors of Detroit received honorary memberships, but not Young, Coleman said. 

Earlier this decade, Lane Coleman became the second African American president of the Detroit Golf Club.  

"We sometimes feel like we live in this great secret place," Leigh Coleman said. "So maybe the only downside could be is our neighborhood may not be so secret anymore." 

Ewing, who also is African American and a member of the Detroit Golf Club, called the Rocket Mortgage Classic a "very satisfying moment."

"As people who believe in Detroit, as golfers proud of our diverse, beautiful club, yes, this is something we are ready for."

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN